The Flight of the Sentimental Journey


By Ed Martinez
September 4, 2010

Published in the summer 2010 issue of MyLIFE magazine

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PHILIP MAKANNA/GHOSTS
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The Sentimental Journey is the most completely restored B-17 in the world today.

It is one of just a handful of B-17 bombers that are still flying today— from an era in our history that has not been forgotten and won’t be for many generations to come. The Boeing B-17 was a four-engine heavy bomber developed for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1935. The bomber was primarily used in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German targets in Europe between 1941 and 1945.

The Sentimental Journey, a B-17G, is a reminder of the many sacrifices our men and women in uniform made to defend our freedom and liberty during the Second World War.

“This is the flagship of our Wing,” Rick Senffner proudly noted. Senffner is the Wing leader for the Arizona unit of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), an all-volunteer organization that maintains and operates vintage aircraft. “You don’t have to be a pilot or mechanic to be part of the Wing. People that are interested in keeping history alive can be part of it as well.”

I asked Senffner how he became involved with the CAF and learned that his uncle was a navigator aboard a B-17 during the war. His uncle was killed in action with his crew in December 1944. “As a kid, I remember seeing his picture with this flight suit on. I kept on reading more and more about aviation. One day, I just started showing up, and one of the older guys asked me if I wanted to come in on the weekends to help out,” he said.

The CAF also has a museum with a wide range of aircraft in excellent condition. One of the exhibits includes a P-51D Mustang that has the markings of Maj. George Preddy, a top ace during the Second World War. Preddy was killed during a mission in support of the Battle of the Bulge. You can also find an F4N Phantom II, a B-25J Mitchell bomber, an A-26 Invader and a P-47 Thunderbolt at the museum, along with other vintage aircraft.

The Sentimental Journey rolled off the Douglas assembly line in the latter part of 1944 and went into service on March 13, 1945. Manufactured too late to see service in the European theater, the aircraft was assigned to the Pacific theater for the duration of the war. In the years following the war, it was used for various purposes, including photo mapping and nuclear testing, and it eventually became a civilian aircraft—flying thousands of sorties to combat forest fires throughout the United States.

In 1978, Col. Mike Clark donated the Sentimental Journey to the CAF. “It was totally stripped down when we got it … there were no gun turrets, and it had to be all restored,” said Senffner. The CAF spent several years restoring the bomber. The CAF overcame a number of obstacles throughout the restoration process. For example, the plane suffered extensive body damage when a brake failure occurred during a landing in 1988.

The volunteers of the CAF have done an incredible job in restoring this B-17 bomber. The plane looks like it just rolled off the assembly line. You can clearly see the love and passion that has been poured into the restoration of this technological marvel. The team has even managed to install fully operational gun turrets, bomb bay doors, navigator and radio stations, a Norden bombsight computer and machine guns.

The Sentimental Journey has made appearances at hundreds of air shows and exhibits over the years. “It is the most completely restored B-17 flying today,” Senffner said proudly.

I had the privilege of flying aboard the Sentimental Journey with pilot Sam Korth and copilot Pete Scholl. It was a truly amazing and unforgettable experience. Korth has been flying the B-17 since 1979 and was the fifth pilot to fly the aircraft after the CAF acquired it.

“I have flown almost 1,000 hours in the plane,” Korth told me. “It’s an easy and honest airplane to fly—and a lot of fun. Boeing built a simple plane that was easy to get off the ground and land. When these guys [meaning World War II pilots] returned from missions, they had a total sense of relief to be alive,” Korth noted.

An average mission for a B-17 during the war was about 12 hours for a round trip from England to Germany. During travel, the planes encountered heavy fire from enemy aircraft and flak. Bomber crews had more than a 70 percent chance of being killed or wounded or going missing.

Korth was a radar mechanic in the U.S. Air Force. “A general named Curtis LeMay enlisted some people to do some good,” Korth continued. “He started flying clubs like the one in Fort Worth, Texas. It was called Carswell Strategic Air Command. I was able to learn to fly the B-17 there,” he added. The base was used to train and support heavy strategic bombing groups and wings from 1951 to 1988.

Scholl, who spent 12 years in the Air Force and is now a pilot with Southwest Airlines, has been flying the Sentimental Journey for about a year and a half. He flies the bomber once a month and is happy to volunteer at the CAF.

“It’s a real neat airplane,” he remarked. “It’s very old technology, but it still flies. They designed it very well,” he noted. “It’s so important to have this thing flying. A lot of people don’t realize what it was like to be in one of these planes. Until you go through it, you don’t have a concept.”

The B-17 was manned by 10 crew members. Each member was specially trained for his position. While onboard the B-17, I couldn’t help but notice how difficult it was to navigate across the plane. It’s a tight fit! I cannot imagine the horror the crew endured during the war when B-17s were suddenly struck by enemy fire at such high altitudes and in such limited space.

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On a typical bombing run, the B-17 could go from about 10,000 to about 30,000 feet. “The crew had to be on oxygen the whole flight—once they got in formation—because the plane wasn’t pressurized, and the plane might be in temperatures of 60 below zero,” Senffner noted. The crew wore oxygen masks and had electronically heated suits with heavy gloves that provided some protection against the freezing temperatures. “If the plane got into a spin at that altitude, a lot of crew members weren’t able to bail out,” he added.

“The G’s would make it so you were not even able to raise your hand,” Senffner said. “A lot of crewmen also ended up dying from lack of oxygen. The crew would do a lot of checks to make sure everyone was okay. If they had to take a glove off to render first aid, or a gun was jammed—at that altitude their hands would stick to the metal because of the temperature.”

The B-17 had the Norden bombsight analog computer, which, according to Senffner, “was very advanced for World War II.”

“The crew would input the air temperature outside and speed of the plane and the wind angle,” he explained. “Once they were on their IP [the point at which the bombing run on the target began], the bombardier would line up the target and the Norden bombsight would calculate the air temperature outside, how fast the airplane was moving, wind correction … and once that was plugged into the computer, the bombardier had control of the airplane.”

The CAF proudly offers flights aboard the Sentimental Journey to the general public. Proceeds from the rides contribute to the cost of maintaining the aircraft. In addition, each year in March the CAF hosts an annual hangar dance event called A Night in the ’40s. The event features a World War II musical show, followed by a big band orchestra that plays sounds from that era. Guests come from all over the world for this event, and some even dress in ’40s attire. “This is a great opportunity to recapture one of the most important and nostalgic times in our history,” Senffner commented. “Events like these pay special tribute to all those who fought for freedom during World War II and allow us to look back on that piece of our past,” he said.

In February 1945, U.S. bombing reached its high point, with a 1,000-bomber raid on Berlin. Many major cities in Germany were left in ruins, and Germany lost the war largely in part because of strategic bombing performed by planes like the B-17. Most of the crew members on these flights were only in their late teens or early twenties. They were all living at a time in our history when our nation encountered great peril, and they rose up to meet the challenge. As long as such a marvel of technology as the Sentimental Journey continues to fly, it will help preserve and share the memories of a generation that demonstrated unparalleled courage and sacrifice.

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