Monday, September 12, 2016

My Sentimental Journey; Flight in the World's Best Preserved B-17 Flying Fortress

The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) had offered me a cross country flight on their B-29 Superfortress 'Fifi', but I would have been gone a week and on the hook to get myself back home again. I groaned. I couldn't do it. When you run a business that's grown by over 100% in 12 months, being away from it for more than a day is not an option - even for a lifetime opportunity like that. So, the matter was more or less shelved for awhile. Then, out of the blue (literally), an aircraft with which I'd had a long history with came to me. I'd toured the CAF's B-17G 'Sentimental Journey' as a kid with my father, back in 1987. It was a real highlight of my life back in those days. This email popped into my inbox:

'Hi Ron, I wanted to contact you to let you know that we have made arrangements for you to ride on our B-17 “Sentimental Journey” while we are in Wheeling, WV.  All courtesy of Adam Smith with CAF Headquarters in Dallas.'

You don't pass that up! 

All of this had come about thanks to my aviation artwork, which is my business and my living and my joy. I'd been commissioned by the CAF to paint a few of their aircraft over the preceding years:


Their gracious offer to give me a flight in one of the most historic aircraft in the world, that was never a part of any formal agreement or in payment for anything, is indicative of what is special about the warbird community today. There really is a uniquely genuine sense of hospitality, appreciation, and a common spirit among everyone involved - even though we often have very different backgrounds. When we can do something to support each other, we do it. When we can help one another out, we don't hesitate. And it all comes around. These are the best people I've ever worked with. 

With only a week notice I scrambled to get things in order. My wife couldn't come with me, so I asked around for a trip companion. Jana Pryor, a great friend and professional photographer, took me up on my offer. She couldn't get on the plane for the flight, unfortunately, but she was thrilled just get access to such a machine and in such a unique setting. The tiny airport in Wheeling was restored to its 1946 standard, replete with hardwood, beveled glass, marble and various period-appropriate displays of aviation history. Even the bathrooms were as they were in the 1940s. And no TSA security. No metal detectors. No big obtrusive fences. When we arrived there were only a half dozen cars in the parking lot. The only aircraft on the tarmac was Sentimental Journey. 

I wanted to livestream the flight on Facebook, but the signal wasn't strong enough. Jana streamed it from the ground perspective, but I took video of most of the flight and have uploaded it here. 

What a thrill!

See Livestream Video of Startup & Takeoff from the Ground

The whole experience lasted two hours, the flight itself roughly 45 minutes. As a pilot myself, I was actually amazed that the B-17 was as relatively quiet as it was. Sentimental Journey is one of only two Flying Fortresses in the world that still uses her superchargers, and that cuts down on the audible engine noise quite a bit. And she flew as smoothly as a 737. I can only imagine flying at 40,000 feet, however, where temperatures are often 50 degrees below zero. The B-17 gets a lot of wind blowing through her fuselage in flight, and is not pressurized. Now I know why so many bomber crews during World War II experienced frostbite. The flight up and down the Ohio River was breathtaking. Our landing was so perfect that, were it not for the screech as each tire met the pavement, I wouldn't have detected the moment. I was free to move about the aircraft in flight, too, enjoying the scenery from many different vantage points. It was hard not to park myself astride one of its swivel-mounted .50 Browning machine guns, however. And you quickly learn to get your 'sea legs' while negotiating the aircraft in the air. Nothing inside the B-17 is soft or forgiving!

It was everything I'd hoped it would be, and I'm grateful to the CAF team who put all of this together. I will do this again!

- Ron Cole



  1. WOW! this has been awesome. The videos are absolutely amazing. I hope this has been an out of this world experience for you and I appreciate that you shared it with us.

  2. Had the same experience myself a year ago on the B-17 Texas Raiders at an airshow in New Orleans. The B-29 Fifi was there for ride as well but I figured it’s pressured and I wanted the B-17 experience. I thought aboit if for a longtime because the cost for the 30 minute flight was $400+. The bomardier and navigator seTs were significantly more. I finally said what the heck I’m doing this. To me it was the most incredible thing ever. Once in the air and you could get up and walk I mean stumble around and I made it up foward I remember standing there and thinking I’m actually standing in the cockpit of an airborne 70+ year old B-17! I could go on but by the time it was over I felt like I could have paid twice the cost and it would have been worth it

  3. WOW! What a fantastic opportunity. I can only imagine the excitement of flying in such a amazing part of history. Congratulations!