April 14, 2014 - EAA's Boeing B-17G Aluminum Overcast has made many memorable flights throughout the country, but one would be hard-pressed to come up with one more special than what occurred on Monday afternoon in Oshkosh.
Ten World War II United States Army Air Corps veterans – representing all 10 Flying Fortress crew positions from pilot to tailgunner - were brought here to be reunited with the aircraft in which they helped to preserve liberty and freedom. All from Wisconsin, they ranged from age 90 to 94, and brought family members with them.
The special event was the brainchild of Chris Henry, who works in the EAA membership services department focusing mainly on EAA's annual B-17 tour. He called it a once in a lifetime occurrence. "A plane that was built for war has brought these veterans and families together for such a special occasion," he said. "It's very gratifying to be able to help make this happen."
The veterans and their family members arrived Monday morning at the EAA AirVenture Museum lobby on a day that at first appeared unfit for flight following an overnight spring snowstorm. They were given a police escort to EAA's Weeks Hangar located on Wittman Regional Airport. Several vintage army vehicles from the Military Veterans Museum and Education Center in Oshkosh also helped pave the way.
When the veterans arrived at Weeks, they saw the freshly polished bomber (it will head out on its annual Salute to Veterans tour later this week) dominating the facility. Walking around the massive four-engine aircraft they soon noticed their names affixed to their former crew stations, and the memories started to flow.
“It’s just wonderful,” said Capt. Bob Abresch of Milwaukee, who piloted B-17s with the 398th Bomb Group. “I love the airplane. It had a great record, was nice to fly, and very well built.”
It initially appeared as though the flight would have to be canceled due to weather, but EAA pilot Sean Elliott announced that a window had opened allowing for a short flight, call sign Freedom Flight, so the veterans quickly boarded the aircraft and took off shortly after noon. When they landed and taxied back to the hangar, the Oshkosh Fire Department provided a water cannon salute.
"It was very nice, I really enjoyed that," said Maj. Robert F. Schneider, of Green Bay, who was a bombardier with the 351st Bomber Group. "Haven't been in that old bird for 70 years." Maj. Schneider brought along his extended family, including his granddaughter Jessica, and her husband, Mike McCarthy, head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
Lt. Scott Welch, of Silver Lake, Wisconsin, flew as a co-pilot with the 397th Bomb Group. He enlisted after Pearl Harbor at the age of 18. Scott recalled one mission in which his co-pilot helped save the entire crew.
"He told me to move to the right, and I did," he recalled. "The next moment an 88 millimeter shell exploded right where the plane had been. That would have taken the plane down for sure. I figured if one of my crewmates asked me to do something, I'd do it, then ask about it on the ground."
Bob said what made the B-17 great was its design and ability to get off the ground fully loaded and ascend to 30,000 feet with 8,000 pounds of bombs. But he said his ability to fly the aircraft at slower speeds was especially helpful in many situations.
A total of 12,731 B-17s were produced from 1936 to 1945 and just 51 full airframes remain. Only 10, including Aluminum Overcast, are actually flying today.
After the vets deplaned, Bombardier Lt. William R. Meier, Milwaukee, who flew with the 96th Bomb Group, remarked that any time their plane landed safely after a mission, they called it a good landing.
"This was a good landing," he said. "Thanks for a real nice ride."
B-17 'Freedom Flight' Crew
- Bombardier: Lt. William R. Meier 96th Bomb Group, Milwaukee
- Bombardier: Maj. Robert F. Schneider 351st Bomb Group, Green Bay
- Navigator: Bill Bergner, 92nd Bomb Group, Wauwatosa
- Pilot: Capt Bob Abresch, 398th Bomb Group, Milwaukee
- Co-Pilot: Scott Welch, 397th Bomb Group, Silver Lake
- Top Turret/Flight Engineer: Sgt. Chet E Gardeski, 305th Bomb Group, Milwaukee
- Radio operator: Sgt Harvin Abrahamson, 487th Bomb Group, Wauwatosa
- Ball Turret Gunner: Sgt Fred Zurbuchen, 493rd Bomb Group, Waupun
- Waist Gunner: Sgt. Bob Schuh, 398th Bomb Group, Chilton
- Tail Gunner: Sgt Harry Oestreich, 95th Bomb Group, Oshkosh