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Our Highest Honor: EAA Staffer Reflects on B-17 Tour

Chris Henry, EAA Member Services representative, provides a personal reflection on the value that EAA's B-17 Aluminum Overcast brings to vets and families. This really states how important it is to keep 'em flying.

Just as many people who are interested in warbirds or World War II history, the name Flying Fortress gets my heart beating a bit faster. I can only imagine what that Seattle Times reporter must have thought when he first uttered the name that would eventually adorn an airplane which became a legend.

For me the B-17 is more than just a WWII bomber. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, under the flight path of the International Airport. From the times I was a young boy, aircraft and flight had my interest. In the late 1980s, a B-17 had an accident at a local air show, requiring a major restoration. I would go out and see the damaged plane come back together, and by the end of that restoration, I had become a volunteer at the museum doing the rebuild. I was 12.

Throughout the next 10 years, I had the great privilege to learn about B-17s and restoration from some amazing men and women. Throughout the 1990s, we had a constant rotation of B-17s coming through our facility - at least four or five of them overall. My favorite part of the day was sitting there next to the planes, talking with the many veterans that showed up to see them. It was time that I deeply cherish as many of those veterans have since passed.

When I started here at EAA, I was excited about the fact that we have the very beautiful B-17 Aluminum Overcast here. I remember my first weekend as an employee when I had the chance to walk around her hangar and just enjoy the lines that Boeing had put together so beautifully. I hoped that soon one day I would get to fly on it. Little did I know the journey this old bomber was about to take me on.

Every day we take calls and answer e-mails from folks wanting to fly on or tour the B-17. Some of the comments we've received include things like "My dad was a B-17 pilot," or "Grandpa flew 35 missions in one," for their reasons for wanting to fly. I remembered that in my family, as we had a great uncle who was a B-17 ball turret gunner. No one ever asked him about it until one day I wore an Aluminum Overcast shirt to a family picnic.

He saw it and asked, "What do you know about B-17s?" I told him they are my favorite aircraft. His face lit up, and he began to tell stories of flying with his crew, how his crew led the first mission over Berlin, and how he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for shooting down an Me-262. During the whole picnic, he and I just took over a corner of the room and went back to 1944. I asked why he had never told any of those stories to the other family members.

He simply replied, "No one asked." So it started to click.

We sell a ride experience. Going up for a B-17 ride is amazing, but maybe there should be more to the experience. What if a bomber built for combat can do other things such as bring families closer, inspire them to dig back into their photo boxes and albums, or talk to their loved ones while they still have them?

So that began my mission; every time I see someone who writes about a veteran in their family, I ask if they know anything about the veteran or their service, the name of an aircraft, bomb group or position on the aircraft, etc. It surprised me how many of the folks booking flights know very little about that part of their loved one's lives.

When you book a flight with EAA, you get an e-mail confirmation. As some of these folks would book a flight and give me info, I would track their family member's bomb group and find a photo of their crew. Then I would attach it to their confirmation. Imagine booking a flight on a B-17, and along with confirmation you receive a photo of your loved one and his crew. Now imagine how you would feel if you had never seen that photo before. That is exactly what I have the honor of doing.

Little by little, people began sending me photos back, wanting to know more about where I found the ones I sent them. These photos would get shared with the families, prompting stories about the veteran or his time in service. If he is still with us, families would start asking more questions and taking notice of just how young these guys were during the war. That is the power a restored WWII bomber holds. That is how we honor these men.

Here at my desk in EAA HQ, my wall board behind me is full of photos of the vets that either I found for families or that the families sent to me. They have also shared some amazing stories with me. As much as I knew about the B-17, I am shocked every day by someone calling me with a story I had never heard, then sending photos of the event they just told me about.

As the B-17 flies to each new stop, there are people with powerful connections waiting to see it, touch it, and climb aboard. Nothing is as powerful as watching a WWII veteran climb into his old seat again for the first time since 1944; or watching the daughter of a waist gunner whose father was killed over Europe when she was just 2 years old, bond with her father through standing in his old spot. The very dedicated Aluminum Overcast crew on the plane has worked hard with me to post photos in the correct location on the planes to surprise people as they sit down and find a picture of their loved one at his old crew position.

When we found that we were going to fly a Red Cross girl who handed out donuts to crews at the 303rd Bomb Group, my caring crew went out and bought donuts. They were served to everyone on the flight along with an explanation why. Everyone took a minute and thanked her for what she did.

This warbird is more than just another cool and unique airplane touring around. It is a magic wand that can dust off memories and pay respect where it is due. The photos the families are sending us are going to be archived at the end of this tour so that future generations can learn from and be inspired by them.

Having the chance to work with the B-17 the last few months has been far more than just a job; it is among my highest honors. Many of the families I have worked with have become friends. It is pretty amazing to see an airplane bring people together. Then again, here at EAA, that is what we do.


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