Not your average plane ride
Walking the 110 foot wing span of “Witchcraft”-the World War II B-24 bomber I’m about to take flight in-it is not hard to see why everyone around me at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Monday is scurrying about taking pictures, touching, sneaking peeks inside the behemoth in front of us.
I sneak some peeks inside, too, thinking this will be my only chance to suss out the equipment in the tail and nose turrets before our flight takes off.
But as soon as flight engineer Robert Sichterman begins laying out the rules, it becomes clear that this is not your average plane ride, and pretty much everything throughout the length of this 67-foot plane is fair game.
“Now a few things. You can go up into the nose of the plane, but don’t step on the red door. It will not hold any weight at all. If you step on the red door you will be having a very bad day,” says Sichterman.
There is no mention of air masks or flotation devices, but there are a couple other doors and ropes and wires that we-the eight passengers-should avoid.
The rest-like do not hang too far out the waist gunner windows-I just learn as I go along.
To board Witchcraft, I duck beneath the bomb bay doors and hoist myself up into the tail section where there is a bench above the ball turret and a few seat belts on the floor -yes, the floor-for us to get buckled in.
As I do so, avoiding some ropes in front of me and wedging my foot up against a metal seam to get enough leverage to reach my bench, I can’t help wonder “Am I doing this right? Is this the same inglorious, clumsy way that Donald Fitzmaurice or John Sadler or any of the other dozens of men whose names grace the side of “Witchcraft” took his seat as they readied for a mission?”
Of course, it probably is. And that is the driving purpose behind so many people who choose to fly on these historic planes-to learn, to get a feel for what our country’s heroes put themselves through on so many bomb-lit nights.
As my flying companion, 73-year-old Charlie Pickens, of Washington, W.Va. puts it, “Makes me appreciate what they did a whole lot, and we weren’t even shot at.”
Instead, the ding of a bell lets us know we can move about, and instantly the passengers in the tail section pop up and begin looking out the open waist gunner windows.
If you dare-and I do-you can hang just ever so slightly out the window to take pictures. I am more than a little struck by the irony of so many of us chronicling the historic machine with our iPhones and modern toys.
Anxious to be the first to sit in the tail turret, I confer with a fellow passenger about which doors I can step on and make my way into the tiny clear ball. The view is incomparable. Above and to every side of me, I see the landscape. I feel silly for all the times I coveted the window seat on a Boeing-747.
The really adventurous decide to travel to the front of the plane. The catwalk to the front of the plane is almost exactly as wide as both of my feet. Narrowly corded off with ropes for handles, the catwalk takes me above the very large “do not touch” bomb bay doors. I brush by a bomb on the way to the front.
Once in front I am free to pop my nose into the cockpit-the only place on the plane that reminds me I am not-in fact-in 1940s Europe. But the real treat is still farther forward. Again feeling clumsy and awkward, I crawl on my hands and knees up a narrow incline into the nose turret.
I shared the space quite comfortably with another passenger for a moment before being left on my own to stare in awe.
The luxury of flying is often compared to a bird in flight. But no pilot or passenger could ever truly feel this comparison like a nose gunner must. Looking down as the plane pushes forward, 3,000 feet above houses and rivers and roads, this is what it is like to be a bird.
After about 20 minutes of freedom to explore, a second set of bells urges me to return to my seat. Again, I hoist, ingloriously as John Sadler once must have, and strap in for landing.
Contrary to my expectations, both take-off and landing are incredibly smooth. It is hard to believe that the beast so gracefully slowing at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport will turn 70 years old this month.
Jasmine Rogers is a reporter at The Marietta Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org