Airplane or time machine?
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Sep 23, 2013, 14:12
BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT WWII veteran Donald Campen looks out of the window of the bombardier’s nose. He recalled his days as a togglier in the 303rd bomb group, “Hell’s Angels,” of the 427th Squadron.
I fumbled to buckle my seat belt, having a frustrating amount of difficulty with something that shouldn’t be complicated. After some much needed assistance, I sat situated between a gun turret in the floor and another window-mounted machine gun. The engine roared and smoked as the plane hurled down the runway before launching into the cloudy air.
In my 22 years of life, I have flown on a plane five times. The first time I was maybe 3 years old on a trip to Disney World of which I have no memories, so it practically doesn’t even count. The next three times were in the same day on a two-stop flight from Aspen, Colo., to Richmond when I was 20. I remember feeling like a child full of pure amazement all three times the plane vaulted off the runway and then staring at the other passengers in disbelief as they acted bored or sleepy because, unlike me, they had probably done this many times before.
So, having said this, my first four plane rides really only account for one day of my cognizant life. My fifth time was a joyride on a Boeing B-17, an airship more than three times older than I am. It was used to execute bombing missions during World War II, and there are only 13 currently operational in the world. It was surreal beyond words.
The Liberty Foundation recently allowed regional media access to a flight on the ‘Memphis Belle’ as part of a nationwide Salute to Veterans tour on which they let the public take a glimpse at the flight of a U.S. Army Air Force bomb group in the 1940s.
After the plane took off out of the Hanover County Municipal Airport, we were allowed to unbuckle our seatbelts and roam around to look at the interior of the plane. I was seated in the back end of the plane where there were two machine guns equipped with huge strips of ammunition belts mounted facing out of open window holes on both sides of the plane.
This plane is not the actual Memphis Belle, but rather modeled after the original and used in the 1990 film of the plane’s name. However, this plane was used during WWII and most recently as a bomber in the Korean War.
As I walked towards the front of the vessel, I stepped over a closed ball infused into the floor of the plane. It was the ball turret, a claustrophobic metal orb in the bottom of the plane where someone would be positioned behind a machine gun that could fire at enemy airplanes. Apparently this was statistically the most survivable location on the plane, according to the volunteer captain. I didn’t see any airbags, though.
The plane then opened up into a room with four chairs, a radio desk and a wide open hole in the ceiling, like if the plane had suddenly become a convertible. Flying 1,200 feet above the fields of Hanover, the wind tried it’s hardest to pull every hair out of my skull as I stood on my tiptoes to take pictures of the terrain below. Surprisingly, I found myself more exhilarated than anything else.
Moving on towards the front of the plane, I made it to the cockpit where there was room for two pilots and a gunner located right behind the pilot. A staircase led below the cockpit, where I had to crawl on hands and knees to reach the bombardier’s nose, a sort of extra cockpit with standing room where the bombardier and the togglier release the bombs.
Here, I met Donald Campen, a veteran of World War II who was flying on a B-17 for the first time since he was a togglier in the 303rd “Hell’s Angels” bomb group seven decades ago. I stood behind him as he sat in his bright green T-shirt marked ‘Veteran’ staring out over the vast fields, lakes, neighborhoods and beyond of Hanover.
In this moment, it is an undeniable fact that we were not looking at the same thing.
I was looking over the shoulder of a man far more experienced beyond my years, a man from a war-endured generation who can arguably be credited with laying the foundation for the booming economy and international power this country accumulated after the war, trying to understand what it was he might have been thinking at that exact moment.
The blast from the engine would have kept me from hearing anything he might have told me anyways.
I crawled back up to the rest of the plane, where we were told to buckle up for landing. We were in the air for only about 15 minutes, but it felt like an hour.
BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT The plane flew over Hanover County at approximately 1,200 feet in the air.
Stepping off of the plane and back into 2013, I said goodbye to Campen and walked back to my car with a strange sense of excitement and awe.
The weird thing about this fifth time I rode in a plane is that it felt like it took place before I was even born.