Take To The Skies In A B-17 With WWII Pilot Chuck Childs

Jun 18, 2015

Former WWII B-17 pilot Chuck Childs sits in the cockpit of Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona’s fully restored and operational B-17 bomber.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

It’s not unusual for anyone to be able to take a step back in time through music, films photographs or visits with friends or family members. It is unusual for someone to get a chance to actually revisit their past through a tactile experience that can almost duplicate events in their life from decades ago. But that’s just what happened when we joined a former World War Two pilot to take a ride on one of the most powerful planes ever built.

The year is 1942. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Hitler and Mussolini are waging war across Europe and looking East toward Russia. And Chuck Childs is on his way to becoming an Army Air Corps pilot of what would become known as “The Flying Fortress” – a B-17 bomber.

Chuck Childs as a B-17 bomber pilot in WWII.
Credit Courtesy Chuck Childs

”You didn’t plan on getting into flying though?” I ask. “You started in the infantry, right?”

“I started out as a machine gunner in the infantry,” Childs recalls. “Then I wanted to fly…and I didn’t want to be in a foxhole...so I just went ahead and started flying. I was already learning to fly when Pearl Harbor happened.” 

The "Sentimental Journey" taxis to a stop at Rapid City Regional Airport.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

On a cool, overcast afternoon in June, I’m standing on Rapid City Regional Airport’s tarmac with Air Force legend…Chuck Childs. We’re actually awaiting our turn to fly on a B-17 bomber – something Chuck did dozens of times during World War Two. The plane is actually an authentic B-17 from the World War Two era christened the “Sentimental Journey”. The non-profit Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona owns the plane and, as pilot Russ Gilmore explains, has spent years fine-tuning its appearance and flyworthiness. 

“When we got it…it was a stripped-out fire bomber,” explains Gilmore. “It had nothing of what you see on it now. So we had to go around the country to make all the bits and pieces to make it look the way it does now…which is 1944…45.”

Gilmore is a former commercial airline pilot who’s been flying the “Sentimental Journey” for 20 of the 38 years Airbase Arizona has owned it. As for flying the B-17 versus planes he flew for the airlines, Gilmore has this to say.

“This is, I mean, a very stable platform,” Gilmore observes. ”I’ve been flying it for 20 years, so…it’s like putting on a nice pair of shoes. It’s very comfortable to me. But it’s different. It’s not like flying a 757 at all” 

Chuck Childs demonstrates how B-17 crew members used to check their tires before boarding the bomber.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

“As a positive or a negative?” I ask.

“Well, it’s just different,” Gilmore replies. “It’s real heavy on the controls. There’s no hydraulic boost. There’s no aerodynamic boost. It’s boost by arm-strong.”

In other words, it’s like driving a car without power steering – but on a machine 20 times larger than a Subaru with four 1600-horsepower engines.

While Gilmore and his 3-man crew prepare the bomber for take-off, Chuck Childs takes me for a tour of the plane’s exterior.

“Now what we did…we’d come around…we’d check the props and then we’d go kick the tire,” Child remembers. “And then we’d go in”

“You’d kick the tire?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah,” Childs responds. “Always kick the tire.”

”You want to kick this one?” I inquire.

"Sentimental Journey" crew member demonstrates traditional technique for boarding the B-17 bomber.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

“Sure, I’ll kick it,” Childs replies with a laugh. “That’s exactly what we did.”

On to the trap door below the cockpit.

“My size…and I’d jump up…get my hands up there…swing a couple of times and put my feet up in there…and someone would push me from behind,” says Childs, explaining how he managed to get in the cockpit’s trap door. ”That was the way we got in. And that’s the way we escaped if we had to bail out. That was our spot.”

Our next stop is to the cockpit, where Chuck sits in the pilot’s seat.

“Are we ready to take off?” I ask.

“I could take off but I don’t remember what those switches are,” Childs replies, with a grin - nodding toward the control panel. 

“Could that be a problem,” I ask Gilmore.

“It could be a big problem…yes,” the pilot responds with a laugh.

Cat walk over bomb bay doors – leading from radio room (foregrounds) to cockpit (background).
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

After receiving safety instructions like don’t pull any wires you see and don’t walk over the bomb bay doors, Chuck and I board the plane along with several other members of the media. We’re sitting in the radio operator’s section – just behind the cockpit and those bomb bay doors – which are closed. 

“The radio operator was over there,” Childs explains as we buckle up. “The radar operator was over here. He had his own station. He had everything right here.”

Once everyone’s aboard with their seat belts fastened, the B-17’s engines are turned on.

Suffice to say they’re very noisy…which is why Chuck has worn hearing aids for years. And that’s not surprising considering what it was like to fly those 37 combat missions lasting up to 13 hours in this din, combined with the sounds of anti-aircraft guns and enemy fighter planes firing at you, and then adding in the 196 missions Chuck flew as part of the Berlin Air Lift after World War Two.

View from waist gunner’s position as ”Sentimental Journey” flies over Rapid City outskirts.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

The engines get even louder as we take off. Once we level at about 1500 feet, we’re permitted to undo our seatbelts and walk around. The 75-foot long plane with the 100-foot wingspan looks pretty big from the outside…but inside…it’s like walking around in a flying submarine with a variety of small compartments and not more than 6-feet in width.

Chuck escorts me toward the back of the plane, pointing out a 50-caliber machine gun station at a large side window, Then he shows me the ball turret – a crew member’s station that’s accessed through the floor of the B-17 and actually hangs outside and below the plane.

The B-17’ ball turret – “the worst place for a guy to be”.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

“That’s the ball turret,” Childs explains. “And that’s the worst place for a guy to be. And they’d open it up from there and they’d crawl down in there.”

Chuck notes that he once had to drop the ball turret of his B-17 while trying to return to base on very little fuel.

It’s a brief 15-minute ride as we circle over the outskirts of Rapid City, but long enough to gain an appreciation of what Chuck Childs and the men who flew with him faced every time they took to the air – minus the horror of being shot at.

“Made it!” shouts Childs.

Once landed, Chuck Childs says he loved the flight. As for the importance of the B-17 to him personally…. 

View from radio operator’s room skylight toward tail of B-17.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

“This was the airplane to fly,” Childs recalls. 

“Was it a sturdier plane?” I ask.

“Oh, definitely,”

“What made it that way?’ I ask.

“They made it that way,” Childs explains. ”Oh, it’s a beautiful thing. Look at it. Look how it shines and…I don’t know. It’s just a feeling that’s hard to explain to anybody because, you know, this was…this was my life and, uh, that was my airplane and….it saved me…brought me home. It’s the queen of the skies. Beautiful…beautiful airplane.”

What made today’s flying experience even more poignant for Chuck Childs is the fact that there are no more than eight B-17s in the world that are still operational. But as the 95-year old veteran walks away from his favorite plane, he can at least rest assured that men like Russ Gilmore will continue to fly this B-17 for as long as they can…to educate the public about what once took place in the skies over Europe.

Hear the complete interviews with Chuck Childs and  "Sentimental Journey" crew members at:

http://listen.sdpb.org/post/chuck-childs-recalls-days-b-17-bomber 

Chuck Childs mimics his classic WWII photo waving from the B-17 cockpit.
Credit Photo by Jim Kent

For more information on Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona go to:   www.azcaf.org