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WWII Pilot Flies In B-17 One More Time

Photo by Jim Kent

It’s not often that someone gets the chance to actually revisit their past through a tactile experience that can almost duplicate events in their life. 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.

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 Arizonaowns 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. We had to go around the country to make all the bits and pieces to make it look the way it does.”

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.

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
WWII B-17 pilot Chuck Childs at the trap door of Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona's fully restored and operational B-17 bomber.

Chuck Childs gives me a tour of the 100 by 75 foot plane before we take off for a flight with other members of the media. It’s a brief 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.

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

“Oh…it’s a beautiful thing,” observes Childs. ”Look at it. Look how it shines. I don’t knows…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.”

There are no more than eight B-17s in the world that are still operational, but Russ Gilmore says   he’ll continue to fly the “Sentimental Journey” to educate the public about what once took place in the skies over Europe. 

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