Riding the Aluminum Overcast

The Aluminum Overcast, May 23, 1999.

We have each, at one time or another, found something which captured our imaginations. Some of these things were just passing fads, but others become life long passions. For me, that "thing" was military aviation and WWII history.

As a youngster I built model airplanes, and each week I could be found glued to the TV watching "12 O'clock High." I watched spell-bound as GEN Frank Savage, flying "Piccadilly Lilly," led his bomber squadron over targets in Germany; his gunners fending off vicious fighter attacks. I imagined myself a part of his crew, manning a gun or working the bombsight. My youthful naivetö allowed me to believe this to be a glorious adventure. I wanted to fly in a B17!

Throughout the years my father took me to air shows and I continued to build models. When I was eighteen, I decided on a career in Naval Aviation and enlisted with the hopes of flying fighter aircraft. However, I didn't figure on being disqualified because of my severe nearsightedness. Even though I had to settle for a turbine powered destroyer, my fascination with flying continued. I found modern jets to be as equally captivating as their WWII ancestors. The B17 still loomed large in my mind.

I would attend air shows that had B17s on static display, but none were flying, much less offering rides. The chances of fulfilling my dream seemed to dwindle with each passing year. In 1998 I was at the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, WI., and saw the "Aluminum Overcast" in flight. It was a thrilling sight, but I thought it was just part of the demonstrations taking place that day.

A few months later I learned that the EAA took the Aluminum Overcast around the US giving tours. The chance to fulfill my dream was at hand, but the cost was a bit steep. When I told my wife of this opportunity she insisted I go, and offered to pay the bill. I protested, but she convinced me we could do this, and insisted I go fly. I made my arrangements and on May 23, 1999 I arrived for my first B17 ride.

I arrived two hours early. This gave me time to check in, get a short briefing, and then check out the plane. Few people were there and that enabled me to get up to the plane without being in anyone's way, or anyone in mine. I walked around the aircraft studying all the details. I stood in the wheel well, ran my hand along the wing and stared up into the nose cone. It was beautiful, but not as big as I envisioned.

I analyzed the wings: The Clark wing has a large surface area which provides a lot of lift and has a relatively low stall speed compared to the B24. However, the long cord does increase drag, reducing the aircraft's cruise speed. Moving along the waist I noticed how it narrowed. This may prove a problem moving through the aircraft. I stand 6' 2" and suspected the ceiling height was slightly less.

The horizontal stabilizer was huge. Its span was larger than the wingspan of many fighter's. The stabilizer was about chest high and I examined the controlling surfaces. During WWII the control surfaces were made of a resin impregnated fabric which reduced the weight of the aircraft. This material had a more modern origin and felt more like a drum head, and had a similar sound when I thumped it. The rudder and ailerons used the same material.

External view of the Norden Bombsight.

Starboard wing root.

The B17's split flap.

The Clark wing.

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