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Sun, Jun 12, 2005

Third Time's A Charm! (Part Two)

Will It Fly?

By ANN Warbird Correspondent Tom Griffith

When we left our intrepid correspondent yesterday, he was just about to find out whether or not he'd be getting [yet another] a ride of a lifetime. In other words, was "Thunder Bird" gonna fly today?

See Part One

I made my way out to the B-17 and met Bill Babcock, an LSFM volunteer who was wiping down "T-Bird" just one more time (well, the parts that he could reach from the ground). It seemed spotless, but he kept finding little smudges here and there, so he kept going after it with a cloth. This seems to be a characteristic of everyone associated with LSFM: attention to detail, to the point of perfection.

I learned that he was ex-US Navy and how he volunteered every other weekend at the Museum, and something about how he had to do stuff around his house every other weekend. The Museum has a goodly number of people like Bill, and I only wish that I lived closer than the Dallas area so that I could get involved in this Museum's worthwhile mission of preserving our aviation heritage - both its hardware and the people who have been instrumental in promoting and improving aviation.

The "people" part is featured in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, which is a separate part of the Museum that houses a series of over forty exhibits honoring the movers and shakers, past and present, who have an association with Texas and are (or were) pioneers and heroes of aviation (the diverse group includes Howard Hughes, Gen. Claire Chennault, Jeana Yeager and Deborah Jean Rihn-Harvey just to name a few).

Back to the story. I noticed that about a dozen guys had congregated near the tail of "T-Bird" while I was up by the nose of the big bomber talking to Bill, so I made my way back to check things out. I didn't want someone to rob me of my seat. A couple of the guys had LSFM shirts or caps on, and the others were "regular guys," just like I try to be.

Tom Owens, the B-17 crew chief, who never seems far from his baby, was passing out sheets of paper to some of the guys, and I knew, from past experience that these were the required "you could die in this old airplane and your family can't blame the operators for it" liability release forms. Tom gave me one and I initialed it about a dozen places and signed and dated the bottom.

I told him that it could say "there's a better than 50:50 chance you'll die a horrible, flaming death" and I'd still sign. I say all of this, knowing that the LSFM guys wouldn't even think of taking up a plane, let alone one with "civilians" in it, unless there was a 99.99999% chance that everybody and everything will come back safely.

There were to be five passengers on the flight today - aside from the crew positions, there is seating for only five others. The other guys who had assembled behind the Fort were just guys with cameras who hated those of us who were getting ready to board the B-17. I've been one of them a time or two! Our pilots would be Stewart Dawson and Tim Hahn, and naturally Tom Owens would go along, to make sure that the pilots took care of HIS airplane.

Tim gave everyone a little history of the aircraft that we were fixing to fly in ("fixing to" is Texan for "getting ready to"). He told the group that it was a B-17-G, built not by Boeing, but by Lockheed/Vega (note: Boeing, Lockheed/Vega and Douglas manufactured the B-17 during the War). I have read that Lockheed/Vega Fortresses were generally better-built, and, here's an important point: they cost the US government less than the same aircraft built at the same time, than those built by either Boeing or Douglas.

The real "Thunder Bird" completed 112 missions over Europe and this aircraft has been restored to represent her. Our B-17 never saw combat and had been used by the French government for years after the War, before it was bought by a British concern in the mid 1980s. It was from them that Robert Waltrip, "father" of the Lone Star Flight Museum, bought this beauty - that was 1987. Years of restoration and mucho dinero were all that was needed to get her into the beautiful shape in which we saw her that warm April day. It is safe to say that "Thunder Bird" is the undisputed queen of the LSFM.

Back to the big day. I didn't get to meet the two passengers who flew in the nose (they were confined to the nose during the whole flight - there is no easy way to gain access to the rest of the plane from the nose, without opening a small door that makes up part of the floor of the flight deck of a B-17). The other three of us who sat "in the back" got to wander all over most of the plane after we reached our cruising altitude, but more on that later.

Two guys and I were helped into the rear side hatch by Mark Winter, another LSFM guy - "helped" is the correct word, as he deftly applied a little lifting force to get our non-twenty-year old bodies through the hatch.  He had already shown everyone the escape hatches and all that other routes of exits should we need to get out quickly. He followed us into the plane to make sure that we found seats and then made sure that we knew how to fasten the military-type seat belts.

He showed us a bell on one of the bulkheads close by - he said if we hear it ringing, to jump out as soon as the aircraft comes to a stop. We all looked at each other like, "that better NOT happen today!" He warned us about the "low overhead" and that if we bumped into one of the bulkheads (or whatever) as we "moved about the cabin," we'd better worry about ourselves, NOT the airplane. Like he said, "you're not going to hurt the plane at all."

I took the radio operator's seat - my dad, S. Sgt. William U. Griffith, Jr., was a WWII USAAF radio operator, and while he didn't fly as a crewman on any combat missions while he was overseas, he was a radio operator and this seemed like the perfect place for me. It also had a small desk, which was perfect for my notepad.

We all were given headsets, but only the seat by the radio (MY seat) had a hookup, so I got to listen to the pilots doing their checklists. Aviation headsets provide a certain degree of hearing protection, so we were told to keep them on the entire time that the engines were running, even those of us who were not "plugged-in.".

Soon Tom, Tim and Stewart had all four Wright Cyclones fired up and idling smoothly, a few minutes after we buckled in. As expected, with or without headsets, these four engines were quieter than just the two engines on the B-25 had been.

You can e-mail me at if you want to know the reasons. I don't think that the average reader is all that interested in just why the B-25's engines are louder, so I'll save space by leaving that particular dissertation out of this article

Anyway, the sound of these four round monster engines turning the big Hamilton Standard props, the vibration that they imparted into the airframe, and the smell of gasoline, oil, and later, rubber all served to make my experience that much more memorable.

In Part Three, we'll see if Tom finally gets airborne.



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