The props start turning slowly, with only a brief whine before each of the B17's four 1,200-horsepower engines gives an earsplitting bark, roaring to life. Dense clouds of exhaust swirl behind the thick wings and disappear as the entire aircraft begins to shimmy and shake.
The sense of power fills the big bomber and everyone in it as it slowly taxis into position at the end of the runway, making room for two more Flying Fortresses for this, their 50th anniversary celebration.
Suddenly, brakes are released and the big birds begin accelerating down the wide concrete strip.
Fred Olander smiles from his temporary position beside one of the waist guns as Sentimental Journey lifts off, climbing into the white-tufted blue sky. Olander makes his way forward, through the radio compartment to the tunnel leading from the flight deck into the nose.
His transformation is almost immediate. No longer is he Fred Olander, 62-year-old steel sales executive in Mission Hills, Kan. The years have fallen away. It's Nov. 30, 1944, and he's 1st Lt. Fred Olander, navigator, winging his way from the 379th Bomb Group base at Kimbolton, England, to the oil refineries at Leipzig, Germany . . .
"There was very little fighter activity. It was all antiaircraft fire. We were hit and dropped out of formation, down to 5,000 feet. We bailed out, were captured and marched by the Germans to Stalag Luft I, north of Berlin. Only three of the 12 planes in our squadron made it back . . ."
Olander's Flying Fortress was one of around 4,750 lost during World War II to enemy action. Another nearly 8,000 B17s survived until after the war, when most were sold as scrap and melted down.
Estimates are that only around two dozen survive today, and three of them were here at Boeing Field this past weekend when Boeing Aircraft played host to several thousand air and ground crewmen and their families for the B17's anniversary celebration.
It was a birthday party to remember, and, it seems, each of the old warriors who made the trip had a tale to tell, about his aircraft and his crewmates. Tales of tragedy and courage, of death and heroism and, above all, of the plane they dubbed the Queen of the Skies, the airplane they couldn't kill.
The airplanes, and the memories, are all that are left. The battlefields, thousands of feet up, in temperatures approaching 60 degrees below zero, were battlefields only for an instant. As the bomber streams made their way to and from their targets, they took the battle with them. Moments after they had passed over a given point on the ground, the smudgy black, red and orange flak bursts had disappeared, the flames and smoke were gone, leaving only memories in the air and wreckage on the ground far below.
"She was an aircraft you could trust," said one pilot. "She could take all the punishment they could dish out and still go on. For every one that went down, scores made it back."
Members of more than two dozen bomb groups showed up for the get-together, and there were emotional -- and often unexpected -- reunions: Men who had been given up for dead when their aircraft were seen to explode in midair, or whose planes failed to make it back to home base, were greeted with cheers and tears when they walked into the hospitality rooms and banquet halls of downtown Seattle's hotels.
The Boeing celebration began Friday with a veterans-only program at Boeing Field. The field was filled with World War II-vintage aircraft: the three B17s, P47 Thunderbolt and P51 Mustang fighters, a Mitchell B25 bomber, a German Me108 fighter-trainer and numerous older and more modern aircraft.
Five B17 Medal of Honor recipients were introduced at midday, followed by a number of brief speeches in tribute to the Flying Forts. Featured speakers included Edward C. Wells (Boeing's chief B17 designer) and retired general Curtis E. LeMay, former Air Force chief of staff, commander of the Strategic Air Command and B17 division commander.
The always outspoken LeMay, who also ran for vice president with former Alabama governor George C. Wallace, talked about the present state of America's defense preparedness: "There are times," he said, "when I think we elect our stupidest people to Congress. They can't read or they would know something about history . . . They can't add or they'd know you can't spend more than you can take in."
Still, most of the talk out at Boeing Field and back at the Group gatherings was of the B17s.
"We were over Reims, France, when antiaircraft fire took out a 15-foot section of our Fort," said Carl Mongrue, then a 19-year-old radio operator with the 381st Bomb Group, now 61. "Two of our guys were killed immediately, but we got the plane back to base. The landing gear was shot out, so we bailed out over the field."
The 97th Bomb Group, with 560 crewmen and relatives, had the largest turnout.
This group, which was formed in 1942, first flew from England, as a part of the 8th Army Air Force. Later it was transferred to the Mediterranean, where it fought as an element of the 12th AAF, and still later it was moved to Italy, and the 15th AAF, where it became the first to carry out 300 bombing missions without being turned back one time by enemy action. The 97th secured its place in history by completing more missions than any other bomb group in Europe in World War II.
Crewmen, many of them wearing all or part of their WWII uniforms, swarmed around the three Fortresses, gesturing with their hands as they relived past missions with their comrades, and pointing out various sections of the 17s to wives, children and grandchildren.
Tents selling B17 T-shirts, hats and other memorabilia quickly ran low on stock, and by mid-afternoon the old warriors were ready for the half-hour bus rides to their hotels for cocktails and to spruce up for the first of two consecutive nightly hangar dances.
Modeled after a 1944 Glenn Miller show at a United Kingdom bomber base, the dinner-dance featured the likes of Frankie Laine, Tex Beneke and Glenn Miller's 8th AF Band, Marion Hutton, the Crew Chiefs and Kay Starr.
The 97th turned out for the Friday night performance in force, and continued spinning out their war tales as the evening moved through the dinner and entertainment and onto the dance floor. By midnight, most were on the buses headed back for their hotels . . . to rest up for some sight-seeing and Saturday night's big Group banquet.
The 97th had regrouped by 5 o'clock Saturday and once more the memories took precedence.
"I was copilot of the 17 on your father's right wing when his aircraft was blown apart," Joseph M. Hannon told one 97th fils. "Our mission was from Italy to Wiener Neustadt. That was one hell of a gunner," continued Hannon, now 66 and a judge in the D.C. Superior Court. "Twenty seconds later one of his shells blew off my leg. Our Fortress still got us home."
Weiner Neustadt was a tough target and the flak gunners there took their toll of the 97th. Bombardier Albert G. Willing Jr. was on his way there April 23, 1944, when his Fortress was hit by heavy antiaircraft fire.
"The outboard right engine caught on fire and that spread to the wing. Then the engine started to run away (go out of control) and the pilot told us we could bail out, but he pointed out we were only two minutes from bombs away. All the crewmen checked in and said they would stay aboard.
"We got off our bombs but things were still hairy. We fell out of formation and started losing altitude. The fire was going strong and it felt like the engine would shake us to pieces. We were over Yugoslavia when the pilot told us to get out.
"I'd left the bomb bay doors open and went back to get the enlisted men out. After the last one, I jumped too. Just after that the pilot and copilot got things more under control and they and the navigator and flight engineer flew that bird all the way back to base in Italy!"
Willing and the five others who bailed out were picked up by Yugoslavian partisans under the command of Tito. A few weeks later they had made their way to a big field in the mountains, where they were picked up at night by a C47 and flown back to Italy.
"Ultimately," notes Willing, now 68, "I went back to a 45-year career with The Hartford (insurance) Group."
The Group banquet drew to a close with introduction of special guests (including Enola Gay navigator Ted Van Dyke), tribute to the Group's air and ground crewmen and their wives, and a toast led by 97th Bomb Group Association president Clarence Hammes: "Let's raise our glasses to our comrades, our buddies that didn't make it back and those that couldn't make it here tonight . . ."
A crew chief with the 342nd Squadron of the 97th, Hammes also recited "The Crew Chief's Lament," a poem he wrote about the ground crews who sent their Fortresses flying, then waited for their return.
I busied my hands on the desert sands,
In a heat that cracked my lips.
Then, man alive, they began to arrive
In their battered and crippled ships.
I scanned the sky with my naked eye,
But I knew they wouldn't be back.
I began to cry with a tear in my eye
This thought I had to yell,
"Come cry with me
'Cuz war is hell
'Twill always be
My buddies fell.
As he got to these last two stanzas, Hammes wept. And he wasn't alone.