Historical Thrill Seeking: A B-17 And The Kindness of Strangers
Once upon a time, eight or nine years ago in fact, a young woman with a flair for history left her cramped, leaky studio apartment and drove to the Burbank/Bob Hope airport. She had fallen on some incredibly rough times. Only a quarter tank of gas powered her car, and she didn’t have much money to fill it. Groceries in the cupboard were sparse. She worked in movies as an assistant, but most months she barely made rent. The only real outings she could afford were trips to the library or the hiking trails.
But when the Collings Foundation, a touring historical group, announced that their B-17, B-25, and P-51 planes from World War II would swing by Burbank airport, the young woman had to see them. World War II had been a lifelong passion, especially the aviation angle. Her father took her to EAA Airventure in Oshkosh every single year as a child. She loved it when those big planes rumbled down the runway and put on the most thrilling airshows a history enthusiast could ever imagine.
She had a lifelong dream to ride in one of those planes, but being so down on her financial luck, that wouldn’t be an option today. Those rides were expensive, more money than she even had to her name. But she could go see the planes, and maybe they would let her take some pictures at least. So, the girl collected her camera and drove to the airport.
The planes were magnificent, just as she knew they would be. She marveled at how they towered above her and threw long shadows across the sunny parking lot. She grinned when the big B-17 revved up its four engines and took off with a handful of lucky passengers. The thrill of that plane rumble vibrated to her fingertips. Click click click went her camera as she reveled in the thrill of being so close to something from her favorite historical era.
As the young woman lost herself in the history and the shutter of her camera, a group of middle-aged men and a lady stood nearby. The young woman noticed they had been watching her and whispering, but she didn’t much care. Frankly, she was used to being the “baby” of the room when it came to World War II history, and being one of few women around wasn’t new either. Besides, she was so involved in her pictures, this one ray of happiness she’d had in some time, that she barely noticed when the group approached her.
“You’re a bit young for this kind of scene, aren’t you?”
The young woman turned and saw the entire group of people had come up behind her. “Nah. I’m just enjoying the planes. And I’ve been a big World War II enthusiast all my life.” She was prepared to drop it at that, but her answer must have interested them.
“Oh? Your whole life you say?”
The young woman finally put her camera down and embraced her human company. She told them all about her passion for history. All the books she’d read, the museums she had seen, the EAA airshow, and the books she poured through in preparation to write a novel someday. “I want to be an author,” she admitted with a nervous shuffle of her feet. “I want to tell those stories and make sure they aren’t forgotten. It’s important.”
Her answers seemed to charm her hosts. The lady in particular was very moved. She beckoned to the B-17, which now returned from its loop around the Los Angeles airspace with passengers in tow. “Well, you should take a ride. We did earlier and it’s amazing.”
The young woman’s insides slumped. Oh, if this lady only knew how badly she wanted to take a ride. How she’d dreamt of it ever since she saw pilots giving rides at that airshow as a girl. She forced a smile. “Well, I’d love to. Someday I will. But I’m afraid it can’t be today.”
“Well, I’m….” The young woman sighed, and she forced herself to admit the one thing nobody ever wants to. “I don’t have any money. I’m just an assistant, I can’t afford things like that.” The young woman turned back to her camera, so ashamed her face was red.
But the lady took her by the shoulders. With a wink and a smile, she said…. “Well, I’m an executive at Disney. And today, you are going for a ride.”
In case you haven’t figured it out, the young woman in this story is ME. And every bit of this charming fairy tale about the kindness of strangers is true. I just never thought something like it would ever happen to me, and honestly, sometimes it’s still hard to believe it did.
It was certainly hard to believe in that moment. I was so shocked by the woman’s offer, so stunned she would volunteer that kind of money for a young upstart who wanted to write about World War II, that I couldn’t make my mouth move. Before I could tell her there were better uses for that kind of money, or even utter an appropriate thank you, she had shuttled me to the passenger line, handed over her credit card, and slapped a ride bracelet on my wrist. Just like that, a lifelong dream was about to come true.
She got lots of thank-yous from me. A few tears and a hug too. That was all I had time for before I was hustled over to the waiting bomber by the flight crew. I climbed up a narrow, metal ladder and into the hull of the plane. There were only three or four other passengers, all males, and all pretty intrigued to see a little damsel in a blue dress on board. I told them I was a first timer, and they plopped me into the navigator’s chair by the window, one of the best seats in the house. I looked out through the warm glass and into the parking lot. There was that lady looking up at me, with a very warm smile on her face. I gave her a wave, and she waved back.
The plane engines thundered to life, and the B-17 Flying Fortress lumbered out of its parking place and towards the waiting take-off strip.
I don’t know if you’ve ever flown in a really old plane, but there’s something pretty magical about it. The way the entire thing tremors underneath you. The charming squeaks and groans, the rattle of the windows, and the musty, antiquey smell of all the history crammed in that fuselage. It has a way of getting your adrenaline pumping, as does the epic stomach jolt when the big plane wheels divorce the ground. If one is new to antique plane flying, it might be a bit jarring or terrifying. However, I grew up around old planes. My dad had an old Bellanca he flew us around in when I was a kid. This ride put me in mind of that old Bellanca Belle (as we called her), but the power in those B-17 quad engines sure gave Bellanca a run for her money. I can honestly say I had never felt anything quite like it.
My fellow passengers were all pretty practiced with World War II plane rides. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, they unclicked their seatbelts and began crawling around the bomber. They poked into the turret stations, they burrowed into the space beneath the cockpit, and they even popped their heads out of the open turret in the plane’s roof. Since I’ve never been one to sit on the sidelines, I followed their example and began to do the same.
They enjoyed showing a first timer the ropes.
“You have to check out this view out the side turret, and try out the model gun too.”
“Crawl under the cockpit! You can see everything from there!”
“No! No! The best place is at the tail gun.”
“Hey, don’t be afraid, stick your head out the top and feel the wind in your hair. Atta girl.”
All of us acted like little kids in our own World War II fort. We crawled into the tight spaces. We pretended to take on fighter planes with the model gun (not loaded!) at the side turret. We took the perilous walk across the beam over the bomb bay doors (which were safely closed mind you, but still). Our voices were soon hoarse from shouting at each other over the noise of those wonderful engines. My camera got passed from person to person, each wanting a turn taking pictures out the top turret. The laughter, the shrieks of excitement, and the encouragement from the pilots… my dream ride in a World War II bomber was better than I ever imagined.
My only complaint was that it was over too quickly. Our half hour ride elapsed in the blink of an eye, and before I knew it, we were headed back to Bob Hope Airport. The boys and I all returned to our seats and buckled up. We braced ourselves as the big wheels thumped back onto the runway, and the plane roared back into the open lot we started in.
As we pulled into the area where the other planes were parked, and where more people awaited their ride in the historic bomber, I peered out the window for another glimpse of my angel do-gooder. That lady who, with no hesitations whatsoever, whipped out her credit card to make a twenty-something’s dreams come true. However, she was nowhere to be seen. None of them were. They had all vanished, probably gone back to the office, or off to lunch, or whatever angels do after they’ve put a forever smile into someone’s heart.
I never saw the woman again. I don’t even really remember her name, because everything happened so incredibly fast on that sunny afternoon. After the ride was over, I kept my ride bracelet on as long as possible to savor the flavor. I also wondered around the little gift stand the Collings Foundation had set up. I only had a few dollars in my wallet, but I dropped some into the donation bucket – a pittance compared to what that woman had done for me, but all I could afford to give. The rest I used to purchase a souvenir bullet from the plane’s big side guns. I traded an evening meal for that bullet, but I somehow knew I wouldn’t regret that. To this day, I never have. I needed a keepsake. Not just to mark the occasion of my first ever ride in World War II plane (first of a few, as it would turn out…), but also as an important reminder.
In this world today, with so much division, fear, and bitterness, it’s so easy to forget about the kindness of strangers. How giving, generous, and loving people can be if they are only given the chance. That woman’s gesture lodged itself forever inside me, and I’ve been trying to pay it forward ever since. I remember her every time I look at that bullet, nestled safely in my history cupboard. I think of her when I see people supporting others just because, or when I see friends passing on resumes to help someone find a job, or people giving encouragement to a crying stranger at work.
I also remember her when I look at the news these days. There’s plenty of fear going around, but there’s been countless acts of kindness too. People have opened their hearts and wallets in a way I haven’t seen since 9/11. Teenagers are creating food drives to get supplies to the elderly, neighbors leave fresh flowers on doorsteps, musicians play and sing on their balconies to comfort their neighborhoods, people nationwide are busting out their sewing skills to make masks, and corporations have bucked profit and turned their machines to medical equipment for overwhelmed doctors and nurses. Then there are the brave grocers working every day to keep their cities fed, the delivery people driving triple shifts to keep the country moving. It’s a true mark of the human spirit, and a reminder of how the American People can really put their swords away and their (gloved) hands out in a crisis.
Miracles are real, and during the pandemic in all its horrors, I’m seeing them all the time. I’ve always believed that people are inherently good, and times like these are the proof. If you have trouble believing, just get in your car and drive to the airport (once quarantine is lifted, of course). You never know what might happen!
My Adrenaline Addiction
My Historical Addiction
…And the Unwavering Belief in Miracles
For Proof of Miracles – please visit Good News Network
Most photos by M.B. Henry – although my new B-17 friends were nice enough to snap some of me! 🙂 For more warbird photos, click here