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World’s Laziest Journalist

April 18, 2005

By Bob Patterson


The National Society of Newspaper Columnists have designated April 18 as National Columnist Day because it was on that date in 1945, on the island of Ie Shima, that Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle was killed in action.  With that date rapidly approaching, the chance to fly in a B-17G World War Two bomber seemed to be an especially appropriate way to mark the occasion.


The B-17G called The Fuddy Duddy is on a tour of the United States and was on display at the Torrance airport over the past weekend.  The Fuddy Duddy will fly to Lancaster on April 19 and 20, and then  will return to the Los Angeles area again with a visit to the Van Nuys airport on April 22 to 24.  It will continue on to other parts of the United States after leaving California. 


A press flight was scheduled for Thursday April 14 and this columnist and our chief photographer (AKA the beloved editor and publisher, who also functions as the photo editor), Alan Pavlik, made the arraignments to cover the event.  Turns out, for this columnist, that it ranks with one of the best assignments ever.  For the fact checker: in the past this columnist has covered:  the Oscars (twice), the Emmys, the Grammies, the Country Music Association awards, and the American Music Association awards.  This flight was something that had been on “to do someday” list for about the last 45 years and trumped them all.  The daily paper in Torrance was not quite as enthusiastic in their story.


The TV weatherman said it was going to be overcast in the South Bay during the early morning hours.  It was a bright, sunny perfect Kodachrome day.  Is it any wonder why photographers and cinematographers love California?


As a kid, the movie 12 O’clock High, and various related books (such as Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Styles) had helped fuel the theory that the columnist was a reincarnated B-17 pilot and thus a desire to experience a flight on that particular type of aircraft was a top priority on the “wish list.”  The movie Memphis Bell, came along later in life and reinforced the personal conviction about previous lives.


During the high school phase of life, purchasing National Geographic printed during WWII, became a habit, just because of the series of institutional advertisements run by Boeing that promoted the durability and reliability of the B-17 airplanes.  Didn’t the National Geographic run a wartime story on the history of the B-17, in addition to some unique war coverage?


There’s a line in a Waylon Jennings song that proclaims that guys like buses and trucks and things that make loud noises and an airplane equipped with four Curtiss Wright 1820-97 engines without mufflers makes a racket that any boy would love.


The engines are fired up one at a time and the rising noise level is such that the operators of the vintage aircraft, which was General Dwight Eisenhower’s personal airplane late in the war, offer passengers ear plugs, before start up procedures are initiated.  Using the earplugs seemed as appropriate as taking a shower while wearing a raincoat.


In war time aviation literature, the B-17 was touted as gigantic, modern, and sturdy.  In retrospect for someone who has flown on various styles of commercial jet airliners, those contemporary  assessments of the bomber made by Boeing, seem inaccurate.  The interior, even stripped of the machinery that powered the ball turret, is cramped and requires dexterity and agility to maneuver about, although that didn’t stop some WWII veterans who were B-17 veterans from participating in the excursion into the past.  The flight guide noted that various examples of jutting metal can be used as hand holds.  Passengers are advised not to grab the wiring above, though.  Turns out these fragile looking wires, are the mechanical means use to manipulate such equipment as the rudder and the ailerons.  That quaint technological hardware brings to mind the image of two kids talking on the “phone” consisting of two tin cans connected by a string.  At the time, the B-17 was “cutting edge.”


One has to remember that when the B-17 prototype was approved for production, the first flight by the Wright brothers had only been made 35 (approximately) years earlier.  By contrast the last of the B-52 bombers that the United States currently uses, was manufactured forty four years ago in early 1961.


The flight was a torrent of sensory input: Is that the high school that you used to drive past?  Does that house belong to your buddy’s mom?  Which of those place in RPV belonged to a friend who moved away?  Isn’t that Donald Trump’s new development?  Dang!  We didn’t think about checking out the hulk of the wrecked ship, until it had become obscured by the geography.  Where’s the Queen Mary?  (Wrong city, we were over San Pedro not Long Beach.)  The one escape hatch had a grill and not a window, so sticking a little disposable Albertson camera up into the airflow and taking some guess shots hoping one would show the tail and the receding coastline seemed worth the risk of a five dollar camera.  Alan was taking the photos to be used in this week’s issue of Just Above Sunset online magazine; the columnist just wanted a snapshot to help keep the memories alive.  As the column was being written, those thoughts were deposited in the personal file labeled “moments that will never to be forgotten.”


The photo coverage was so extensive that the editor and publisher posted a photo album on his blog site.  


The flight brought history alive.  While a writer tries to process all the impressions, the imagination clamors to add speculation about what the experience would have been like if attacking fighter aircraft and flack from anti-aircraft fire was added to the mix.  One of the B-17 veterans who was recounting his experiences for the press, mentioned that after one particularly tough flight, his crew chief gave up counting the holes after he reached two thousand.  That plane returned to base and none of the occupants had been hit.  Wonder if he knows that there is a website just for former B-17 crew members?  


Web surfers will find an impressively large array of websites related to the subject of B-17’s.  There was one rather infamous picture showing a B-17 flying under the Eiffel Tower between the structure’s legs.  At the time, the audacity of the stunt outraged Paris.  Repeated efforts to locate that image online were not successful.


The biggest American bombing raid of WWII was the attack on the ball bearing factory at Schweinfurt and web surfers will find at least two books, Black Thursday by Martin Caidin, and Wrong Place! Wrong Time! by George C. Kuhl, devoted to that day.  On that mission, 60 airplanes, out of 291 bombers that started out, failed to return.


Back in World War II, the Air Force was an integral part of the Army, and was legislated as a separate branch of the armed forces in 1947.  So, if the disk jockey will play the Army Air Corps Song, we’ll give a memorial salute to Ernie Pyle and the others who gave all, then we’ll march out of here for this week.  We can’t say for sure, what next week’s column will be about, so drop back and check it out.  For now, we’ll borrow a famous broadcast journalist’s sign off: “Good night and good luck.”




Copyright 2005 – Robert Patterson


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
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