Flying Fortress Makes Annual Stop in East Bay
Before this week, the last time Art Kimber clambered out of a B-17 Flying Fortress, it was 1945 and he was a 20-year-old being ferried home to Fremont from the European Theater after V-E Day.
A B-25 pilot, Kimber and his crew had specialized in blowing up bridges on the mountainous border between Italy and Germany during the last months of the war. His flying career over, Kimber was headed home to work at a poultry breeding business founded by his father.
A lifetime later, a grinning 87-year-old Kimber exited the belly of the “Aluminum Overcast” bomber on Monday with nothing but praise for the plane and the pilots who had just flown him on a quick jaunt to the Bay Bridge and back as part of a media tour in preparation for the traveling exhibit’s stint in Hayward.
“This was kind of fun,” he said, eyes bright and beaming. “That’s a good aircraft.”
Kimber said he “was one of the lucky ones” in the war.
“We were never shot down — never lost a crew mate,” he said.
Kimber’s squadron had only encountered air resistance once — “the Luftwaffe was out of gas by then” — but his twin-engine medium bomber was no stranger to flak. He said “experienced anti-aircraft gunners” would wait until they were lined up on a bombing run, when the planes would have to hold a steady course all the way to the target.
“There was no evasive action,” he said. “And they knew that.”
Little puffs of smoke would grow larger and larger until they became loud, dull thuds all around, followed by the plane rocking through turbulent skies. But as far as casualties, the only thing that ever got hit was the plane’s battery.
Kimber said it again — he was one of the lucky ones.
The Aluminum Overcast arrived in Hayward on Monday with the Experimental Aircraft Association as part of its “Salute to Veterans” tour. The Wisconsin-based group has been holding the tour annually as a way to bring hands-on history to airfields all around the nation. The old warbirds are rare — EAA officials say that out of 12,732 B-17s produced, fewer than 100 airframes exist, with only a dozen or so capable of flight.
Another B-17 that used to land in Hayward, the “Liberty Belle,” caught fire while in flight and burned to a total loss after an emergency landing in an Indiana field in June. Nobody was hurt.
For the tours, available Friday through Sunday, docents will be on hand to tell visitors about the historical significance and technical specifications of the B-17G.
On Monday, EAA historian Brian Tressler spared no details about the absurdly cramped quarters suffered by the B-17 belly gunners, and a tour director talked about how the origin of the term “the whole nine yards” stems from the length of the belt of .50-caliber ammunition afforded to each machine-gunner. Weight consideration was such that no gun had more than a minute’s worth of shooting time.
Heidi Strand of the EAA said in addition to history buffs and vintage aircraft fans, she sees vets like Kimber come to reminisce, as well as a lot of family members of airmen who once flew on the fabled bombers.
She said at the Napa stop, three generations of a family showed up — the grandfather who had flown bomber missions, his son and grandson.
“People will tear up, and often they’ll come out of the experience transformed,” Strand said. “They will have a much deeper understanding about what those boys went through.”