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Vets recall the days they lived in a Flying Fortress

Public was invited take a flight on a B-17 bomber over weekend

Merv Karl, 90, of Park Ridge, Ill., relates his experiences as a B-17 pilot in command during World War II before his flight in B-17 heavy bomber from Crites Field in Waukesha on Friday. Karl flew 35 combat missions at the age of 22.

Merv Karl, 90, of Park Ridge, Ill., relates his experiences as a B-17 pilot in command during World War II before his flight in B-17 heavy bomber from Crites Field in Waukesha on Friday. Karl flew 35 combat missions at the age of 22. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 27, 2012

A ride in a vintage World War II B-17 - the famed Flying Fortress - makes you appreciate the comforts of modern aviation.

Sure, you have to pay extra to check baggage, and yeah, lines and delays can be a hassle, but the seats are padded and adjustable, people with good manners serve you drinks and you don't have to fire a 50-caliber machine gun while people shoot back at you.

"Some days were worse than others," said Harvin Abrahamson of Wauwatosa. He's referring to anti-aircraft fire. He's in his late 80s, now, but when he was still on the cusp of 20 he served as a radio operator and gunner on a B-17. It was a live target on bombing runs from England to Germany and back - nine-hour flights, many of which were spent in terror. He saw planes of colleagues shot down around him and flak blowing holes in the soft aluminum skin of his plane.

"The bombardier had his ear grazed by flak. He was very lucky to be alive."

A gunner in the middle of the plane was hit in the foot by a chunk of aluminum, and Abrahamson himself had a close call.

"I was very lucky, also; I had a piece about as big as your fist go through my radio room and it went between my legs and the post of my swivel chair," he said.

"It didn't touch the post, and it didn't even tear my trousers," he said, adding, "A perfect shot."

Abrahamson and his fellow veterans of B-17 warfare appeared at Waukesha Airport last weekend to take part in Wings Over Waukesha, a two-day flying event featuring a vintage B-17 called Aluminum Overcast.

A program of the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Aluminum Overcast tours the country offered customers the chance to appreciate what The Greatest Generation experienced in the skies over Europe. It'll make about 30 stops this year, and gave rides to those with deep pockets and something more than $400 to spare.

It is an unusual experience. Perched on a small seat, you feel like you're in a tin can. You can see the ribs and rivets that hold the thing together and sense how thin the skin is - "you could take a screwdriver and punch a hole in the fuselage," Abrahamson said.

It's not pressurized, and its gun holes are open to the sky.

In the glass bubble below the pilots, your face is perilously close to a whirring propeller, and as the crew chief warned, "as you're going through the bomb bay, the catwalk is very narrow … and it has a tendency to grab cellphone cases, camera cases, eyeglass cases and drop them on the doors. If they go on the doors, just leave it there. We'll get it when we go on the ground, because the doors won't support your weight. They were designed to release bombs through the doors, so they don't hold very much."

The exterior of the B-17 bristles with machine guns - 12 of them - but it's the sound of the aircraft that's most impressive. It's like the roar of the ocean on an especially stormy day.

Bob Abresch of Brookfield entered the service at 23 in 1942. As a B-17 pilot he flew 33 missions at a time when the maximum was raised from 30 to 35.

He remembers how cold it was up above the clouds - 60 degrees below zero - and feels lucky that the flak that penetrated his plane never hit him or any members of his crew. But he did have an engine go out and was forced to leave his squadron and limp to back to England alone.

Fighter jets were another threat - the B-17, with a lumbering maximum speed of 150 mph - were no match for them, but, in a group, they had more firepower, so they'd stick together and fight it out.

Like Abrahamson, he lost friends in the war, and the relief of every safe return was tempered when he arrived at the base and learned who wasn't coming back.

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