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A new overcoat for the F-4 Phantom

by by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Thunderbolt staff writer
photo by Staff Sgt. Chad Chisholm
The clock was turned back 60 years last week when Aluminum Overcast, a classic B-17 restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association, made a stop at MacDill. Base personnel and former military, including WWII B-17 pilot Col. Bill Eisenhardt, came out for a look.

Oct. 14, 1942, Col. Bill Eisenhardt of the 303rd Hells Angles was piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress on a daylight bombing mission targeting Schweinfurt, Germany. His plane was hit and had an engine flame out but he and crew made it back safely. Some of his comrades were not so lucky. Sixty planes were lost that day so it was bittersweet almost 61 years to the day that he stood beneath Aluminum Overcast, a meticulously restored B-17 that flew into MacDill Friday.

"It brings back a lot of memories," said the Tampa retiree, looking over the aluminum hulk with its multiple gun turrets and four massive engines. "We lost a lot of planes and a lot of people but these planes saved a lot of people." Eisenhardt recalls the plane being a bit of a handful to fly but that it was rock steady and tough as nails. Many were damaged beyond imagination yet still able to fly.

"It's a wonderful airplane and we had good crews, good NCOs and enlisted and ground crews that kept this airplane flying," he said. "I wish I could jump in and fly it again."

Belly gunner Burt Halbert III of the 305th Bombardment Group flew 30 missions in the remarkably small gun "bubble" at the bottom of the plane, and at a 120-pounds "soaking wet," he still had trouble squeezing in, he recalled, as he surveyed the classic plane, which was open to base personnel for tours. He was credited with two and half enemy fighters shot down and provided a lot of 16mm film footage of their bombing missions over Germany.

"When we were over the cities they wouldn't fire on us because they would hit their own planes," he said. "So shooting the camera gave me something to do."

Halbert can testify to the toughness of the planes. He recalls having to crash land in Belgium at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. He also remembers landing with two of the four engines out and another just a "fan," meaning the plane had just one good engine running.

So many planes and crews were lost but Halbert said his entire crew came through the war. He looks back at how lucky they were but at the time, he saw it differently.

"I was 18, young and foolish," he said. "I thought I was invincible."

Aluminum Overcast is on a tour of several stops, including air bases around the country. The plane is owned by the Warbirds group of the Experimental Aircraft Association and is one of several war planes lovingly restored by the group for display and flying. Several airmen from MacDill were treated to a ride on the plane when it left base for a short flight to Clearwater, from where it was scheduled to continue its tour.

Master Sgt. Kimberly Walsh, a squad production supervisor in the 6th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, has been a flight engineer for the historical organization since 1995, often flying with Aluminum Overcast. One of her favorite parts of touring with the plane is meeting people who share history with the B-17. While those who flew them are becoming fewer and fewer, she often meets former crew members who have "wonderful stories" about missions flown in the plane.

 

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