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Published: Saturday, 6/25/2005

'Fortress' still flying into wild blue yonder

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A restored B-17, Yankee Lady, approaches the Wood County Airport, where it will participate in an air show today. A restored B-17, Yankee Lady, approaches the Wood County Airport, where it will participate in an air show today.
LONG / BLADE Enlarge

The last time Bill Schnee heard the roar of four 1,200-horsepower radial engines and the rattle of radio and gunnery equipment jumping with each intense vibration, he was flying over war-torn Europe praying he wouldn t get shot.

He was only 20 years old then, and a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber. His job was to fire, and continue firing, the 50-caliber machine guns from the back of the hulking plane.

Mr. Schnee, now 80, won t be crouched in the narrow tail of the B-17 when he takes to the sky again today. And he won t feel the shock of anti-aircraft shells exploding around him.

But the thunderous engines will sound in his ears and his stomach will jump with every bounce the Flying Fortress makes. A gift from his family for his 80th birthday, Mr. Schnee will be among those taking a flight today on a restored B-17 at Plane Fun 2005.

Of course, his excitement for today s experience would have surprised anyone who was there when the young staff sergeant s feet hit the ground after his last flight in 1945.

After I finished my last mission, I threw my parachute on the ground and said, I don t care if I ever see another of these buckets of bolts again. he said while surrounded by family in his Oregon home yesterday. But I m going to get up early, have breakfast, and go get on that plane again.

The Yankee Lady, one of only 13 restored B-17s in the world, roared into Wood County Airport yesterday afternoon, the main attraction at the annual event sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 582. With a 103-foot wing span and 74 feet from nose to tail, the glistening plane will be in flight throughout the weekend, giving rides to anyone with memories, an imagination, and $400 to spare.

The work of the Yankee Air Museum, the bomber is 98 percent authentic. Only the plane s updated radio system and replicated guns and shells remind passengers that it is 2005 and that they are flying in friendly skies.

The nonprofit organization of about 3,500 members promotes aviation and restores planes. The group suffered a devastating loss when the hangar that housed their museum was engulfed in flames in October, 2004. The B-17 was saved and with each ride today, passengers will be helping the group rebuild.

Ted Drews, a member of the Yankee Air Museum and flight engineer for the B-17 crew, recalled an 86-year-old radio operator who had both hips replaced. He was helped in the plane, positioned near the radio and before Mr. Drews eyes, transformed into a 22-year-old soldier.

And there are the military widows who wanted to see a particular position perhaps the bombardier or the waist gunner where their young husbands were situated when they were killed.

Dan Wiese said the goal of Plane Fun 2005 is to introduce aviation to young adults, ages 8 to 17, each of whom can take a ride on a small plane for free. Organizers expect more than 8,000 people at the two-day event, which costs $5 a person a day for those 8 years and older.

But there s no reason the day can t be just as much fun for an 80-year-old, said Mr. Schnee s son, Doug.

The elder Mr. Schnee joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in August, 1943, just months after graduating from Clay High School. His plan was to become a pilot, but was at one of the schools shut down by the military at the time. He decided that he didn t want to be an infantryman, and instead volunteered for aerial gunnery school.

If you re going to get shot, he explained, you might as well do something you want to do.

During his two years serving in the war, Mr. Schnee flew 32 missions and received a Purple Heart after shrapnel from an exploding anti-aircraft device pierced the plane and his body. As a member of the 99th Bombardment Group, Mr. Schnee flew with the 347th Squadron, based in Foggia, Italy.

In July, 1945, he returned home and left the world of bombers behind. That is, until today.

Riding on that B-17 is not like flying in an airliner, he said knowingly. But I like to brag that I helped tear the roof off Fortress Europe.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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