See inside the WWII aircraft offering limited flights

On-the-go aircraft maintenance manager Doug Platten monitors the position of the machine gun during a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” in Cedar Rapids Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS – When B-25 warbirds like this were at their peak, there were more than 10,000, each carrying about a dozen veterans fighting the Axis powers in World War II. Now pilots who take the B-25 on a national tour are lucky if they see a veteran of that war, the crew of Experimental Aircraft Aviation said.

But never before had the B-25 been available for public flight in Iowa. This weekend, one of approximately 28 remaining airworthy B-25s worldwide is offering flights to Cedar Rapids.

With World War II veterans who flew them from time to time, the Berlin Express has a chance to be seen through a new eye – the eyes of those who follow to preserve and examine the history left behind in the clouds. .

“Almost everyone’s family has a connection to these (warbirds),” said Justin Cook, president of Chapter 33 of the Experimental Aircraft Association in Cedar Rapids. “How often do you get to see a piece of living history like this?”

Now it’s your turn to see what they saw 80 years ago. Here is what I saw.

A journalist’s experience

Planes like this lost my memory so much it was hard to believe the thing rolling towards me on the tarmac wasn’t one of the hand drawn illustrations I was used to seeing war birds.

“It’s the loudest plane of your life,” Doug Platten, the EAA’s touring aircraft maintenance manager, said before four stuffy reporters and photographers boarded.

He’s so strong you can’t talk about his legacy while he’s running – you have to feel the magnitude of his presence as he conveys an attitude to match the legacy of warmakers like Rosie the Riveter.

After sitting in tight spaces, a panel to my right tells the story of Hajira Buser, a riveter known as “Rosie’s Daughter,” who helped restore the B-25 to its former glory. His grandfather was killed in action while a B-25 engineer. They named Buser’s mother “Rosie”.

Pilot Julie Cruze said the sight and flight of a B-25 for surviving World War II veterans today brings “another person” alive, inside of them. But even when they are not present, it is not difficult to imagine them inside the metal tube where men fresh out of high school have spent hours without comfort.

“Taking this flight is a whole new level of understanding, learning about and respecting the greater generation and what happened in WWII,” said pilot Sean Elliott.

Want to fly it?

Iowans can fly the Berlin Express B-25 warbird for the first time in Cedar Rapids on September 16-17. Flights are $400 per person, with a discount for members of the Experimental Aircraft Association.

For more details or to purchase tickets, visit eaa.org.

My flight on Thursday was warm inside the old plane, even on a balmy fall day. I imagined the comfort that was so rare for a handful of children thrown into a war against nations they barely had time to learn in school.

To my left was a socket for plugging in thermal suits. Flying at an average altitude of around 10,000 feet in an unpressurized cabin was one of the only comforts offered on these flying missions over Asia, Europe and the Middle East. That, and oxygen masks.

As the loud engine prelude simmered to a quiet at our cruising level of about 2,500 feet, I peered out the only windows through which you can see anything. With built-in machine guns, they’re big enough so you can see what you’re shooting at.

For veterans like my grandfather, a tail gunner in a B-17 who served missions over Europe and North Africa during the war, this was their first chance to see a bird’s eye view of the earth in the days before commercial air travel.

For others like Earl Mefford, the World War II veteran I met on an honor flight in April, that sight was something they could only see in the military.

And as the fields of Iowa rolled past us in squares and rectangles of various browns and greens, I saw the images they matched the words of America the Beautiful – spacious skies, amber waves of grain and fruity plains.

At that moment, for the first time, I understood why my grandparents always cried while singing this song.

As four reporters squirmed around each other in the tight space with large cameras, trying to catch a glimpse of the sight that impressed their ancestors, it was clear the plane was not built for the size of the average American today.

Even at our cruising level, headwinds made the ride wobbly. You know the feeling when you’re driving fast down a hill – how your stomach drops when you skim over the top of the hill? Imagine this for several minutes.

Other rides are smoother, the crew said. But the sensation was not nauseating for everyone. For me, it was the epitome of excitement.

As we groped for a salvageable sight in the 30,000 pound “jack of all trades” aircraft designed for missions most would rather not relive, the flight showed me that the lessons of history do not can truly be captured only through the eyes of those who have experienced it.

“A lot of these guys went home and forgot about it. Put it behind them,” Platten said.

That’s probably why my grandfather didn’t tell us all the details of the stories that I now find fascinating as an adult.

Platten said the purpose of these flights today, with special exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration for their service, is worth the price of admission for a reason: “to show us what World War II veterans have done for us to be who we are now”.

After the 10 minute flight, I visited the tailgunner’s quarters. I came away with a new sense of gratitude that I never had the chance to express to him in his lifetime.

Story

With unparalleled versatility for its time, the B-25 flew over every theater of war to bomb, ground attack, strafe and drop torpedoes.

At 17,000 horsepower and 30,000 pounds in weight, pilot Elliott said he flew more docile than other warbirds, with a very forgiving nature.

Its deafening volume on takeoff is due to its short exhaust stacks, but it had significant advantages with a range of over 1,000 miles and the ability to take off from an aircraft carrier with only 800 feet of runway.

The B-25 model is perhaps best known for its bombing of Tokyo just four months after Pearl Harbor. Without strategic value, the strike on Japan served as a morale boost in the early years of the war.

This exact plane – the Berlin Express – was named after the 1948 film in which it was featured. Due to its primary role, it is the only modified B-25 with stairs that cascade from the rear exit.

The EAA purchased and restored the aircraft from a collector in 1975. After a stint in a museum, it began touring the country as a “living museum” several years ago.

On-the-go aircraft maintenance manager Doug Platten looks out the hatch during a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” in Cedar Rapids Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Pilots Sean Elliott (left) and Julie Cruze (right) fly the B-25 “Berlin Express” during a media preview flight at Cedar Rapids on Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

The view from the tail gunner’s position during a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” at Cedar Rapids Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

The B-25 “Berlin Express” taxis before a media preview flight at Cedar Rapids on Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

KCRG photographer Matt Wilde watches from a machine gun position during a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” at Cedar Rapids on Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

The view from a machine gun position during a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” at Cedar Rapids Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Dog tags hang from the support structure during a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” in Cedar Rapids Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Dummy bombs lie in the bomb bay before a media preview flight on the B-25 “Berlin Express” at Cedar Rapids on Thursday. The B-25, built in 1943, is offering flights from the eastern Iowa airport this weekend. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

Comments: (319) 398-8340; elijah.decious@thegazette.com


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