With its tail wildly swinging back and forth, the glimmering B-17 inched off the ground and toward the heavens.
Uncontrollable grins decorated the faces of the 10 passengers aboard the “Aluminum Overcast,” one of five B-17s in existence still flying and “probably the best one” if you ask crew chief Don Burbank. The four engines roared as the World War II-era bomber climbed to 5,000 feet (10,000 feet if you count the city's elevation).
The “Aluminum Overcast” was the star attraction of Centennial Airport's Aviation Week, which included a luncheon, charity golf tournament and a 1940s-era hangar dance. Proceeds from the week's activities benefitted the Colorado Aviation Business Association Foundation Scholarship Fund and the Centennial Airport Foundation.
The massive B-17 was the talk of the south metro area, capturing the attention of an awestruck public on the ground. Lumbering along at low altitude, the aircraft was a distinct presence in the sky for days as it made loops from Centennial Airport and over Highlands Ranch, Chatfield Reservoir and south Denver before heading back. It could be heard coming and going.
On June 19, vintage planes were displayed and flown to acquaint visitors with history. Carl Williams, of Denver, arrived as a passenger in a two-seat 1929 Alexander Eaglerock biplane he built. It was parked on the runway with placards that explained its past.
“It absolutely changed my life,” he said of the maiden flight in his first Eaglerock, which now hangs in Denver International Airport.
A lucky few got to ride in the B-17, including Denver resident John Kyle, who saw the airplane fly overhead and did a quick online search to determine its origin. He placed a phone call and found out there was one seat still available on the last flight open to the public. Lyle nabbed it and was speeding down the runway hours later.
The B-17, it turns out, plays a part in Lyle's family history. His uncle died at the controls of a B-17 that ran out of gas and crashed after a bombing run over Germany during World War II. The June 19 flight was Lyle's first time flying in a B-17.
One man on the 25-minute flight said he has been waiting since the age of 8 to ride in a B-17. He saw a television news piece on Aviation Week and reserved a spot, knowing it might be a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
Exploring the B-17 mid-flight brought about a childlike sense of wonder for the men in their sixth and seventh decade that crawled on unforgiving hard floors to discover nearly every nuance of the plane. The bombardier section, a window below the cockpit, provided the best views.
The “Aluminum Overcast” came off the assembly line in May 1945 near the end of World War II. It never flew a mission, which is a big reason why it's still in good condition. With proper maintenance, it could remain in the sky for years to come, assuming there is a pilot capable of handling the difficult controls.