Today, a child's wish is finally granted. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
World War Two was the last
time we felt sure who the bad guys and good guys
were. I was eleven when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
After that, I waited for the seemingly endless war
to reach me. I wanted to be a pilot, so I studied
airplanes and built models. I wanted to fly the
Boeing B-17, the Flying Fortress. It was the best
of the bombers with a range of 1800 miles and a
wingspan near that of a Boeing 727. It went through
seven models and many more jerry-built variations.
By 1943, it was a superb airplane.
By 1951 I was an engineer working on the Boeing
B-52. I never did learn to fly, and now I found
myself helping to build a delivery system for the
atom bomb. My dream had wandered off course.
Now, half a century later, all that comes back. I
was a guest at Galveston's Lone Star Flight Museum
Air Show this afternoon. Plane after plane flew by
the stands -- stunt planes, war planes -- a small
Pitts Special biplane did snap rolls and Immelmann
turns, loops and barrel rolls. When it landed, out
stepped 74-year-old Jack Vaught. Those hair-trigger
reflexes belonged to a man older than any airplane
here! As I chatted with Vaught, the captain of the
B-17 hailed me. It was time to get on board.
I was to ride a B-17 at last. The captain had flown
B-29s during the Korean War. I asked what it had
felt like, going back to the old '17s. He said it
felt much better. He put me in the radio operator's
seat for takeoff. I was about to learn what he
Smooth as glass, the plane left the runway while I
listened to chatter in my earphones. The pilot of a
vintage Japanese Zero overhead asked the show
director if, just this once, he could get to shoot
down the B-17 -- a little reminder that this ride
might've been different in the dark days when I was
The B-17 has a fine solidity. We make a tight turn,
and I look straight down along the wing at the
backs of three cows, 300 feet below. We make a
bombing run over the airfield. Explosions are set
off as we fly by. The enemy fighter attacks us,
then turns on a smoke machine as he banks away.
We've shot him down.
Small wonder. This B-17, Model G, has chin guns,
machine guns on either side of the bombardier, a
top turret, a belly turret, two waist guns, and a
terribly vulnerable tail gunner (whose average
lifetime in actual combat was something like 17
During the war, B-17s brought their crews back with
two engines gone, with the rudder shot away, the
nose blown off, the side laid open. As I threaded
along the airplane's narrow catwalks this
afternoon, my confidence in its sure movements had
the validation of history.
So I finally flew my B-17. They say that youth is
too fine a thing to waste on the young. Well, lucky
for me, this experience was stolen from a child,
and given instead -- to this old man.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds