EAA’s B-17 bomber calling Austin Straubel home for four days

ASHWAUBENON – The Experimental Aircraft Association’s restored World War II B-17 Flying Fortress is calling Austin Straubel International Airport home for the next four days.

The bomber, Aluminum Overcast, is returning to Jet Air – Signature Select for the second year in a row, giving the public the opportunity to tour the aircraft, as well as go for a ride. It travels across the country for tours and displays.

And a couple of former fly boys, 91-year-old Steve Conway and 96-year-old Bob Schneider are loving every minute of it.

“What years were you over in England?” Conway asked Schneider as the two stood on the tarmac Thursday afternoon.

“43, part of ‘44,” said Schneider, quickly correcting himself. ”No, ‘44, part of ‘45.”

Schneider, who lives in Green Bay, and Conway, who lives in Crandon, are talking B-17-speak like it’s 1944 – not 2014.

“We bombed most the time from 28-31,000 (feet),” said Conway, a former pilot.

“But you could fly up to 35,000 (feet) in a B-17,” countered Schneider.

Schneider served as a bombardier with the 351st bomb group during World War II.

“We had as long as ten-hour missions” over France and Germany, Schneider recalled. “As soon as we got debriefed, we’d go over to the officer’s club. We had a couple, yes.”

He says it was a stressful job – and that his wife didn’t like him trading his stateside bombardier training job for a combat position in the nose of the plane. Between the two jobs, he’s flown a fair share in the plane.

“Probably a thousand times.”

This is why Schneider is choosing to sit this flight out and let his family – which includes Packers head coach Mike McCarthy – take his place.

First class, the B-17 is not

When you take off in the nearly 70-year-old plane and begin gliding up in the sky – today filled with clouds resembling large islands made of cotton balls – the first thing that comes to mind is it is bumpy. And when you begin walking around the cabin, you cannot help but hit your head on the metal fuselage. But watch what you grab, as wires controlling the plane’s wing and tail flaps and rudder are placed in a spot that you could end up steering the plane – not the pilot.

It’s a flying museum, to say the least; an experience that one of Schneider’s three daughters relished.

“My father’s had so many great stories about the war and the missions he flew and just to really experience something he was on, 70 years ago, it’s just amazing,” Kathy Murphy said during the flight.

By the war’s end, there were nearly 13,000 B-17s built. Boeing pumped out about 12 a day. Now there’s only about 50 airframes left in the world, 12 are in flying condition, and five – like Aluminum Overcast – fly regularly.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Haley Olkiewicz, Bob’s great-granddaughter. “It’s very tight up there and a lot of stress was probably on him, for all the responsibilities.”

“It was a miracle almost, to be able to do what I did today, with my family,” said Schneider after they returned, safely, to the ground. “I was happy to be in it, I was also happy to get out of it too.”

And share with them the memories of an era long-gone, but not forgotten.

Public tours and flights

The plane will be on public display from July 18-20, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Jet Air- Signature Select, 1921 Airport Drive. Ground tours cost $10 per person, $20 per family; veterans, active duty military & children 8 years old and younger are free.

Flights booked in advance are $409 for EAA members and $449 for non-EAA members; on-site reservations (based on availability) are $435 and $475.

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