DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
UPDATE: The Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force announced that due to a maintenance task that’s taking longer than expected, the B-17 Flying Fortress “Texas Raiders” will not be attending the Bluebonnet Airshow in Burnet on April 25. According to the group’s Facebook page, the organization hopes to schedule a weekend later this summer in Burnet so people who were looking forward to seeing and even flying in the B-17 can have that opportunity.
Despite the B-17 not making the trip, the Bluebonnet Airshow will still have numerous aircraft and events.
BURNET — It was one of the most dangerous flying missions during World War II — daylight bombing raids on Germany and other Axis-held territories. The plane of choice during some of these missions was the B-17 Flying Fortress.
Carrying up to 20,000 pounds of bombs and armed with a dozen or so .50-caliber machine guns, the B-17 was a formidable weapon. It’s no wonder the Germans sent up some of their best pilots to intercept the waves of Flying Fortresses.
“The B-17 was one of the critical weapons in World War II, more so in Europe than the Pacific,” said Nancy Kwiecien of the Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. “Typically, the B-17s took the daytime bombing runs with the British Lancasters taking the night runs.”
During World War II, U.S. factories turned out more than 12,700 of the mighty B-17s. Of those, only nine are known to still be in flying condition. One of those, the “Texas Raiders,” will be participating in the 2015 Bluebonnet Airshow from noon-4 p.m. April 25 at the Burnet Municipal Airport, 2302 S. Water (U.S. 281).
“This is one of the most accurately restored B-17s around,” Kwiecien said. “It has the 13 .50-caliber machine guns. It has a period-specific radio operator area. It really shows what the B-17s of WWII looked like.”
During the early years of the war, the German Luftwaffe took a terrible toll on the B-17 squadrons and crews.
“Early on in WWII, it was extremely dangerous to go on one of the daylight bombing runs because we still hadn’t really figured out the best tactics,” Kwiecien said. “They were going over with no fighter escorts.”
Eventually, fighters such as the P-51 Mustang began escorting bombers on their runs, which definitely reduced the danger, but it was still an extremely risky trip.
“They were such courageous men,” Kwiecien said of the pilots who flew the bombers and fighter escorts.
The Bluebonnet Airshow will reunite one of those B-17 pilots with a Flying Fortress.
Samuel Smith of Fredericksburg was a young man during World War II. He also flew a B-17, the “Jackie,” for 24 missions over Europe, including one over Hopsten, Germany, that was among the roughest.
Smith and members of the 303rd Bombardment Group, called “Hells Angels,” found a nasty welcome over the town as they flew into anti-aircraft fire. At one point, rounds knocked out all of his B-17’s glass on one side, though no men were injured. Upon returning to their base in Scotland, Smith was landing the plane when it jerked hard to the right. The German assault had damaged his plane’s gear and undercarriage.
If Smith let the plane land like this, he risked crashing hard and possibly shutting down the runway. Instead, using the B-17’s brakes and some incredible skills, Smith guided the airplane off the runway and into the grass. Everyone on the plane walked away.
The maneuver earned Smith the Distinguished Flying Cross, though because his commander at the time didn’t sign off on the honor, the military didn’t award the medal until 2012. Smith was 88 when he finally received it.
“We’re just so excited that Col. Smith is going to be there,” Kwiecien said.
Along with Smith, organizers are expecting five P-51 Mustang pilots at the show.
“It’s so important we remember these men and honor them for what they did,” she added.
As the B-17 is a flying craft, it will participate in the air show, but visitors can tour the craft for a nominal fee.
“What’s so wonderful about having planes like this one is the aspect of truly being able to put your hands on history,” Kwiecien said. “Kids can walk through the plane and put their hands on the .50 cals, which is something they love to do. These planes really bring history to life.”
The Gulf Coast squadron even offers rides in the B-17 “Texas Raiders” for a fee. Kwiecien said people can schedule a ride while it’s in Burnet on April 24-25 by going to www.b17texasraiders.org or calling 1-855-359-2217.
“We just want people to come out to the show and just see this planes and remember their history,” she said. “Right now, we’re really losing our connection with WWII history. These planes and the air shows are ways to keep those connections.”