The last time Harold Nabson navigated a Boeing B-17 bomber it was 1944. A second lieutenant and aircraft commander during World War II, he never imagined he’d fly the plane again.
On Monday, he received an early 90th birthday present: a 45-minute flight in the B-17 Aluminum Overcast from Sebring in Central Florida to Miami Executive Airport in Kendall.
“It was a great present for me. The noise from the engines was just fantastic,” said Nabson of Boynton Beach, who trained in a B-17 at Hendricks Army Airfield six miles from Sebring more than 70 years ago. “I can’t even visualize how I did it when I was 19 years old, evidently I did because we flew formations and all that stuff.”
The World War II workhorse — the B-17 Flying Fortress dropped approximately 200,000 more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft during the war — landed gracefully on the runway of the old Tamiami airport in southwest Miami-Dade. It followed a vintage 1928 Ford Tri-Motor, one of the first all-metal commercial airplanes, which touched ground minutes earlier.
The two planes are here for four days this week — Thursday through Sunday. The local chapter of the Experimental Aviation Association is offering aviation buffs 20-minute rides on the planes as part an effort to promote aviation.
“It gives people a chance to not only see history like you would in a museum, but to be part of it, to get in the airplane and fly it,” said Yale Mosk, president of the EAA’s Miami Chapter 620. “You get a good feel of what it’s like.”
The flights will fly approximately 3,000 feet above sea level and carry passengers as far as Deering Bay.
The Tri-Motor, affectionately referred to as the Tin Goose, was the largest civil aircraft in America when it began service on Aug. 2, 1926, with Stout Air Services. Made by the Ford Motor Co., the three-engine aircraft was the first plane designed to carry passengers rather than mail. The plane had 12 to 14 leather seats, a cabin for passengers to walk down the aisle and a rudimentary bathroom (described as “a bucket with a cover’’).
“The Ford Tri-Motor is very significant in aviation because it ushered in a whole new industry,” said Rick Santé, Miami EAA coordinator. “It allowed passenger air transport to be an actual industry.”
And the B-17 is one of only eight planes that were manufactured between 1935 and 1945 that are still airworthy today.
“It’s awesome to be able to fly such a unique piece of history,” said Rex Gray, one of the EAA volunteer B-17 pilots who flew the plane into Kendall. “Somebody was actually in here shooting a gun hoping they were going to come back alive.”
Risking their lives for freedom
To help tell the plane’s history, Nabson and three other World War II Air Force veterans from Miami — Gene Fleming, Roy Schechter and Don Romer — have volunteered to narrate ground tours.
For 93-year-old Schechter, seeing the old bomber stirred up memories. In the summer of 1944, Schechter flew 52 missions on a B-24, a bomber similar to the B-17, as a pilot or co-pilot in the 514th Squadron of the 376th Heavy Bombardment Group.
“You lose friends. When the shells hit the airplane and you’re watching the airplane spin down and you’re saying, ‘Come on, get out, get out, get out!’ and you’re watching parachutes,” he recalled. “Oh, there’s a parachute, oh, there’s another!”
His main job was to keep the plane at the correct altitude and at a constant speed, especially when the bombardier was at work. “I had a responsibility, otherwise the mission was a failure,” Schechter said. “I was proud of myself.”
Romer, 92, a former lieutenant colonel of the Ninth Air Force, trained as an aircraft mechanic in 1943.
“There was a place on the base where you could sign up to go to flying school and I went over there and I said, ‘I’d like to see if I could be a pilot since I’m working on these things,’” Romer said. “I passed all the tests and they decided to make a pilot out of me.”
After getting his pilot’s wings, he flew one mission as an observer over Germany. He and his formation came under fire, but his crew made it back. Romer said the flak felt like “being in a garbage can and somebody throwing small gravel at the outside of it.’’
Nabson trained on the B-17 and B-29 in Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas and Florida.
“Those years there was nothing computerized, the airplanes were not pressurized. That’s why we had oxygen masks because the wall was just a thin piece of metal. It was freezing cold,” Nabson said.
By the time his commander was ready to ship him out, the United States had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan; Nabson was discharged soon after.
Fleming, meanwhile, was based at the Royal Air Force Kings Cliffe station in Northamptonshire, England. His primary job as a P-38 pilot in the 20th Fighter Group of the Eighth Air Force was to escort bombers. He flew 77 missions in a one-man fighter jet with two engines to protect the B-17s and B-24s as they bombed Germany.
“I can visualize the whole thing. You spend most of your time trying to figure how the hell do I get out of this mess. What can I do next?” Fleming said. “It was scary. You could never ease up on the flying.”
If you go
What: Take a ground tour or fly the Boeing B-17 and Ford Tri-Motor.
Ford Tri-Motor ground tours: Free.
Ford Tri-Motor flights: $75 for adult and $50 for kids under 17.
B-17 ground tours: $10 for adult and $20 for families (adult and kids up to 17); free for children under 8 with a paying adult and free for active military members and veterans.
B-17 Flights: Non-EAA members: $449 (in advance) and $475 on site. EAA members: $409 in advance and $435 on site.
When: 9 a.m to 5 p.m. until Sunday.
Where: Landmark Aviation at Miami Executive Airport, 14150 SW 129th St., Miami 33186
For information: Visit http://
www.620.eaachapter.org/events.htm or call 1-800-359-6217
An earlier version of this story had incorrect prices for the ground tours and flights.