WWII buff loses Battle of the Bulge at air show

| Thursday, July 9, 2009

In the mid-1990s, I was visiting the Beaver County Air Show, one of many such places I've gone to satisfy a lifetime fascination with World War II.

Both of my parents were involved in the war — my father as an infantryman in one of the first black combat units, and my mother as a civilian worker at Fort Bragg near their North Carolina home.

As a result, I'll accept any chance to see first-hand the places and machinery from the event that most shaped their lives. This curiosity led me to a fully restored Boeing B-17 bomber on display at the Beaver air show.

Another B-17 will be available for viewing Monday afternoon, when the Liberty Belle taxis down the runway at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.

The graceful and awe-inspiring four-engine plane is in town as part of the Liberty Foundation's "Salute To Veterans" tour. People can take brief flights for about $400.

I've been offered a free junket on the Liberty Belle, but because of my experience with WWII aircraft, I declined.

I've known writers who've been beaten while covering riots and journalists who've nearly drowned and been trampled by crowds, but I might be the only one who nearly suffocated because of a penchant for World War II comic books and bacon double-cheeseburgers.

Let me explain.

People were smaller back in the war years of the '40s, and everything from tanks to combat boots to airplanes were built smaller. I'd forgotten this before climbing into the B-17's narrow fuselage, where I managed to wedge my 6'4" and then-290-pound frame belly-first against a large metal bulkhead separating the radio compartment from the bomb bay.

Several kids were crawling around inside the bomber at the same time, and they seemed to think my strangled calls for help were part of a mock-bombing drill.

One of the plane's restorers arrived and tried shoving my body into the cockpit, but like one of those unexploded bombs in "12 O'Clock High," neither gravity nor force worked.

The hotter and more uncomfortable I became, the more I panicked.

I later found myself laughing at the irony that my father survived WWII, and I might have perished trying to crawl through one of its planes.

Eventually, I managed to sweat enough that I slid down the aluminum wall like a water-logged squeegee. I swore then to limit my WWII hobby to books and films.

You, on the other hand, can take your chances Monday.

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