World War II Era "Flying Fortress" Takes Veteran Navigator For A Ride

Jun 24, 2019

Wearing a baseball cap from the 401st Bomb Group, World War II veteran James Sassaman sat in the shadow of a refurbished B-17 bomber and remembered what it was like to fly over Europe as a navigator in 1944.

“Every mission you’d be scared,” he said. “You’d always get a few holes in your airplane from being shot at.”

James Sassaman, 94, of Ames served as a navigator on a B-17 during World War II.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR

Sassaman, who lives in Ames, survived nearly three dozen missions in 1944 and recently his great-nephew drove him to the Ankeny Regional Airport where the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) brought its B-17 for a visit. It's not the exact plane Sassaman served on, but it's the same model.

The aircraft has 13 machine guns plus a bomb bay and earned the nickname “Flying Fortress” after an early demonstration flight. Originally built in the 1930s, this one has had some upgrades but is generally meant to look and operate like it did during the war.

“The airplane is challenging to fly,” said pilot Rick Fernalld, who has spent 50 years flying a variety of military and civilian planes. Now retired from commercial aviation, Fernalld is a volunteer with the EAA. “1935 technology. It’s very heavy on the flight controls. There’s no boost on any control surface.”

Volunteer pilot Rick Fernalld calls the B-17 a "beast" because of how challenging it is to fly.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR

Before the flight, Fernalld and other volunteers go over the safety instructions, including what is and isn’t available to passengers. The tail gunner position, for example, is no longer accessible from the body of the plane. A manikin dressed in a flight suit and goggles sits permanently in the tail, visible to people checking out the plane.

Because military aircraft are not intended to carry civilian passengers, the EAA has a special exemption to allow it to offer flights like this one. Sassaman was given priority boarding. Handing off his cane, he stepped up a short ladder, asking for a little boost to get himself up and over the threshold. Once seated and buckled, with his cane back in his hand, Sassaman had a smile on his face.

The plane is loud, with just a handful of seats, some made of strong webbing hanging from the frame. The seatbelts have interlocking buckles and robust waist bands, making them feel much more substantial than what’s on a typical commercial plane today. But the flight crew encouraged everyone to unbuckle and walk around as soon as the plane was airborne.

Machine guns point out the windows, which are staggered on either side of the plane. Munitions boxes now contain barf bags and ear plugs, but belts of bullets are still set up for effect. Walking toward the cockpit from the back, there is a radio space with 1940s-era headphones and other gear. Other equipment also shows how primitive the technology now seems.

A manikin sits in the tail gunner position. Pilot Rick Fernalld said his father was a tail gunner on a B-17.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR

A narrow bridge allows passage over the bomb bay and into the nose of the plane, which has two levels. The cockpit above offers a few concessions to modernity. Fernalld says an iPad lets the pilot keep up with weather and area air traffic, but for the most part the plane has the functionality it was built with.

“I refer to her as the beast,” he said, “because she’s always shopping to try to get the best of you.”

Below the cockpit is the nose gunner, where a crew member would manage two machine guns. Behind the bomb bay and under the plane is the belly turret, another location where a crew member would handle a weapon, though in this case from a rather cramped position. The belly turret is also not accessible to visitors, though from outside the plane visitors can see the bubble-like space—and the view that crew member had of the bomb bay.

The plane resembles what it looked like during the war, such as this equipment in the radio room.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR

On this flight, Fernalld lands the plane as gently as any passenger would want, though the creaks and squeaks as it slows and turns reveal the aging mechanics.

After the plane is back on the ground and most people have exited, Sassaman has a chance to explore the nose. This is the second time he’s come to see the plane and he climbed out of the cockpit to applause from a handful of onlookers, including Ken Miller of Marshalltown, Sassaman’s great-nephew. This was the first time Miller flew in the bomber.

“I knocked on the wall and it wouldn’t take much flack to… you can see where the flack could really do some damage,” Miller said. He said his great-uncle doesn’t talk about the war much, but was really happy to take the flight on this day. And so was Miller.

“It was awesome,” Miller said. “Great day. Glad I did it.”

The B-17 will be in Mason City next weekend.

A view from the body of the plane, above Ankeny.
Credit Amy Mayer / IPR