"Aluminum Overcast" Avstry #14

Dick Lewis, tells us the history of the EAA's B-17 Aluminum Overcast, and how you could sit in the best seat in the house.

Published Date: Mon, 31 Dec 2012

Direct link to m4a audio file of show. Recommended (right-click to download/save).

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Show Notes

J.R. Warmkessel: Welcome Dick, how are you doing today?

Dick Lewis: I'm doing fine, except for the rain.

J.R. Warmkessel: Well, we're here at Oshkosh 2012 where it's gone from hot to wet.

Dick Lewis: That's correct.

J.R. Warmkessel: But I'm really fortunate to get to talk to you today. We are taking an opportunity to focus on the EAA's B117 Aluminum Overcraft aircraft, and I can't think of anyone who I'd prefer to talk to than you, and you'll maybe give us a little of the story of the airplane and give us the background.

Dick Lewis: Ok. The RB17 was born on May 18 of 197- 1945, excuse me, in Burbank California at Vega aircraft. there were three places on the West Coast that built B17s. Vega Aircraft in Burbank, Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, and of course Bowing in Seattle Washington.

J.R. Warmkessel: And Vega was a locking company, weren't they?

Dick Lewis: Yeah, Vega was bought by Locking later on. Originally, our plate on the instrument panel just says Vega Aircraft.

J.R. Warmkessel: Ok.

Dick Lewis: It was delivered May 18 1945, and the war in Germany had ended. B29 was doing the flight in the South Pacific, so the B17 was no longer needed. It was declared surplus and shipped to a storage depot in Altis, Oklahoma where it was sitting there for a couple of years. 1947, they had a sale, and the gentleman came in there and bought the B17 brand new, very little time on the engines for $750 in 1947 with full fuel tanks. He didn't keep it very long. In July, he sold it to a person in Tulsa, Oklahoma from Universal Aviation, and he in turn sold it in August to another guy. Well, he in turn sold it to a place in Veryl Beach, Florida which was an export-import business, and they converted the airplane to a cargo plane, and he shipped dress beef and live poultry to the central American states for a while as a cargo hauler. Then in June of 1949, he sold it to Aero services for $28,000, and they converted it to a high altitude aerial mapping platform, and they did aerial mapping for the next ten years in the mid east and far east, Libya, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, all those places, Egypt, and after that the ten years that were up, in 2962 the airplane was resold to a place in Tolsa, Alabama who the gentleman bought two other B17s, and he converted them to spray planes for fire ant control. They used crushed up corn cobs mixed with poison that were augered out over the wings, and they flew over fire ant colonies trying to eradicate them. Well, that didn't work. And the gentleman went out of business, and he had three B17s, so he put them up for sale. The owner of the B17 that donated it to the EAA, Dr. Bill Harisson from Tolsa Oklahoma, he and a group of fellows got together and they bought one of the airplanes, and it happened to be the airplane the EAA has, and he paid $75000 for it. So it went from $750 to $75000. Of course, it's worth a lot more now. They had a group that was called B17s Around the World. They were going to restore the airplane to its original convent conditions, and they were going to start touring it. But at the time, it got to be very expensive Fuel prices went up just as in th 70s. And they just decided that they could not afford to do this. So in March of 81, they donated the airplane to the EAA, and the EAA took it, and it was a shell. It had no turrets, no guns. The inside of it was, some of the bulk heads were missing. And the EAA took it over, and they planned on restoring it. So in the process of restoration from 1981, it spent some time in the museum on display, and little by little it was restored back to about 95% of the combat condition, and in 1994, it was put out on national tour. And it visits various locations and states where EAA chapters sponsor their men and provide the man power for our ground tours and for our flights and for security. So, that's the history of the airplant. It's been working ever since it was born except for a year it sat on the desert. And it's got a lot of hours on the airframe. I don't know how many, but it's very many. The engines have been replaced several times. Mechanical stuff has been replaced, and it's been a labor of love for everybody, and the EAA is keeping it going. Ok. The revenue generated from our flights helps to keep the airplane in the air. It's $3500 to $4000 an hour to fly that airplane, and AF gas is very expensive now. And the price of everything is expensive, so it keeps a lot of people that fly the airplane, it keeps the thing going in the air. And we're very happy to continue this presses on and we do it at Air Venture and we do it around the country. We've gone about 9 months out of the year. The rest of the time, the airplane is hanguered and the Kermit Weeks Flight Research Center, which is in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and it's maintained there and ready to get going on the next Spring tour.

J.R. Warmkessel: Tell us a little bit about the aircraft. What kind of engines does the aircraft have?

Dick Lewis: There are four engines on the aircraft. Their greatest rate 1820. Engines, they're nine cylinder radial engines, very reliable. The engines are very reliable. We do have mechanical problems occasionally, and we carry a whole trailer full of maintenance items, parts. We can change cylinders out on the road. We cannot change an engine, but we can find a place that will give us the equipment, and then we would ship the engine out there, and we can't do it right on the road, but we can do it in a facility that allows us to use their equipment.

J.R. Warmkessel: And how much aviation fuel does the aircraft carry?

Dick Lewis: Ok. the fuel tanks will hold 1700 gallons, down from the 2200 gallons that originally they had, because there were tanks in the ends of the wings called Tokyo tanks that had been removed. We don't need the extra weight of the extra fuel because we don't fly any great distances. So 1700 gallons, we make sure there's a minimum of 1000 gallons on when we go cross country, and when we fill up, normally we take 6-800 gallons on a refueling job. At times, $6.70 or whatever. it's a very expensive proposition to keep that airplane flying

J.R. Warmkessel: When you're cruising from stop to stop, how much fuel are you burning?

Dick Lewis: 150-200 gallons and hour, depending on the power settings.

J.R. Warmkessel: Of course. I heard recently that the aircraft had a little bit of hail damage. Can you maybe tell us what happened?

Dick Lewis: it was in Denver at Sentenial airport, and a surprise hailstorm came up. It was not predicted. And we had some ping pong ball sized hail, and it damaged the fabric control services, the horizontal control. The elevators and the ailerons all had holes in them. We had a complete set of elevators and ailerons back at our maintenance center in Oshkosh all ready to go, a separate set, and they were put on a flat bed and hauled out to Denver overnight, and a couple of our mechanics went a long, and it didn't take long. And they replaced them and they brought the damaged ones back to Oshkosh.

J.R. Warmkessel: And those are all fabric?

Dick Lewis: They're all fabric covered.

J.R. Warmkessel: And they're just going to recover them?

Dick Lewis: They'll recover them and keep them in storage in case something like that happens again.

J.R. Warmkessel: That's fantastic. I also saw on the EAA website a video about the work that EAA did to restore the turret in the B17, the full-

Dick Lewis: The ball turret on the bottom of the aircraft which is very uncomfortable to sit in if you're not a very small statured person has 250 caliber guns, and when we got the airplane, it didn't even have a turret on it. So we procured a ball turret and installed it, but it wasn't operational, and a year ago or so, a group of guys got together. They got the parts they needed, and they spent a year restoring it, and now it's operational. It can be operated electrically from inside the airplane.

J.R. Warmkessel: I think it's a real testament to the EEA in comminsioning you and volunteers Phil, that, you know, the aircraft spends essentially all summer going from state to state giving tours, ground exhibits, showing the aircraft. And then in the wintertime, when the flying's not so good, you have a whole another team of people that maintain the aircraft and keep it in a really top-notch condition.

Dick Lewis: That's correct, and we're very grateful for our volunteers. Everybody out on tour is a volunteer. Nobody gets a salary. And they put in a weekend or two weekends, or two weeks at a time, and then we switch off. And we have several pilots and we have many mechanics that go along, and my position would be a tour coordinator that handles all the flight operations, the money handling, the merchandise and whatnot.

J.R. Warmkessel: When it's on the ground, people can come see a tour of that aircraft. Can you mayeb tell us a little bit about that?

Dick Lewis: When we're done with our flights in the morning and part way through the afternoon, then we set the airplane up for ground tours, and people can climb up to the airplane. They can go through the nose hatch and go up into the nose and back up into the cockpit and out the back door. And our local EAA chapters provide all man-power for the security there, checking out to see that they've paid their admission. there is a charge. It's $10 for an adult and $20 for a family. But again, that keeps the airplane going, and they can spend as much time as they want inside the aircraft.

J.R. Warmkessel: They really get a feel of the history.

Dick Lewis: That's correct.

J.R. Warmkessel: And I also understand that veterans, that you wave the charge for veterans.

Dick Lewis: Veterans, any veterans. Current or retired, that's the word I'm looking for, retired like I am, are free to go through there.

J.R. Warmkessel: If one was struck to take a flight in your aircraft, you said there are ten seats?

Dick Lewis: There are ten seats available. there are bench seats spread throughout the aircraft.

J.R. Warmkessel: Tell us about the seats.

Dick Lewis: Well, people want to know if they can reserve a seat. They're not in the seat long enough to even worry about it because the rules are that we have to be belted in on takeoff and landing, but after that, you can get up and move around the aircraft. You can get up and you can go up into the nose, sit in the bombadiers seat, best seat in the house when you're flying in the sky, walk on the flight deck and watch the pilots fly the airplane and go in the waste area, which is the biggest area that you can be in where the two waste gunners were. You can enter the tail section or the ball turret from inside the airplane.

J.R. Warmkessel: Tell us a little bit about the experience when someone decides they want to go on a flight. Walk through what happens.

Dick Lewis: Ok. Somebody comes up and say I want to fly. We say Ok, here is what we have available. We have so many seats on this time slot, so many seats on this time slot. Ok, fly there. So then we fill out an application form. We take a payment, we take a credit card, we take cash. We have an easy pay system which divides it up into four payments, and once they've done that, they sign a waiver. We give them a briefing card to read, a boarding pass to get on the airplane with, and when they get to their flight, the crew chief briefs them again orally about the same thing that's on the sheet we give.

J.R. Warmkessel: So what kind of thing is in that preflight briefing?

Dick Lewis: Well it tells them well, this is not a commercial airline. It's bumpy when you're riding sometimes. You have to watch your head and your elbows, that you're not drawing blood. You have ear plugs available if you need them because it's very noisy inside the airplane. there's no padding. And just the general safety procedures of being very careful how you walk through the airplane.

J.R. Warmkessel: I mean, this is a 60 year old aircraft maybe?

Dick Lewis: 1945

J.R. Warmkessel: So it's not a comfortable luxury machine. This is a machine built for war.

Dick Lewis: Last year it was 75 years old from its first invention in 1935. First prototype came off the assembly line in Seattle, Bowing, in 1935, same year the DC3 was developed. And it was an early model of the B17, and there were many types of B17s that were built. They had an A model, a B model, C model, D.

J.R. Warmkessel: So walk us through that. What happened with the, obviously it was the first model.

Dick Lewis: It was the YB17

J.R. Warmkessel: That was the prototype.

Dick Lewis: And it had a different tail configuration than we have on our later models. The G model is the last model built. That's what ours is. The F model, which was the model before that, was like the Memphis Bell was. That was the F model of B17. It did not have a Chine Turret on it. The Bomadier had a gun sticking out the front of his plexiglass bubble, and when the G model and a very few late model F models, the chin turret was installed, and that was operated by the bomadier from inside the airplane.

J.R. Warmkessel: What was the need for that chin turret?

Dick Lewis: Well, frontal protection. the German fighter pilots figured out the best way to attack was front or back, mainly the back. the tail runner was the most shot person in the airplane because they would come up behind, and if they shoot out the tail gunner, then there was a window there they could stay in and not be in anybody else's gun sights, and then they could just rake and shoot down the airplane.

J.R. Warmkessel: And these aircraft would sit in tight formation.

Dick Lewis: yeah. the aircraft would sit in tight formation. And one airplane would be flying between them and there was a lot of friendly fire between airplanes of B17s because they were shooting between themselves, and they were shooting at other airplanes.

Warmkessel: Well, the B17 was well-known as one of the favorite aircrafts of the pilot of that era, just for its durability and sort of ruggedness and survivability.

Dick Lewis: Everybody has their option, whether they want a B24 or they want a B17. B24 was faster, carried a bigger bombload, but it was not as stable as the B17. If that got hit by shrapnel or enemy fire, it went down more often than a B17. A B17 could take a lot of punishment, lots of wholes, lots of parts missing off the tail and it would still make it back.

Warmkessel: Yeah. It was a tough old bird. And we know after 60 years of touring every year, you know, since you guys got it restored, it’s done a good job for ya.

Dick Lewis: Absolutely, and we hope it keeps going. A lot of folks say well, what happens if it has an accident? We’re going to lose it. Let’s put it back in the museum. More people have seen this in the years that it’s been touring than could ever have seen it in our museum. And more people have flown in it, and the flight experience is what you want.

Warmkessel: I’ve always had a special place in my heart in my aircraft that, they’re working aircraft that fly, take people on tours, and really allow you the experience of what it was really like.

Dick Lewis: People say well, that airplane is 60 some years old. How safe is that? And I said well, if you look around, there are a lot of aircraft a lot older than that that are still flying. And I said the flight dynamics of an airplane will not change because it ages. I said if it’s maintained and well taken care of, it’s going to fly forever.

Warmkessel: I remember my first Oshkosh which was in 2007, and the B17 was doing overflights, and a wing of RVs formed up off of its lead, and the sky darkened as the aircraft remained over the exhibit hall. It was just really something I will never forget.

Dick Lewis: The name of the airplane is the Aluminum Overcast, and it got its name from its previous owner Bill Harrison who was doing a photoshoot, and he had a photoplane underneath the aircraft flying very close to it. And the pilot remarked, well it’s like flying in an aluminum overcast, and he said that’s a good name. So he named it and it stuck.

Warmkessel: And it stuck. That’s good. Now, if people wanted to take a ride or to tour the aircraft when you’re in town, how would they get information about how to do that?

Dick Lewis: We have a website:, and it has our flight tour on it. It has all the information about the airplane, including prices, and you can pre-book if you know where you’re going to have the airplane, they can pre-book a flight, and it’s cheaper by $25 or $30 than if you walk up during the day that it’s there, so it’s all on our website

Warmkessel: And we’ll link to your website from our website, so if any of our listeners would like to get more information, they can just take it out on Well thank you so much for your time, Dick. It’s been absolutely an honor. I love your aircraft and I hope for many years to come.

Dick Lewis: Well I do too.

Warmkessel: Thank you so much.

Dick Lewis: Thank you.

Direct link to mp3 audio file of show (right-click to download/save).

Show Notes