Max Maxfield sometimes goes off-topic on this site. He’s a master raconteur, and if he can get away with the occasional non-sequitur piece, well, why can’t I?
My dad has had an interesting life. He had hoped to run a diner after high school, but a teacher recognized his brilliance and more or less forced him to take an MIT scholarship exam. He won, but had to put school aside for a stint in the Navy during World War II. Before he entered the service his ship had been hit by two kamikazes at Okinawa, resulting in 100 feet of the bow being blown off, and 57 dead sailors. The shipmates gathered annually for reunions till there were few left, and as they became more infirm my wife and I helped out. The tales told by some of the survivors of the attack still leave my blood cold.
He did go to MIT and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. During the 50s he designed aircraft for Grumman, then moved into the space business. He and another engineer, Bob, who is still one of my life-long friends, invented the lunar module. Grumman did lose the initial bid on that contract, only to win after NASA re-competed it.
(Bob’s son and I have been best friends for over half a century, started a business together, and have sailed tens of thousands of miles across oceans in company. Now one of his sons and mine are best friends. His son recently earned a PhD in physics, and mine will have his at the end of this month. We’re going to New Orleans to witness Graham’s defense of his dissertation, and my friend is coming with us. Lifelong friendships bind us in wonderful ways.)
Post-retirement my dad nurtured his love of aviation by learning to soar, and then becoming a docent at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, eventually becoming lead docent at that institution’s facility near Dulles airport (a must-see for any engineer). Once I visited the Computer History Museum with noted embedded engineer Steve Leibson, then a docent there. I asked how long the tour would take; he said for normal people an hour, for us it would be three. And so it was on tours at Air & Space; we’d spend three to four hours going over the history of each artifact.
A few years ago my dad treated me to a ride on a 1920s Ford Trimotor aircraft out of Maryland’s Frederick Airport. We had a fabulous half-hour ride. It was interesting that prior to starting the engines a crew member had a fire extinguisher at the ready!
At nearly 88 now my dad’s activities are increasingly restricted and his docent days are done. Alzheimer’s haunts his side of the family and is now taking its toll on him. He has good days, and those that are less than wonderful. Yesterday’s memories are sometimes distant but he remembers every rivet that he designed on the F9-F’s control surfaces 60 years ago.
It turns out that the Collings Foundation was flying their P-51, B-25, B-24, and B-17 into our local Carroll County Regional Airport this past weekend. These flew during the war and are somehow kept in flying condition. Five years ago we took both of my folks to see these planes when they flew into the same airport, which my dad really enjoyed.
Prior to this week’s arrival of these ancient machines I told my wife I wanted to buy my dad and me a ride on the B-24, thinking that this might be the last time he could manage it, both physically and mentally. Each half-hour ride cost more than a round-trip to California, but one sees the fading light in a loved one’s eyes and looks for a way to spark a bit of excitement. Marybeth is truly an angel and supports all of my zaniness. My dad was thrilled by the prospect and was eager to go.
Friday, our flight day, came and the Foundation called. The B-24 was stuck in Pennsylvania needing a cylinder replacement. The plane wouldn’t arrive till Saturday, but the rest were flying in that afternoon. Our flight was therefore delayed a day. On a whim I called my friend of so many years, and we and Marybeth went to the airport to see these amazing machines’ thundering arrival.
Saturday the Foundation called again. The B-24 was still down but seats were available on the B-17. So that day we met my folks at the airport and whiled away an hour or two watching the P-51 take people up at $2500 a pop, and the B-25 doing so at a much more reasonable cost. Finally we were called and the two of us boarded the B-17. Spartan seats on the floor meant our feet were propped on the opposite fuselage, but the rules were lax. Once up in the air we 8 passengers were free to roam all over the aircraft. The pilots flew; the young guide was immersed in his cell phone. Everyone else had enormous smiles.
The B-17 starting her engines in a cloud of smoke
Four 1200 HP Wright turbocharged engines made conversation impossible. I can’t imagine those young men of the 1940s on missions lasting 8 hours or more. We never got above 1500 feet; they flew in an unheated aircraft high over Europe.
There was no meal service.
A portion of the roof was open, and we both stuck our heads out for a view. One passenger lost his hat in the slipstream.
A hot air balloon appeared; we flew slightly to the left and below it. I can’t imagine what those people were thinking as a WWII-era 4-engine bomber approached!
The B-17 was a large airplane in its day but is small inside. To get to the nose turret one must crawl on hands and knees under the pilots. But the view was incredible. My dad couldn’t manage that, but was glued to the central windows and peered out through the open roof.
A view from the nose turret
Everything is mechanical; you could watch the control wires move as the pilots operated the rudder and elevators. The only embedded gear were the fairly-modern radios.
We had to replace an old iPad this week. Old, meaning a manufacturing date a half-dozen years ago. This B-17 first flew 70 years ago and still going strong. I was told it costs about $7000 per hour to keep her flying and the spark plugs, all 112 of them, have to be changed every 6 flight hours.
It was an experience I’ll never forget, and, more importantly, one my dad remains very excited about. I doubt we’ll get to share another plane ride of any sort (they have stopped traveling) so am glad he could part from aviation on such a high note.
Marybeth’s parents passed on decades ago. She is tormented by the conversations she wished for and now can never have. If yours are still around, make time for them. For time is not our friend.
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at . His website is .