What it's like to fly in a WWII bomber

Friday, May 23, 2014 | 6:44 p.m. CDT; updated 10:09 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 23, 2014
One of only three World War II-era Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon long-range patrol bombers waits on the taxiway at Columbia Regional Airport on Friday. The plane, which flew missions in the Pacific, is taking part in the 26th annual Salute to Veterans airshow this weekend.

COLUMBIA — Sunshine glints off the aluminum wings, right into my eye. It's 7:45 a.m., and I'm walking around the outside of a Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon, a World War II long-range anti-submarine patrol bomber.

I duck beneath one of the two propellers and take a look at one of the five .50-caliber machine guns. They're just there for show, though. We won't be doing any strafing runs today.

Owner and co-pilot Dave Hansen walks over and begins briefing me and four other reporters. He details the history of the plane, and how he came to own it.

The plane is here as a part of the 26th annual Memorial Day weekend Salute to Veterans Celebration at the Columbia Regional Airport. It originally flew bombing missions in the Pacific, flying out of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. 

This PV-2 Harpoon is one of only three left flying. When the war ended, the plane was used as a crop duster and a tanker before Hansen bought it. He says that in its glory days in the Pacific, the machine guns could fire for only a few seconds at a time before smoke and noise would render the pilots' senses useless. A door would have to be opened mid-air to vent the smoke.

Pilot Aubie Pearman walks over and gives more instructions, mostly to watch our heads as we enter and walk around the plane. One piece of advice he gives sticks with me.

"The whole point of bringing you guys up here is to give you an experience just like the servicemen would have had," Pearman says. "It wasn't a game for them. It was the real deal."

It's now 8:15 a.m., and I step up into the plane. Pearman was right: I have to crouch to avoid hitting my head, and there are plenty of pipes, equipment and other things hanging from the ceiling, just waiting to give me a goose egg.

Today's flight is full. The plane was designed to hold a crew of four to seven, and with the two pilots and four media members joining me, we've got a full bird. One cameraman will spend the entire flight on top of the plane in the machine gunner's turret, which still rotates. I'm jealous.

After winning a battle with the seat belt, I strap in next to some maps of the Aleutians. To my right is a small windowed area before the cockpit, where another reporter sits tapping on his iPhone. In the cockpit, the pilots begin their preflight checks, tapping on more antiquated instruments.

To my left is another reporter, sitting where a communications officer might have sat during the war. Another cameraman is lying in the back next to a pair of rear-facing .50-cals. Pearman asks us where we want to go.

"Up," I say. We settle on Jefferson City.

Just after 8:30 a.m., the engines roar to life. Hansen signals for us to put our headsets on. We can hear the chatter of the air traffic controller, but the headphones are mostly to protect our ears from the twin engines' ruckus.

The engines grow louder, and the plane begins to shake. Hansen turns and shoots us a thumbs-up. We give one back, and the plane lurches forward as it begins its taxi down the runway.

The takeoff is very similar to any airplane's ascent. The acceleration tries to push me out of my seat, and a slight bump indicates we're fully off the ground.

It's 8:43 a.m. We're airborne.

I strain my neck to look out a window to my right. We're flying low to the ground, compared to commercial flights. Chuckling, Hansen radios to us that we're free to move about the cabin.

I walk up to the cockpit area as one reporter leaves. It's a tight squeeze just to move around, and adding another body to the mix doesn't make it any easier. The pilots are busy checking gauges and controlling the plane. I look out the window as we bank.

The thundering engines prevent the reporters from talking to each other, so I can't ask the guy in the turret what it's like. As I make my way toward the back of the plane, it dips and ascends quickly, and I lurch forward, bracing against the side of the aircraft to keep from falling.

It's a bit unnerving to look through one of the windows along the floor and see the ground whipping past. That's certainly a view you won't get on a commercial flight.

I lie down next to the machine guns in the back and look out the rear windows. There's a beautiful view of the outskirts of Jefferson City, occasionally interrupted by highways where vehicles look like Matchbox cars.

It's warm in the plane but not unbearable. The smell of oil and engine grease begins to permeate the air as I stand up gingerly.

I work my way past the turret and back to my seat. As I do, I notice there's a piece of cloth that once covered a hole in the plane that's flapping wildly as wind rushes in past it. I never did ask if it was supposed to be like that. Hansen signals us to strap in again.

We make our descent, and I can see the runway fast approaching. I ready myself for the landing, but suddenly we bank sharply to the right.

One of the reporters in the back yells out. He didn't get the message to strap in. I can feel the G-force pushing against me, throwing me back into my seat. Eventually, though, we level out, and circle the tarmac to attempt landing again.

Later, I learned the pilots had abandoned the first landing attempt because we were coming in too fast and the landing gear might not have dropped in time. It's something you laugh about later, but in the plane no one was smiling.

Our second landing brings no surprises. In fact, the landing in this 70-year-old plane is smoother than most commercial jet landings I've been a part of.

We taxi, and the engines shut off. My ears are still ringing. It's 9:06 a.m. Everyone else hops off, but I try my luck at the turret.

It's a good thing I didn't pick that seat. My shoulders scrape against the edges as I cram into the tiny bubble. I can barely move my arms to take a couple pictures before I wiggle my way out.

I hop out of the plane, and a truck hooks up to tow the aircraft back to the staging area. Hansen explains that the bomber has no reverse gear.

A volunteer asks me about my flight, and I mention the smooth landing. He tells me not to let Pearman hear that, or it might go to the pilot's head.

I reflect on my 23 minutes in the air as Hansen tells us that the bomber flew missions up to 10 hours during the war. He says the airmen didn't wear flak jackets, and this type of plane wasn't given fire support from fighter aircraft.

Pearman emerges from the plane and asks me how the flight was. I briefly recount the flight, and tell him that my experience doesn't come close to what the men who flew the plane during the war must have gone through.

He laughs, and tells me that it's as close as we're going to get to simulating the real thing. That's probably for the best.

I take one more look at the plane as it's pulled off into the distance. I managed to escape the flight with few bumps or bruises, but my head is still pounding from the noise and the force. I thoroughly enjoyed my flight, but one thing is for sure: It's good to be on land again.

Supervising editor is Seth Klamann.

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