In the summer of 1944, at the height of World War II activity, a young 24 year-old Army Air Corps B-17 mechanic, Technical Sgt. Joseph Kaczor, was instructing in engine mechanics at Kearney Army Airfield in Nebraska. Joseph was pulled from his training work one day and dispatched with a maintenance crew for a field repair of a B-17 that had suffered an engine malfunction and diverted into a Texas landing field.
Arriving at the Texas airfield, TSgt. Kaczor organized the available ground support team, and used a meticulous colored ribbon technique to label every connection as the old engine was removed from the #2 position (inboard on the left wing), and a replacement Wright R-1820 engine was carefully put in place. After a successful ground engine run, TSgt Kaczor was ready to jump back on the shuttle transport aircraft back to Kearney.
However, the B-17 flight crew had other ideas. Even though he didn't have an available parachute, TSgt. Kaczor was added to the B-17 flight crew roster and hustled onboard the recently repaired B-17 for the 700-mile flight back to Kearney, Nebraska. TSgt. Kaczor was given a seat in the forward left nose of the B-17, where he dutifully kept a sharp eye out for any leaks, bumps or bangs from the new #2 engine! Luckily, and proudly for TSgt. Kaczor, the engine performed perfectly, and he even aided the flight crew in correctly landing at Kearney after they made an erroneous first approach to landing at nearby Grand Island Army Airfield.
Fast-forward exactly 70 years - and a now 94-year-old Joseph Kaczor, my father-in-law, and known to all simply as 'Dziadzi' (Polish for Grandfather) is again onboard a B-17! He is again seated on the left side of the legendary B-17, keeping a still sharp eye on the #2 engine! For this B-17 flight, however, the pressure is off, as we are airborne in the well maintained B-17G 'Nine-O-Nine' flown by the Collings Foundation as a living memorial to those that served their country long ago.
Even though I'm a 'fighter-guy' at heart, I had long wanted to experience a flight in the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress. After discussing opportunities with my wife, we thought that a perfect option would be to have Dziadzi visit us in Seattle when the B-17 was in town for its summer memorial flights. Although Seattle summer usually starts after the 4th of July, we took a chance and picked a flight opportunity on 21 June, hoping for decent weather. As luck would have it, or maybe with a bit of added support from above, that day proved to be perfect, with stunning visibility and perfect temperatures in the low 70s.
Dziadzi, my brother-in-law Walt, Andrea, Mary and I arrived at Boeing Field well before our scheduled flight, and took in the enticing view of B-17G 'Nine-O-Nine' through the airport fence. Seeing a B-17 immediately brought a smile and a twinkle to the eyes of my father-in-law. "That's my baby, and she looks really good!"
Once we checked in for the flight, we let the other passengers and the ground crew become aware of Dziadzi's past history and association with the B-17, and he was provided first entry into the aircraft, and a seat at the radio operator's station, while the rest of us strapped in with seat belts on the floor throughout the B-17. All of our smiles increased as soon as the sound of the Wright engines permeated through the cabin, especially the wide smile on the former B-17 engine mechanic. The sounds of the four engines throttling up at the end of the runway was pure music, and we were all surprised at how quickly we turned onto the runway centerline and began our takeoff roll.
As soon as we lifted off, we received a thumbs-up from the onboard crew chief, allowing us to unbelt and start scrambling to the best viewing positions. Dziadzi, Walt and I, all located in the mid-cabin area just behind the bomb bay, were surprised to realize that the large hatch directly above our heads was open to the outside environment, and as we stood fully up, the top of our heads entered the 100+ knot airstream. The view was phenomenal, especially with the gorgeous visibility, as we climbed north past downtown Seattle, with Mt Rainier receding just behind the prominent B-17 tail. The sound was also impressive, but manageable with earplugs that we had brought onboard.
As the other passengers started moving forward from the aft tail section, I headed forward to the cockpit area, squeezing through the small passageway leading through the bomb bay, with only a narrow ledge to balance on, heading through the bomb bay. 'Nine-O-Nine' had three representative 500-pound dummy bombs onboard, which also filled up the narrow passageway. Entering the cockpit, I was greeted with a standup area behind the pilot and co-pilot's seats, and was able to take in the classic bomber's cockpit configuration from the World War II era. Visibility forward and to the side was quite good, and the sight of the two Wright engines on each side humming smoothly along must have been quite reassuring during flights into combat.
Below the cockpit, the nose area opened up to a magnificent forward bay, housing the bombardier's position, with amazing views provided through the large expanses of plexiglass in the nose, plus views of the engines through side windows. I was treated to a glorious view of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains as we turned west, once we were north of downtown Seattle.
I headed back through the bomb bay to central fuselage area, where Dziadzi Kaczor and Walt were peering through the side windows and standing to take in the glorious expansive view through the open upper hatch. The smile on Dziadzi's face stretched from ear to ear, and I received an enthusiastic 'thumbs up' when I asked how his reunion flight was going! I explored the rest of the viewports and sections of the Flying Fortress, and all too soon the crew chief signaled us that it was time for approach and landing. Even seated on the center fuselage floor, I had a great view of the steep circling approach as we swooped down for a smooth landing on runway 31L at Boeing Field. Although we wanted to linger awhile after landing, we hustled off with two engines running so that the next memorial flight could take off. We watched with smiles as the next passengers took off to enjoy their B-17 adventure.
After 'Nine-O-Nine' returned for refueling and a short break, we had another opportunity to walk around and reminisce while crawling all around the B-17. Many other passengers came up to thank Dziadzi Kaczor for his past service, and we engaged with another veteran who had flown B-17 combat missions as a tail gunner, although at 89 years old, Dziadzi jokingly called him 'still a youngster', being only in his 80's! We had fond memories under the #2 engine, recalling the successful engine work 70 years ago on a similar Wright engine.
Dziadzi Kaczor, I salute you and thank you for your service to your country so long ago, and thank you for allowing me to accompany you on your reunion flight with 'your baby', the magnificent B-17!