WWII bomber B-17 stopping in Southland for a week of demo flights and tours

Jim White squeezes his way from the cockpit into the plane's bomb bay.
Jim White squeezes his way from the cockpit into the plane's bomb bay.
Michael Juliano/KPCC

Ask someone to picture a WWII bomber, and chances are the image they'll conjure the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The iconic model hasn't seen action since WWII but is touring the U.S. this year, stopping off in Torrance's Zamperini Field and then heading to Van Nuys for one weeklong Southland tour starting Friday.

The heavy bomber was used primarily for U.S. bombing campaigns on German military and industrial targets.

This particular plane, named "Aluminum Overcast," will be airport-hopping across the country as part of the Experimental Aircraft Association's "A Salute to Veterans."

"I haven't been in a B-17 since the war was over," said Laurence Stevens, who was part of Thursday's preview tour group. At 19, Stevens served in World War II as a B-17 tail gunner in the 95th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. He completed 35 missions, mostly flying over Europe.

"It's kind of fun to look and see what you did, but I've never really had the desire to come back and fly in one again," Stevens said. "I mean, the war's over, let's get back to basics."

After the war, he served as a fireman for 31 years before settling down in Temple City. He's now 87, and was joined by his son, daughter and granddaughter, who's helping him finish a book.

"It's exciting for us to come out here and see what he used to do," said Roger Stevens, talking about his father, Laurence. "We've heard his stories over the years — they were great bedtimes stories — but it's pretty neat to get a chance to see it all and have him standing here."

The event includes flights in the bomber and guided tours of the aircraft, one of only about a dozen in existence. The tour started at Zamperini Field and includes another local stop at the Van Nuys Airport.

Stepping in the aircraft is like very-brief time travel. Machine guns with long chains of ammo sit in front of the side windows. Everything is military green, with netted seats and leather safety straps, and stacks of bombs sit in the middle of the plane above the bomb bay.

"It reminds me of all the experiences I had 60-odd years ago," said Jim White, who was 20 when he found himself stationed in England. "It's really overwhelming every time I go up in it."

White completed 17 missions before crashing on the 18th and spending over a year in the hospital. The plane will eventually make its way back to its homebase in Wisconsin.