Editor's Note: We wrote this story in August 2012, but we wanted to bring it back to you in honor of Wings Over Waukesha this weekend.
Merv Karl flew his 35th and final mission on a B-17 more than 67 years ago. While he’s poked his head in one of the World War II planes since then, he hasn’t been in the air on a B-17 for nearly seven decades.
That is, until Friday, Aug. 24, 2012.
The 90-year-old Park Ridge, IL, resident rode in the B-17Aluminum Overcast at the Friday during a special media flight in preparation for the this weekend.
“It brought back memories,” said Karl after stepping foot off the airplane. “I can’t believe it was that noisy. … The whole thing was pretty much the way I remembered.”
The flight made him reminisce about a low-flying mission over Scotland. He was in his 20s, serving as a pilot with the Eighth Air Force. They were watching a herd of cows and just missed the hill that loomed in front of them.
“They scattered all over the place,” Karl said with a chuckle. “We were paying attention to the animals and not the terrain too much.”
While Friday’s flight was short, Karl is used to much longer trips in the airplane. He sometimes flew the plane for eight or nine hours during his 35 missions throughout Europe, including in Germany, France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Austria. But the trips seemed to last 12 hours because it was so cold, he said.
The pilots on the B-17s had electric suits to keep them warm while flying. However, once the suits had a glitch and Karl had to keep flying in the cold air; it was negative 50 degrees, he said.
“I kept thinking, ‘Are we every going to get out of this?’” Karl said. “I wanted to go home.”
Karl eventually made it home after flying his last mission in April 1945. He kept with him a journal – a log of every single mission he was on. He had the log again when he went on the B-17 flight Friday.
The EAA’s B-17 has a way to make normally quiet World War II veterans talk about their past. Glenn Hill, the plane’s crew chief, has been leading the B-17 flights since his retirement in 2006. He once took a gunner who flew in a B-17 during World War II. The gunner, who was from Rochester, MN, hadn’t been in a B-17 since he had to bail out over France.
After the flight, the gunner sat down and started talking. His family videotaped the whole thing.
“He had never talked about it before,” Hill said.
The story was a remarkable tale as the man shared his final memory of flying in a B-17.
“The last thing he remembered was a foot in the middle of his back and someone kicking him (off the B-17),” Hill said. “He was taking too long.”
Hill previously served in the Navy and eventually retired from his career in aircraft management with United Airlines. The Chicago-area resident enjoys the six weeks a year he spends leading crews who fly the B-17.
“It’s a great old plane,” said a smiling Hill. “The people you meet, it is just amazing.”