I was reading this article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the long-overdue restoration of the prototype Boeing 747, shown above on its rollout day – rolling, yes, but without working engines yet – and got to wondering if the Museum of Flight still had “Bomber” Bob Richardson’s B-17F as well.
I found that they do, which pleased me because I once flew in that B-17 in the days leading up to the 1988 Wings of Eagles Airshow at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York. I was a volunteer and arrived a couple days early, staying in the SUNY Geneseo campus dorms overlooking the NWM field. I got to talking with the museum president, Austin Wadsworth, a couple days before the airshow was to start, and he invited me to join the pre-airshow press flights the following morning. Those flights were to be in two B-17s. I remember my dropped-jaw excitement and exactly what he said as I left: “Get here early.” I needed no extra alarm.
The next morning, I arrived at 6:30am and then proceeded to have the time of my life, flying off the grass airfield in the museum’s B-17G, Fuddy Duddy, up to Buffalo, then swapping between Fuddy Duddy and Bomber Bob’s Kathleen, at that time the only F-model B-17 still flying, as they took groups of reporters up for separate promo flights over Niagara Falls. By the time we returned to Geneseo six or so hours later, I had a grin on my face that lasted for weeks – one that returns as I type this.
When we flew back to Geneseo in the afternoon, I took this photograph from the bombardier’s position in the nose of Kathleen shortly after takeoff as we banked away from Lake Erie:
Richardson had stopped in Geneseo to be at the airshow with Kathleen on his way back to Seattle from the UK after participating in the shooting of David Puttnam’s “Memphis Belle” film (which was way, way over the top but still entertaining). I remember that he died the year after I flew on his aircraft. I didn’t know him well, but from all accounts he was quite a guy. I’m still grateful that he welcomed me on his aircraft that day with only an hour or so’s notice from Wadsworth.
The airshow that followed was, in a word, spectacular, with a total of six B-17s present along with nearly a hundred other mostly WWII-era aircraft. I think it was the largest gathering of B-17s since the production of the “Twelve O’Clock High” film in 1949, and I don’t believe that number has been seen together since, either. Just five B-17s participated in the “Memphis Belle” filming.
I took this shot early on Saturday morning, opening day of the airshow, before too many people spoiled the opportunity. Fuddy Duddy is at the far end, and Kathleen is the only olive drab aircraft:
The following year, I returned with an 8×10 of my six tails shot and presented it to Wadsworth along with my thanks for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Ah…proof it really happened,” he said with a smile.
That next year, the airshow featured five B-17s, a Consolidated B-24, and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster:
I read another pleasant bit of news just now when I searched to verify I was recalling his name correctly: The National Warplane Museum name has returned to Geneseo, with Austin Wadsworth still in the left seat. I figure if anyone could pull off another large flock of B-17s one day, that’s the man right there.
Here’s Bomber Bob Richardson’s B-17F today in the Museum of Flight: