Confehr: Weightless sensation recalled with B-17

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sam Chambliss asked if I'd ever felt weightless.

America's space program had caught up with the Russians - passed them actually at that time - so I thought I knew what he was asking.

I was wrong.

Sam was an adult helping my church youth group. He was also the tow pilot for a soaring club of glider pilots at the county airport in the late '60s. And he was a commercial artist producing magazine and newspaper advertisements.

He took me flying when he towed gliders. After dropping the towrope, he took us up as high as the plane could go, leveled off and eased back on the throttle so the plane stalled. That's when forward motion is too slow to create lift over the wings and the plane falls.

Momentarily, you feel weightless before the weight of the motor pulls the aircraft down forward. Air speed then creates lift and the plane rights itself, giving the pilot time to restart or gun the engine, or bail out.

It was an experience to remember while crawling through the "Yankee Lady" B-17 bomber that was at Lewisburg's Ellington Airport on Monday.

The "Flying Fortress" is perceived as a big plane, but when you're inside, it's clear the aircraft was designed for the job of raining death and destruction, as well as protecting the delivery system.

Machine gun bullets were delivered automatically. Gun turrets swiveled under a cogged wheel almost as wide as the fuselage.

There's a narrow catwalk through a bomb bay that seems too small for bombs of any impact, which, of course, isn't so.

In aviation, some things are not as they seem.

Talented pilots, Sam said, could: stall a plane; place a pencil in the air behind the windshield; and make it seem to float as it fell as fast as the plane.

Flying for fun is one thing. Flying in war is another. Other visitors at the B-17 realized that on Monday.

Now, we'll point out that tomorrow more than 750 members of the Air National Guard's 118th Airlift Wing will be honored for their service at a "Hometown Heroes" award ceremony at Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville.

Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, over 20,000 Tennessee National Guardsmen have been deployed for the war on terrorism, according to Nate Crawford, spokesman for our state's Guard. Tomorrow's program recognizes Airmen for more than 30 consecutive days in Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and contingency operations.

The Guard's planes are so different from B-17s. You can stand up in some of the Guard's planes.

Some of the Guard's planes' equipment is like what Sam advertised. For an institutional ad, he used cubist art to evoke the image of tiny electrical circuitry used in a device that was - and still is for the most part - illegal to use, manufacture and sell. Plans for electronic eavesdropping equipment, however, may be printed and sold, under the First Amendment.

Ain't America great?