Flying Fortress flight offers reporter a taste of time travel
LONDONDERRY — There's no graceful way to board a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress.
That was the first thing I learned Monday morning as I launched my 38-year-old self through the narrow entryway, crawling on my hands and knees through the inner passageway of the rickety World War II aircraft.
As part of the Collings Foundation's "Wings of Freedom" tour, civilians are afforded the rare opportunity to experience history in flight.
Though he celebrated his 92nd birthday last month, Pembroke resident Robert Fortnam hopped inside like he's done it hundreds of times before, which he has.
Barely a month after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Fortnam, then 19, enlisted in the US Air Force.
In just under two years, Fortnam was serving on the 305th Bomb Group . 365th Squadron. As fate would have it, the young man who grew up idolizing Charles Lindbergh found himself in the co-pilot's seat of a B-17.
With Pilot Wallace E. Emmert at the helm, the crew embarked on their second combat mission in early October 1943, making their way toward Bremen, Germany. Fortnam's plane was attacked by enemy fighters, leaving Emmert with serious gunshot wounds to the abdomen.
Fortnam's pale blue eyes glistened as he recalled that fateful moment.
"I looked out the window and saw one of the engines was on fire and Wally was unconscious," he said. "That's when I stepped in to pilot that flight."
Fortnam readied his crew for an emergency landing on a small land strip between Holland's Zuider Zee River and a parallel canal.
"It was a perfect landing," he said.
The entire crew landed safely and eluded capture for two days. On the third day, their luck ran out.
Fortnam spent the following 16 months as a prisoner of war in the Stalag Luft 3 prison camp before being piled with countless other prisoners onto a railway box car to another camp in the southwestern portion of the war-torn nation. He'd remain there for another several months. During his internment, the retired US Air Force Colonel said he kept a photo of his future wife, Marion, close to his heart at all times.
He whiled away many empty hours writing and drawing in a cloth-bound journal given to him by a member of the Canadian Young Men's Christian Association, pasting newspaper clippings of German propaganda on the pages with paste made from the packets of powdered milk in his food rations.
He'd carry that book with him throughout many of life's journeys — on the April day in 1945 when the American prisoners were liberated by Patton's Third Army — and, on Monday when he boarded an aircraft that's delicately woven into his life's tapestry.
Seated on a stool by the aircraft radio, Fortnam was undaunted by the thunderous roar of the bomber's four engines and the deafening sounds of other aircraft accelerating on the runway at Worcester Regional Airport.
About 10 feet away, I crouched on the floor, my back resting against the pilot's seat and a frayed canvas seatbelt stretched across my lap as we made our descent at 3,000 feet.
As we hovered over Massachusetts and New Hampshire en route to the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, I ducked down into the rabbit hole and perched on the seat directly below the cockpit.
A lifelong flight instructor who taught all three of his sons how to navigate a plane, these are the moments Fortnam lives for, though he admits his younger self often took those moments for granted.
"You didn't think about it then," he said. "I was just doing my job."
The Colling's Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour continues today and Wednesday at the Aviation Museum of NH, located at 27 Navigator Road. Admission, which includes tours of all aircraft, is $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. The exhibit is open Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon. Flights on the B-17 or B-24 are $425 per person. For more information visit www.collingsfoundation.org.