James Holbrook can recall a particularly bumpy landing — one where the B-17 Flying Fortress on which he was a gunner was struck by enemy fire and had to crash-land in a field.
It was one of his final missions, the 28th or 29th of 31 total, as the 90-year-old Central Point resident recalls. The aircraft he served on was making a bombing run to Vienna, Austria. World War II was winding down, and it looked like the flight would be mostly uninterrupted.
Then came a direct hit that damaged two engines. The plane crash-landed in an open field about three miles from its destination. No one was seriously hurt.
"I don't know where the heck that came from. I think it was the only shots fired all day," Holbrook said Monday.
Holbrook's 20-minute jaunt in the skies over the Rogue Valley Monday was a bit more relaxed, thanks to the Commemorative Air Force in Arizona and a still-operational B-17G named Sentimental Journey. The aircraft will be available for tours at the airport's Jet Center facility, 5000 Cirrus Drive, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, Sept. 15-20. The tours cost $5 per person for adults, $3 per child, or $10 for a family. Flights are available for $425 per person.
"This was kind of extravagant," Holbrook said. "Usually they just have an airplane shell and nothing else, and you got in it. You don't have the comforts that you have there now. It's a luxury ride."
By any measure, the Sentimental Journey is a rarity, with no more than a dozen still in operation worldwide. That's down from the original 12,731 that were built.
"We're looking at about 10 to 12 that are currently able to fly," said Andrew Stemple, Sentimental Journey volunteer flight load master.
Each plane is about 74 feet long and has a wingspan of about 103 feet. It weighs 36,000 pounds and was designed to carry 6,000 pounds of bombs. Its flight range is about 1,700 miles.
Sentimental Journey was built in November 1944 and accepted into the U.S. Army Air Force in 1945, according to the aircraft website. It flew in the Pacific theater until war's end. After that, it was used as a photo mapping aircraft, then as a command ship during drone flights through nuclear fallout zones on Pacific islands.
Nowadays it flies across the country, functioning as a living piece of history for the Commemorative Air Force. Stemple got involved as a volunteer after doing some research on his great uncle, who served as a World War II ball turret gunner until he was shot down and killed in June 1944.
"After doing the research — and I was living in Arizona at the time — this B-17 flew over my house," Stemple said. "And that's all it took. Seventy-one years later, the family has a second family member on the same type of aircraft."
Holbrook flew aboard B-17s as a waist gunner — manning the gun in the aircraft's midsection, or "waist" — over two years during World War II. Part of the 2nd Bombing Group, 96th Squadron of the 15th Air Force, he flew missions over Germany, Austria, Italy and the Russian front.
"It was changing every day," Holbrook said.
The B-17 became a familiar setting for him.
"I can't think of an airplane I'd rather be in," Holbrook said. "A lot of the other planes, we were just happy we weren't in them."
Holbrook is able to recall another mission during the war — the last air combat mission in Europe.
"Hitler had a big headquarters up at the top of the mountains overlooking Salzburg (Austria)," Holbrook said. "I think they were going to drop a couple of bombs on the road going up there because they figured there'd be a lot of looting going on."
No resistance greeted them.
"Absolutely no anti-aircraft, nothing. It was just a beautiful flight," Holbrook said.
Seventy years later, he took another smooth B-17 ride over Jackson County. And this time he just got to take in the view.
"A real good flight," Holbrook said. "This is a good place to do it."