"Serenade To The Big Bird"

Posted to rec.aviation.military, with the title lifted from Capt. Bert Stiles' book published in 1957. Capt. Stiles didn't live to see that: he went on from a complete B-17 tour to P-51 Mustangs and was killed in action, shot down over Germany in 1944.

    In her book "Sexual Personae", Camille Paglia makes a very intriguing and powerful argument that it was the Egyptians who invented elegance. She contends that "the Western eye" was born in ancient Egypt where the essentially discriminating incision of style, as a matter of abstracting essentials, was manifest for the first time in all of human history. This was the power of excluding the chaotic totality of nature from that specific order with which the volition of design, wrought by the human mind, stamps a conceptual world view.

    When essentials are the goal of discrimination, a line is necessarily drawn: this, but not that, can be included, and the selection is rational. Each decision can be defended with reference to the goal of design. This effect of rational selection is most evident in machines. Some machines admit embellishment beyond elements necessary to proper function: if their operating parameters permit aesthetic adornment with design flourishes, then designers might indulge flights of relative extravagence in aspect.
    This is the line beyond which elegance might proceed, but short of which austerity pauses in strict service of elementary function.

    As I observed the metal work comprising the leading edge of the horizontal stablizer on the Boeing B-17G, I was surprised at the rise of the word, "delicate". After all: here was a lauded machine of war - blooded in desperate battle and world-renowned for its almost incredible ability to sustain injury and still do its job. Yet, in closing my fingers around that thin aluminum curve, the sensation never approached that rendered by fingering a cast piece of steel or iron; a touch of that sort offers a sense of mass and weight which was not present here. Rather, the sensation brought to mind the idea of air or empty space defined and inscribed with a set of lines arranged very precisely according to a singular concept. That leading edge piece could only be done this way, and no other. It was light and hollow, and seemed out of place in static display sitting heavily on the ground. It, and and the entire ship of which it was a part, appeared as if necessary compliment to the completed design would require a steady flow of high-speed air around and across every distinctive aluminum panel. Only then would they be fully defined.

    The entire aircraft displayed this elegance, this essential reduction to elements. Despite its impressive size, the real incision of the design only becomes more evident on close inspection. On entry through the fuselage door, one is immediately impressed with the close scale of everything to the human body: this is still a tight-fitting airplane. A man six feet two inches in height is challenged to make his way carefully through this space, and it occurs to him that a missed step might easily damage something important. The waist compartment, in which two men fought back-to-back with Browning .50 calber machine guns against other machines every bit as elegant and austere, would barely contain the full width of his arms stretched side-to-side. He considers, and wonders how they did this: how often did they curse one anothers' clumsy steps and collisions which might have upset the careful track of a fighter's pursuit curve? How finely did they rehearse this awful dance which on bad days was conducted ankle-deep in machine-gun brass casings?

    Just forward of this fabled space, the Bendix ball-turret hangs low out the bottom of the fuselage, on its steel trapeze. A single glance inspires abject disbelief: this is a joke, right? Who in their right mind would curl into that thing and attempt manage the thunder of those two guns? Impossible...except through the second half of World War II, when that very challenge was taken up and superbly met with all outward cool by hundreds of young men.
    Access to all the aircraft is through-and-through: there is no barrier to travel from the nose to the tail, except the close constraints of austerity. The door between the waist and radio compartments measures barely three feet tall by two feet wide. It can be managed, but the move must be practiced, especially if undertaken in flight during maneuvering and under attack by enemies. Entry to the radio compartment is under a glass roof which admits the whole sky: this place is filled with light as no other on board. The sensation is curious: where the waist and forward compartments are constrained to a sort of gleaming metallic gloom - gathered refractions which suffuse admitted light into a sourceless ambiance - the radio compartment glares bright from above. While, again, the side-to-side space is measured in a small multiple of shoulder-widths, there is a work table here. It is striking in scale: large enough to conduct the function of the station, but never more than austere in aspect; there is not a single spare nut, bolt, or square-inch of surface here. The seat is not even slightly larger than that necessary to accomodate a human frame. It is recognizable, but not at all inviting.

    The door to the bomb-bay is only slightly larger, and it opens into the most forbidding space of the B-17G: this is where the action is. What is immediately clear is that this door would not exist if not for the occasional necessity to travel fore and aft of the bomb bay. First look beyond the door is daunting: "Is that tiny track - a fraction the width of the door itself - really the only way through here?" That's it. That's really all there is to it. On either side, the whole reason for this airplane's existence is suspended in the darkness: five hundred-pound bombs; fat blobs of steel and explosives clamped to the walls of a gloomy box without the slightest concession to human eye. This space regards only the machine; the incised concepts of stark function.

    If the bomb-bay bridge is traversed, entry to the cockpit might seem inviting except for the clusterous complexity of the Bendix electric top turret. This is an incredible arrangement of moving gear which only exists in order to bring twin fifty-caliber machine guns to bear on attack from above the ship, quickly and precisely. A human being intent on moving forward of this plant is granted only grudging passage, with every possibility of bumping, bashing, and bruising. Innumberable blunt objects and sharp edges present themselves to flesh and bone, and they are so densely arranged that the only way to learn the course is the hard way. The oxygen flow regulator got me on the top of the head, and I was doing my best to get through unscathed. I never saw that thing.

    Within one arm's reach of the ring-gear with which the turret is driven through traverse, are the frames of the pilots' seats. They are that close. They sit on welded square-tube steel gantries anchored to the floor of the cabin, and they look as absurdly superfluous perches on which to stash a human body...almost in the way. This is because they are also no more than absolutely dictated by the form of the body. One can tell that they are seats, but there is nothing relaxing about them.

    In odd contrast to this austerity, however, is the expansive view out from here. This is where the deception of Hollywood treatments of the B-17 is first evident: one recalls film treatments of this space - the definitive classic being "12 O'clock High" starring Gregory Peck, along with minor classics such as "The War Lover" with Steve McQueen. Those films worked hard to illuminate certain conditions of the work to which this space was dedicated, but they quite invert the actual experience: the space is far more cramped and edged than could ever be rendered on film. At the same time, the outlook from here is vastly more open than a film-framed cockpit interior could ever impart. The light in this space doesn't approach that of the radio compartment, but it is far more than one might expect on first impression.

    The sensation is emphasized by the very close quarters. At their broadest, the distance between the side windows of the cockpit is less than four feet. A six-foot man finds it impossible to stretch his arms to their fullest width. So, the light fills a space alarming with its of sharp metallics, bare electrics, running cabling, and every other species of impediment to comfortable human occupation. Head, shins, knees, and elbows must always be bruised here. It cannot be any other way. One should expect and become accustomed to that austere reality.

    The eyes, however, are inversely free to roam. The entire wing is surprisingly available to view. There is none of the craning aftward, as depicted in film, in order to observe engines. Accustomed to such depictions over many years, one might become confused at battle reports which describe rapid observation from these two seats of air-attack from every quarter. Once this space is directly sampled, however, the conflict is easily resolved in favor of reports by those who've actually been there. The view outward is almost sumptuous.

    The space directly below this cabin is the most inviting aboard. The "front office" of the B-17, this is the nose compartment where the navigator and bombardier worked: a large cross-section of tunnel ending in clear glass open to nothing but sky forward. These men worked on their knees, of course, because there is no question of standing upright. However, once that condition is accepted, the nose compartment is almost relaxing in its open space. The work table on the port side does not really detract from the effect, and the four 50 caliber Brownings present here are equally unobtrusive, although very handy to defensive fire. The only real intrigue, which is also compelling, is the full-glass dome of the nose. The in-flight view from here must be virtually hypnotic. During take-off or landing, it must be terribly exciting to sensations of motion.

    There is a remarkable confluence of complexity and elegance shot through every line of this machine. Taken en toto, the thing represents an extraordinary sum of discrete abstractions. (This is excellent example of "context".) These abstractions seem almost endlessly reducible. On consideration of, for instance, the control arrangement for the top turret, one begins with the two man-sized handle grips which focus attention to the center of the turret space. Standing upright, the gunner's head arrives in the center of the glass dome. The focus of action occurs at these grips. They rotate through two intersecting axes - up and down, and side-to-side. Immediately, the function is grasped: the lateral rotation controls traverse of the electric turret; vertical rotation controls gun elevation. Close inspection of the control gear reveals a charmingly simple mechanical arrangement of push-rods and control horns running to rheostatic electrics control. The simplicity of the arrangement arrests one's fullest impression of a four-engine heavy bomber: for that moment of inspection this particular set of mechanics is a closed set, with no implication beyond the turret itself, and every part is almost endearing in its elegant, incisive, character. The forms are so essential, the fits are so precise, the motions are so controlled, that reflection on the process of abstraction which wrought this system becomes almost inescapable.

    This complusion to systemic apprehension fills the light, airy, space contained in the set of lines represented by every delicately formed and precisely riveted aluminum panel of this fabled machine. The forms, fits, and motions are everywhere throughout. When taken altogether within contexts of history and physics, the concept of a "miracle" almost approaches validation here.

    The historical aspect is what lends the fullest respect for the existence of the B-17G "Sentimental Journey" of the Arizona Wing of the Confederate Air Force.

    This aircraft comes from a time when men were authentic men at an age at which those of our time are, far too often, not yet even youths, but still children. In 1943, this airplane's sisters were filled with men who had not yet absorbed more than 18 or 21 years' experience on the planet. The aircraft flew into a harm's way completely ferocious in intensity and generally doomed by the odds. These people were charged with the responsibility of sailing these airy, elegant, machines of enormous (for the day) complexity through the doom with competent authority: they set out with clear-eyed knowledge of every push-rod and control horn, the entire set of mechanical abstractions en toto grasped and commanded at a time of life in which too many of their descendants can hardly manage an oil-change in the driveway jitney for watching "Beavis and Butthead". They lived it tough, at frozen altitude, with others driven to take their young lives by fire or a fall to earth long enough to, perhaps, wish a good-bye to their parents or the the girl they had not yet kissed.

    When one experiences the object of their work, one is struck with awe at the memorial to training and installation of discipline which this thing represents.

    At Peachtree-DeKalb Airport on a Saturday, there were a few of those disciples present. They moved stiffly and slowly, but with a bearing carried steadily for decades since the work at hand. Their eyes looked quite beyond the gleam of unfinished aluminum, to something that no others could ever see. Comrades? Flames? Victory? It was impossible to tell, and questions put to them never approached such abstractions. They were very different, however, from the soft and clumsy tourists through those austere environs of battle. They knew their way around a place that their children vaguely regarded as a lost curiousity; not one of the kids (or their kids) had ever had to fight so hard for anything in their post-war lives, and they never would.

    It was striking to note that the tourists knew enough to give way to every single step of those young men of former honor and hard elegance, no matter how long they took.


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