How I took to the skies on Sept. 11 in an antique airplane

One of the ways I’ve come to mark the anniversary of Sept. 11 is to do what I could not in the days after that horrific Tuesday: fly. In 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2019, conferences provided reasons to get on planes, while last year, I booked a miniature mileage run starting at National Airport and ending at Dulles. This year, there was no way I would mark 20 years since that brutal day by staying on the ground.

How, then? I started looking up United fares from DCA to EWR and back, but I also recalled a friend’s post this summer from an airshow in Pennsylvania that offered rides in World War II-vintage airplanes. Searching online for more such opportunities revealed one airshow taking place in Hagerstown, Md., on Sept. 11… at which I could spend $450 for a roughly 30-minute hop in a B-25 Mitchell bomber named “Panchito,” maintained by the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation and restored after a similar model that flew combat missions from Okinawa in the summer of 1945.

How could I not? Well, first I asked an avgeek friend if he could look up the maintenance history of this 1945-vintage B-25J (after checking the records, he commented, “this aircraft looks pretty clean to me”), and then I called the foundation to inquire about their policies if weather or mechanical issues forced a cancellation (they would either refund the money or rebook me on a future flight). And then I put down my reservation for a seat at one of the waist gun positions and hoped for good flying weather.

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 obliged, arriving as clear and sunny as a certain Tuesday two decades ago.

I met no traffic on the way to Hagerstown and got to the airport in time to take the first of some 200 pictures (a slideshow of my Flickr album featuring 50 or so of them awaits below) before the preflight briefing. To sum up its instructions: Keep your seat belt and shoulder harness fastened until a crew member signals you can get up, then fasten them again when instructed; don’t play with the plane’s mounted, inert guns; don’t stick anything out the porthole on the right side of the plane; if you have to exit quickly after a landing, use the yellow handles before touching the red ones; if no emergency exits open, take the crash axe to a window.

Boarding required climbing nearly-vertical stairs dropped out of the belly of this B-25 and not bonking my head on any metal surfaces. Then I–enough of an avgeek to own a messenger bag that includes a recycled airplane seatbelt buckle–needed coaching on how to strap myself into 1940s-era lap and shoulder harnesses.

Panchito came to visceral life as her two 14-cylinder piston engines spun up, shaking the cabin around me as the scent of gasoline wafted in. They rumbled as we taxied to the end of the runway and held several minutes for a takeoff slot, then roared to pull us down the runway and pitch us into the air after a surprisingly short takeoff roll.

(Seeing this plane jump like that reminded me of the Doolittle Raid, in which American pilots flew 16 B-25s, loaded much more heavily than ours, off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed Japanese cities less than six months after Pearl Harbor.)

No other airplane I’ve boarded has felt as alive as this 76-year-old airframe. Beyond the deafening racket of her Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclones–ear protection was mandatory and hearing anybody else on board was hopeless outside of the intercom–I could literally see Panchito’s nervous system at work, in the form of the cables linking cockpit controls to flight surfaces that slid back and forth and bounced against pulleys.

Once we were free to move about the cabin, I realized how little that meant in the cramped confines of a WWII medium bomber. I could wriggle my way to the tail-gun position by crawling down a tunnel, but only after the occupant of that spot had returned to a position by the waist guns.

The sights awaiting from that perch–a perspective I’ve never had on any aircraft before–were worth the exertion. That miniature glass greenhouse provided almost a 360-degree view of the B-25’s twin tails and the rest of the plane as well as such surrounding scenery as local skiing favorite Whitetail, the Potomac River, and a green-and-brown quilt of farm fields.

Worming my way back to the waist-gun spot allowed me to soak in the feeling of a cold 175-mph wind blasting through the porthole. I kept thinking: This plane is a beast.

I could peek somewhat enviously at the cockpit through a passageway running over the bomb bay, but that cramped tunnel was not open for people to go through in flight. The bomb bay appeared completely inaccessible, in case any Dr. Strangelove fans are wondering about that.

Soon enough, a crew member flashed the buckle-up sign, two thumbs pointed towards each other, and it was time to strap in. The pilots extended flaps, deployed the landing gear, and landed smoothly after 22 minutes in the air. Back at the ramp, a crowd of spectators awaited us–another thing you don’t get in a 737 or an A320. I lingered around Panchito, poking my head around the cockpit and the bombardier’s station; that, too, is no part of the standard airline experience.

Unlike most commercial aviation, this flight earned me zero frequent-flyer miles and did zero to help me retain any elite status. My concern over those things: also zero.

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