Birthday aboard the Belle
June 17, 2014
By Dan Aznoff
Ride in World War II bomber was a journey of mixed emotions
Dan O’Neill was faced with a conundrum.
As the founder of Mercy Corps, he has dedicated his life to humanitarian causes and social justice. But, as an admitted thrill seeker, O’Neill was like “a kid on Christmas morning” when his staff surprised him with an early birthday present — a ride in a vintage B-17.
O’Neill, of Sammamish, describes the World War II bomber as the “most lethal killing machine ever invented by man.” His view is based on reports that more people were killed during the fire-bombing of Dresden in Germany than were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
His justification for accepting the ride in the Flying Fortress equally rational. He pointed out that at the end of the war, many of the massive bombers were converted for use for humanitarian purposes, specifically to drop fire retardant on forest fires in areas that are difficult to access.
“Who knows how many lives these planes saved by these airplanes in their new humanitarian role?” he asked. “They could have easily been torn apart after the war and used to make nails and building materials. But I think they served a larger purpose to help save lives.”
His wife Cherry O’Neill describes Dan as part Clint Eastwood and part St. Francis.
Dan’s fascination with the Boeing-built bomber dates back to stories he was told by his father. He said his father was on board the USS San Pablo while it was still being fitted at the Todd Shipyards when he witnessed a prototype of the B-17 explode on the runway at Boeing Field.
The son’s recent adventure began at the Renton Municipal Airport when he climbed the ladder into a refurbished version of the Memphis Belle with nine other enthusiasts. O’Neill said he was the only member of the “civilian crew” that day who came prepared with his own custom-made ear plugs, eye protection, heavy leather gloves and an authentic leather bomber jacket worn by the father of his friend John Michael Talbot.
O’Neill used the old fashioned hook-and-eye seatbelt to strap himself into the radio man’s position in the lumbering bomber to watch as each of the four massive engines were brought to full power and the aircraft took off heading north over Lake Washington.
“It felt like an earthquake,” he said. “The plane shook and blue smoke poured out of each engine as we rumbled down the runway. There is no insulation on the inside of the fuselage, so you could see all wires and hear every strain of the metal against gravity as we took off. The wind poured in from every port and between every welded seam.”
Once airborne, the passengers were encouraged to take their turn at each of the crew positions.
“Except the pilot seat and the cramped bubble where the tail gunner was stationed,” O’Neill said with a hint of disappointment.
He did take his turn in the swivel chairs where the waist gunner and the top gunner operated 50 caliber machine guns. He also noted that he was in the seat reserved for the bombardier at the exact moment the plane flew over his sister’s home in Medina.
“I had her house in the cross hairs,” he laughed.
O’Neill admitted that his favorite position during the flight was when he was able to stick his head and shoulders out of the top of the rectangular escape hatch to get an up close view of the tail section and the massive wing structure with a 150-mile-an-hour wind in his face. He admitted that he waited in line to get a second opportunity appreciate the 360-dregree view from the mid-section of the plane.
“I’ve driven a lot of convertibles and motorcycles and gone almost as fast,” he said. “But nothing comes close to the thrill I had that morning.”
O’Neill was the last passenger to climb out when the plane landed back in Renton. He called to his daughter Kevyn O’Neill to say he was in no rush to end his adventure. Kevyn accompanied her father that morning as his official photographer.
O’Neill said he can now check a ride in the Flying Fortress off of his Bucket List. Next up will be a high-speed flight in a classic World War II fighter, either a P-47 Thunderbolt or a P-51 Mustang.
“That might be a little more difficult to arrange,” he said.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer who specializes in capturing family memories so they can be saved for future generations. He was a finalist the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California. His website is www.DAjournalist.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.