As Shelby Bolke showed off a pair of earrings she’s had for years, she remarked Monday morning that she had never come across any others like them.
A gold WWII-era airplane hung from each side of her head.
“I only wear them when I fly.”
Resting behind her for a quick oil treatment and maintenance check on the Mather Airport tarmac was the real thing: Boeing’s B-17, aka the Flying Fortress.
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Aptly named Sentimental Journey and painted up with a pin-up model near the nose, the war-flown Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is one of just eight of its kind in the world still flying. A small assortment of pilots and crew members from all across the U.S., and one from the United Kingdom, gathered Monday to give assorted media and civilians a preview test flight, part of a traveling tour by the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum.
Monday’s crew, several of whom had experience flying during the Cold War, had an obvious soft spot for the old-fashioned aircraft, which has undergone restoration.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Fred DeWitt, a volunteer pilot with AZCAF. “It’s just all engine, and it sounds great. There’s nothing that sounds like it flying around, other than this airplane.”
DeWitt said he did the math: The B-17 has the horsepower of about 145 Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Indeed, it sounds just as loud as a biker gang. As the aircraft took off for a 20-minute journey from Rancho Cordova to the Sacramento River and back, the noise from inside the cabin bordered on deafening during takeoff. Even standing still while taxiing on the runway, the piston engines and four whirring propellers rumbled and lurched the plane’s frame.
AZCAF offers a ground-only tour for $10 a person Tuesday through Thursday, leading up to the annual California Capital Airshow this Friday through Sunday at Mather. The ground tour will be free with admission to the airshow during the weekend. But the flight experience, offered before the main shows start Friday to Sunday at 10 a.m. through 1 p.m., will run $425 per person — double that for a seat in the bombardier’s seat at the nose of the plane. (More info can be found on AZCAF’s website.)
It’s a herky-jerky craft on the ground and in the air, unkind to those with sensitive stomachs. But stunning views of downtown Sacramento and the Tower Bridge may make up for that to some.
DeWitt called it a literal “fly-by-wire” aircraft. Two lines of wire run the length of the plane, feeding input from the cockpit to the tail of the plane. Those wires are exposed in the body of the plane, by the way — yank on one by accident, and you’ve just cut the pilot off from controlling the B-17.
The only electronic controls on the B-17 are its navigation instruments. The cabin isn’t pressurized, as crew members pointed out. It’s capable of flying up to 36,000 feet; but in demonstration tours, it never goes above 2,000. There’s no air conditioning, and water will leak through on a rainy day.
Before the flight, 30-year Air Force veteran and member of the California Capital Airshow’s board of directors Bob Martinelli gave a brief history lesson on Mather Airport, formerly Mather Air Force Base.
“Mather was actually the point of embarkation into the Pacific theater” of World War II, Martinelli said. “This base played a key role in training the warriors that participated in the Cold War.”
Mather, McClellan and the Sacramento Army Depot were all closed by federal base realignment and closures between 1993 and 2001.
“But that’s what happens after you win a war,” Martinelli said, referring to the Cold War.
Martinelli said he hopes the weekend’s airshow can be not only a fun time, but educate guests about the local history of the former military base, which is celebrating its centennial this year.
Planes flying out of Mather for WWII were mostly B-29s, not B-17s, Martinelli said. Bolke, loadmaster for Monday’s flight, has a pair of gold B-29 earrings in her collection as well. She likes to coordinate when possible.
This weekend’s shows will include a pyrotechnics display celebrating the airport’s 100th anniversary, Martinelli said. So if you see flames or hear a boom in Rancho Cordova those days, do not be alarmed.
Other highlights planned for the weekend include demonstrations by the Air Force Thunderbirds, U-2 Dragon Lady planes flown from nearby Beale AFB’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Travis AFB’s “Parade of Heavies” featuring the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster and the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team.
If you go
California Capital Airshow
Where: Mather Airport, 10425 Norden Ave.
When: 5-10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $10-$125; general admission tickets come with admittance for up to four children; children under 2 free
More information: https://californiacapitalairshow.com, 916-876-7568