It didnt truly hit me that I was flying in a World War II bomber until I took off my headset for a second.
The thunder of the B-25 Mitchells twin 1,400 horsepower engines rattled my head.
Unprotected, my ears felt like they were glued to a jackhammer.
Even then, I still couldnt believe it.
I was high above State College in the Yankee Warrior, a rare warbird from Michigan in for the Central PA 4th Fest. This was actually happening: a flight in one of the wars most famous planes, a seat just behind the cockpit in an elegant plane I have loved ever since childhood.
Oh man, this was the B- 25 model immortalized by Gen. Jimmy Doolittles 1942 raid on Tokyo.
I beamed and gave the crew chief, Rex Konitz, a thumbs-up. He grinned back. We all grinned wide-eyed, all seven guys who had ponied up $400 each for the ride.
A ride like that will turn anyone into a kid again.
Some might think the ticket was steep, a lot for 30 minutes or so in the air. But they probably wouldnt be World War II aviation buffs who drew little Mitchell bombers in their school notebooks.
It was worth every penny. And it was totally unexpected.
Wednesday morning, I had gone to University Park Airport with my family to check out the plane, in for the festival from the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Mich. Immediately, I could see it was a beaut: silvery skin shining, twin rudders, bright yellow engine cowlings.
Then I learned about its pedigree.
As crew member Jerry Lester explained, the bomber was among the two dozen B-25s still flying from the 10,000 made during the war. But it was even rarer: Only two of the survivors actually flew in combat.
Flying with the 340th Bombardment Squadron in the 12th Air Force off the island of Corsica, the Yankee Warrior completed eight missions over Italy in 1944. It was then given to Britains Royal Air Force as part of the Lend-Lease program and turned into a trainer in Canada for the rest of the war.
The day after she left Corsica, the Germans bombed the airfield and destroyed five B-25s, Lester said.
That did it. My wife Michele, bless her heart, decided. Price be damned, I was going for a ride. It was a belated Fathers Day present, an early birthday gift and the chance of a lifetime.
And thats how I came to be rushing down the runway, strapped into my seat, eyes popping in every direction.
Lester before had said that the heavy bombers, such as the B-17 Flying Fortress, flew like a Cadillac: smooth ride, solid. A B- 25, on the other hand, is an agile, speedy beast, highly maneuverable, a Corvette of the skies.
Of course, our pilots, Steve Zvara and Jerry Nichols, werent going to put the Yankee Warrior through its paces, as though it were strafing a harbor. But I could feel the planes power and zip even through a relatively gentle bank.
As I craned my head around, soaking up every detail, I also realized how cramped flights were for wartime crews on missions lasting eight to 10 hours. Rakish on the outside, the bomber felt more like a tin can attached to a pair of monster engines once the hatches closed.
Nowhere was that more apparent than the crawl space over the bomb bay to the waist-gun positions a passage about 18 inches high, crossed on my back and the tiny tunnel under the cockpit to the nose.
The first to go into the nose, I managed to scrunch my 6-foot-3-inch frame enough to crawl through. The view through the glass panels, out beyond the .50- caliber machine gun sight, mesmerized me.
This was where the bombardier sat, the spot famously occupied by Capt. Yossarian in Catch-22. The plane banked, and so did the horizon. I was officially in heaven.
But then I had a sobering thought.
It would have been hell if flak was exploding in ugly, black bursts outside, the only shield glass and thin metal. What if fighter tracers were criss-crossing before my eyes and I had to sit trapped, waiting for bullets and shrapnel to slice into me?
From all the books Ive read, and the veterans who have talked with me, I thought I had appreciated the courage it took to look that in the eye and do a job.
But I didnt appreciate it enough.
Sadly, it couldnt last forever not when the plane gulps 135 to 150 gallons of fuel an hour. We had to land. I think I was babbling in happiness when I exited the rear hatch. Nobody on the crew seemed to mind.
Thats what we like to hear, one crew member said, smiling himself.
Earlier in the day, I had struck up a conversation with a 13-year-old boy, Thomas Bierly from Centre Hall. He and I ogled the aircraft together, different generations, same attraction.
Its amazing, Bierly said. Its cool. It blows the mind.
Kid, I couldnt agree with you more.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews