Some things have not changed for Roy McCaldin since he was a young man.
He still weighs about the same, still could fit in the same clothes and still can jump out of the front hatch of a B-17 Flying Fortress.
McCaldin had to make the quick exit when he was flying the plane in World War II at age 21.
Trying to keep his shot-up plane steady enough to exit, McCaldin dove headfirst out of the bomber on only his sixth combat mission. When he got back to base after he met up with Russian forces, the war was nearly over.
Sixty-three years later, McCaldin jumped, feet first this time, out of the 2-foot-high hatch onto the tarmac at the Chandler airport.
Getting into a B-17 in the first place is slightly harder. You must grip the upper lip of the hatch and swing your legs up to the floor of the airplane, which sits about seven feet off the ground.
“Age 65, I found I couldn’t do that anymore” the 84-year-old McCaldin said.
So on this occasion he took the easier back door.
The B-17 and two other WWII-era bombers, a B-24 Liberator and a B-25 Mitchell, were prepping for flight in Chandler for the next leg of the Wings of Freedom tour in Marana, an opportunity for residents to tour and fly in bombers. On the way to the Marana Regional Airport on Thursday morning, McCaldin got to do something else he hasn’t done in about 10 years: take the controls.
“You can be so lucky to keep doing something like this,” he said.
McCaldin joined the 8th Air Force at 19 years old and flew bombing missions out of England over Germany. He describes the B-17 as a “romantic but slow” machine.
The casualty rate for such bombers was high. About a third of all Flying Fortresses were lost over Europe during the war.
The Collins Foundation hopes to preserve that history. Only a handful of B-17s still exist and even fewer are flight worthy.
“They’re a monument to the guys who flew them and a museum to the younger people,” said Rob Collins, a pilot who flew the B-24 into Marana last week.
“Flying today is like pushing buttons. Flying these is real,” Collins said.
Visitors of the tour can crawl inside the cramped bomber fuselage and even fly in the historic planes.
Also making the trip over from Chandler were two students from Marana High School who were involved in a school project to construct an airplane.
“There’s definitely no rollercoaster that can top this,” said senior Shane Woodward, who was documenting the trip and the building project for a video class.
Taking the half-hour-or-so flight to Marana brought some insight into aircraft.
“It was a lot different from the other flights I’ve been on,” said Maverick Hand. The senior said someone donated a small plane for the project for students to study the individual parts and learn how the craft behaves in flight.
Back inside the B-17 cockpit before the flight, McCaldin had one word for what it felt like to be at the controls of one of the most famous warplanes: “Wonderful.”
McCaldin is no stranger to flight. Rather than drive to the Marana airport to take the shuttle up to Chandler, he flew in from Ryan Airfield a dozen or so miles away on a WWI-era DH4 biplane he built himself.
When McCaldin gripped the flight yoke, everything came back to him as he demonstrated which switches start up each of the four propeller-driven engines, “making black smoke, coughing and having a good time.”
He pointed to a set of identical switches.
“One of these is the landing gear and one is flaps, and you never want to mix these up,” he said.
While the Flying Fortress, this particular one designated “Nine O Nine,” typically has a crew of 10, McCaldin remembers one instance when he packed 25 ex-POW into the cabin just after the war to ferry them to Paris.
After inspecting the flight map, he remembers something else from his youth.
“We used to have an old joke. … A navigator is the one who could fold a map.”