By Wally Kennedy
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Boone Neal Ruff gently passed his 96-year-old fingers over the skin of Sentimental Journey, a B-17 Flying Fortress. Riveted aluminum was something he had touched a long time ago when the world was at war.
“It was a wonderful airplane that did a wonderful job over there,” he said.
When asked if he wanted to go up in the plane, he said, “No. I’ve had enough flying.”
Ruff was a World War II fighter pilot in the Pacific. He knew about the Boeing B-17 and its role in Europe, but he knew a lot more about the Consolidated B-24 bomber, which saw plenty of action in the Pacific.
Still, he was happy that his son, David, had brought him to the Joplin Regional Airport on Wednesday to see the plane. For Ruff, it truly was a sentimental journey.
Climbing up a ladder to peek inside the plane, Ruff could identify where the plane’s crew sat, and he knew a thing or two about the .50-caliber machine guns on board.
But it also brought back memories of a time when many young men took to the skies and never came back. He recalled how his P-47 fighter was nearly brought down by enemy gunfire that caused an oil leak. His Pratt & Whitney engine locked up as he was touching down on the runway.
“My wingman told me he could see oil on the underside of the plane,” he said. “I throttled down to save oil and radioed ahead for an emergency landing. I had less than a cup of oil left when I landed. The P-47 holds 40 gallons of oil. It was a dead-stick landing. To this day, I believe that 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney engine saved my life.”
Another pivotal moment that Ruff recalled was a flight on Aug. 9, 1945.
“I was on a mission about 100 miles from Nagasaki,” he said. “I saw this bright flash to the side. The sun was shining, and this light was brighter than the sun. We later saw this mushroom cloud tower above us.”
The mission was so secret at the time that it was not until later that he would learn that he had witnessed the detonation of “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb.
“It was over within a few minutes,” said Ruff, who could be among the last surviving witnesses to the last major act of World War II. The Japanese would surrender within days.
As he walked around Sentimental Journey, Ruff said, “The kids today need to be educated a little about the war and things along those lines.”
Mel Tiensvold, the captain of the plane, said that is the mission of Sentimental Journey. It is a flying museum that visits as many as 60 cities in a year. The plane will be in Joplin until Sunday to support some local residents and aviators who want to create a Freedom of Flight Museum at Joplin’s airport.
Darryl Coit, an organizer of the project, said the goal is to create a traditional museum with local and regional aviation artifacts, photos and personal accounts from Carthage, Neosho, Pittsburg, Kan., and Miami, Okla.
It also would be a learning or discovery center for children from across the region.
“We want to foster an interest in aviation and space, and how those are connected to science and math,” Coit said. “Public and private education do a good job of teaching the facts, but they don’t have a lot of time for applications.
“We want to show them the action and reaction of Newton’s Law by giving them a rocket to build.”
The concept of an aviation museum at the airport has been included in the airport’s master plan. Coit said about $1.5 million needs to be raised to construct the museum.
The Sentimental Journey, he said, is an example of the aviation history that must be preserved and passed on to future generations.
“That’s why we invited them here so that children could see how their grandfathers and great-grandfathers won the war,” he said.
Tiensvold said: “It’s a joy for all of us to show it to the kids. They are always amazed at how big it looks from the outside, but they find out it’s really small inside.”
When the plane is open for tours this weekend, participants will learn that the pilot and co-pilot wore electrified wool suits to keep them warm. Frostbite from flying at 50 degrees below zero at 35,000 feet was the most common injury.
Tiensvold said more than 12,700 B-17s were built. About 50 of them are in museums. About seven are still flying.
“They were designed to fly 100 missions,” he said. “They expected them to crash after 25 missions.”
He said the 10-man crews were made up of 18- and 19-year-olds who could come from a farm in the Midwest or a brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Their first flight was exciting,” he said. “They were terrified on every flight after that.”
The B-17 has 13 machine guns in various positions on the plane. They often flew in formations of 16 planes.
Tiensvold said: “I once talked to a German fighter pilot who said they were as afraid of the firepower of a B-17 as our pilots were of German fighter planes. This fighter pilot told me that attacking a formation was like making love to a porcupine.”
SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY came off the assembly line in late 1944 to serve in the Pacific. It did not see combat action, but it was used as an air-sea rescue craft and as a borate bomber, flying thousands of sorties against forest fires across the country. It was painstakingly rebuilt after it was donated to the Commemorative Air Force-Arizona Wing in January 1978. The plane consumes 200 gallons of fuel an hour. It has a range of 3,750 miles and a bomb load of 8,000 pounds. Its cruising speed is 160 mph.