Thursday, July 14, 2016

How to Photograph a B17 In the Rain - And Survive

As I waited in anticipation at the ferry terminal in Victoria, BC, the raindrops from the overcast sky above speckled my car’s windshield. My dad was coming from Vancouver for the day and we had BIG plans. I leaned forward in my seat for a better view of sky above. White and grey clouds resembling antique, mottled aluminum threatened to ruin our visit. When Dad was in the car moments later, we planned our day and vowed not to let any rain ruin our time - all in the name of photography.

We were about to get up close and personal with the B17 ‘Aluminum Overcast’ bomber that was staying at The Victoria Flying Club during the Father’s Day weekend. The 65,000 lb vintage bomber built in the early 40’s was in town on one of its many stops during its North American journey. Ground tours and short flights were being offered in the spirit of keeping military history alive. It would be a perfect photo opportunity for my dad who specializes in aviation photography.

As we sped to the airport and planned our photographic attack, it was hard not to keep our eyes to the skies. We knew the old plane wouldn’t be flying quite yet, and we knew ground tours were only allowed at specific times. I would have loved to be able to send my dad up for a once-in-a-lifetime flight, but the costly flight was a bit beyond my tiny wallet - a tour of the plane would be better than nothing. We would still be spending time together and that was all that mattered. With another glance up at the sky my dad, the knower-of-all-things aviation and weather-related, wondered that with a “ceiling of 1000 feet broken, and visibility 8 to 10 miles” if the old plane would even go up. We hoped to get some photos of the plane taking off.

The light drizzle of rain had stopped by the time we arrived at the airport, but we weren’t allowed up close just yet. It was about to take-off for its first flight of the day! We made it on time!

We quickly readied our cameras and took a few shots of the plane from the viewing area. After the pilots and guest passengers were settled inside the plane, the ground crew hand-cranked the props a few times to initiate oil flow to the engines. Then in anticipation everyone stood back and waited. It wasn’t too long before the props started to move on their own, picking up speed with every rotation. Oil-rich smoke billowed out from the engines creating a picture-perfect shot. CLICK CLICK CLICK went our cameras and we waited in anticipation for the plane to start taxiing out to the runway. More great photo opportunities were on the horizon!

But just as the old plane started taxiing down the runway the rain started up again – and not like a drizzle as before. Dad did get some footage of the plane taxiing out, but all too soon the rain forced us to the semi-protective overhang of airport building. As rain trickled down our necks as we protected our cameras tucked under our coats, we worried that our fun day was about to be a washout.

We soon learned that tours would, indeed, be available to us later in the afternoon. There was hope! Dismayed but not to be outdone we went back to my house, dried off our gear, and after a cup of tea we headed BACK to the airport. This time the rain had stopped but the clouds still threatened from above. Our determination to get great photos would not be over-shadowed by any finicky weather.

Back again at the airport we unloaded our gear and set up our cameras. Hadn’t we just done this before? we chuckled. By then we could approach the plane: under the wings, between the props, under the fuselage, and behind the tail we skulked about with our cameras. A mannequin depicting an airman sat at the ready in the tail gunner. These planes were definitely designed with lanky young 18-year-old in mind. The tiny close-quarters of the ball turret gunner and the tail gunner made me cringe. I wasn’t claustrophobic, but I could only imagine sitting there for hours at a time would make anyone eventually hate small spaces.

Finally it was time for our tour! I climbed up through the hatch into a crawlspace behind the bombardier then pretzeled my body in the cramped space to wait. The other visitors in the plane had to move along before I could crawl through to stand up behind the cockpit. Both my dad and I are not exactly accustomed to crawling around such tiny planes so it was a challenge, to say the least, but I was determined to see us through the tour. Finally there was enough room for me to crawl/shuffle/inch forward until I could stand. Then my dad, too, made his way up through the hatch and through the tiny crawl space to stand beside me behind the cockpit. We did it! We survived the tiny obstacle course!

But our adventures weren’t over yet because….

…in order to get through the rest of the plane from nose to tail we would have to inch our way through the bomb bay. It wouldn’t be the 5-foot drop to the ground through the open bomb bay doors should we trip that would be our undoing, but the possibility of getting stuck trying to get through that could be a problem. We would have to walk across a horizontal beam barely 6 inches wide flanked by vertical support beams barely 20 inches apart.
With a deep suck-in-your-gut breath and camera gear carefully passed across the bomb bay to a waiting tour guide, we each inched, squeezed, and scooted along the beam and between the supports. There were some tense moments where we each wondered if we would be stuck there forever, but with a promise to God to be pure of heart forever should we make it out alive, we finally made it through the bomb bay to the radio room! We looked at each other and nervously chuckled, ‘Phew – good thing we didn’t get stuck,’ and then proceeded to take a few photos as if nothing had happened.

Because we're cool like that.

We continued through the radio room to the main cabin, admired the guns, and then stumbled out the back door. Dad and I took many memory-cherishing photos, but what had us bent over laughing on the runway was the forever-memory of us making it out of the B17 bomb bay alive. Barely.

See? We never let a little rain bother us after all.

For more information about the B17 ‘Aluminum Overcast’ Bomber visit Experimental Aircraft Association


  1. Well done,,, mission accomplished

  2. I get claustrophobic just reading about it! Glad you and your dad made it out there and got to tour the plane!