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On the wings of angels, there but for the grace…

The flight I took on an old WWII bomber this summer was life affirming. That same plane crashed the day after Rosh Hashanah
The vintage B-17 plane in fiery crash at Hartford airport, October 2, 2019. (YouTube)
The vintage B-17 plane in fiery crash at Hartford airport, October 2, 2019. (YouTube)

While I live in New Jersey, I have been following closely news reports on the October 2nd crash in Hartford, Connecticut of a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bomber.  I flew on that very plane with my friend and neighbor, Dave, at the end of August from an airport near my home in Long Branch, NJ. The plane was operated by a non-profit organization that also owns and flies two other bombers, as well as a fighter and a trainer. The planes come each year as part of a “Wings of Freedom” tour and attracts thousands of visitors to walk around and through the bombers and to take a flight in several of the planes.

I had wanted to take that flight for many years because my father served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and he worked on B-17s as a radio repairman. I have the scrapbook of his experiences on the base which was in a little village called Polebrook located not too far from London.  All that is left of the base today is a small stone monument.

I had watched this plane fly over our home in Long Branch many times. While the plane flew at about 750 feet over our heads, the noise on the ground was impressive. You heard it coming before you saw it and you heard it long after it passed by. No modern mufflers for these 4-engine behemoths. I can’t imagine what it was like to be on the ground in France and Germany when hundreds of these planes flew together overhead on bombing missions in Germany.

The bomb bay and the challenging catwalk.

I had first been inside this plane about 5 years ago while it was open for tourists on the ground. My wife Roz and granddaughter Michal joined me at the airfield, but only my granddaughter was willing to go into the plane with me. To do that, you had to crawl part of the way on your hands and knees to get from one end of the plane to the other. The bomb bay was especially challenging as there’s a narrow catwalk and some of us must squeeze their bodies through a narrow V-shaped support. It was, let me say, a tight squeeze; waist and height wise. And I therefore understand the army turning down my father who was 6’ 2” tall when he asked to serve as a crewman in the early years of the war.

In late 1944, two years after being rejected, a call went out for volunteers to become crewmen. By this time, my father had seen enough of what happened to these planes, their aluminum skin is thin, and the men (really boys) who flew them. He decided to keep repairing radios.

Radio equipment over my shoulder.

On our flight, we sat in the radio compartment which was kind of spacious. It was over the wing, and you can see into the wings through the frame of the airplane as you flew. We were warned not to touch the control surface cables that ran overhead through the compartment as the pilot would not like it. You got more than a whiff of aviation fuel in the cabin.

A few minutes after a rather smooth take-off, I was told go upfront. I went, again through the bomb bay, and on my hands and knees into the nose. I’m 71 years old, six feet tall and a bit overweight, so it was, let’s say, an experience going back and forth as I repeatedly bumped my head on the strut over the bomb bay catwalk.

If I thought the plane was loud while listening from the ground, it was almost deafening in the air. The plane had an open hatch in the roof — I was able to stick my head out and get some video on my cell phone — and I was glad I brought ear plugs.

As I left my home that morning, I kissed my wife goodbye and told her there is a computer file with all our passwords.

The day after Rosh HaShanah, the plane crashed a few minutes after takeoff from Bradley Airport in Hartford. It seems the pilot sensed something was wrong and got permission to return to the airport. As it landed it skidded across a grassy patch and a taxiway, ran into a de-icing building, and burst into flames. Of the 13 people aboard the plane, seven died.

In the days after the crash leading up to Yom Kippur, I thought of the Unesanah Tokef poem that we had just read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and would read again on Yom Kippur.

The poem alludes to God as a shepherd watching us, his flock. He causes us to “pass beneath his staff….visiting the souls of all living, decreeing the length of their days, inscribing their judgment.”

“How many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die.”

It’s a poem that I found haunting as a young parent, and more disturbing to me in 1995 when I thought of Alisa during her last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when she read those same words.

“Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.” It still troubles me today, almost 25 years after Alisa’s murder, especially in view of the statement that follows the poem, “But repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  Was Alisa somehow responsible for her own death? Absolutely not.

Alisa was living in Israel, immersed in the texts that make us who we are, riding the buses, eating in restaurants. She just didn’t take into account that there were evil, murderous people lurking along roadsides in bomb laden vehicles or wrapping suicide bomb vests around the bodies of impressionable, maybe brainwashed, young adults, who would board buses. Even if she did consider those possibilities, it would not have stopped her from living her life. And I take comfort in that.

Our flight landed as smoothly as it took off. We were exhilarated if a little dizzy from the smell of the fuel fumes. I scraped the top of my hand as I swung out of the airplane, and I really do mean swung out of the plane just like in the movies.

I never thought of the flight as a bucket list item, but maybe it was.  And I think the Almighty doesn’t have a problem with bucket list items that may be a little dangerous because some things that happen to us are sometimes out of our control.  God did not design us to stay indoors and not experience what is around us. We are free to make choices.

Among the survivors of the October 2 crash, several were very badly burned, and they and the families of the dead, are in my prayers. Prayer, and a sense of gratitude to the Almighty, are the only things we are left with at times like this.

About the Author
Stephen M. Flatow is the father of Alisa Flatow who was murdered by Iranian sponsored Palestinian terrorists in April 1995 and the author of "A Father's Story: My Fight For Justice Against Iranian Terror" available from Devon Square Press and on Kindle.
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