Landing of B-17 at Rowan County Airport sparks interest

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A large crowd had gathered by 11 a.m. Monday at the Rowan Airport and caught the first glimpse of the historic bomber “Aluminum Overcast” as it appeared out of the western sky. When the plane flew directly over the airport, it was clear to those on the ground that one of the propellers was not turning. Word came from the flight crew that the plane was in no danger, but the pilot did shut down the engine midflight after smoke was spotted. The plane landed safely from the north and pilots soon shut down the three remaining engines.

A media flight scheduled for 1 p.m. with several honored World War ll veterans on board was almost immediately cancelled for the day due to the mechanical problems. Several of those veterans returned home, hoping that the large bomber could resume flights again quickly.

One of those veterans was Lt. Colonel Tom Cochran of Greensboro. Cochran flew 50 missions out of North Africa and Italy, starting in 1943 and continuing for five months and 10 days. Cochran’s planes, the Zelura and the Thundermug, had lots of close calls but never lost a single crewman. Cochran said, “One of our crew of ten got sick and had to fly his last two missions with another plane. He didn’t make it home from one of them.”

After successfully completing his required number of missions, Cochran transferred back to the United States to McDill Field in Tampa, Florida as a Captain, providing training for new B-17 crews and eventually on the more modern B-29 bombers. He spent 26 years in the reserves, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

“Seeing this plane sure brings back a lot of memories,” said Cochran before continuing, “I hoped to get a ride today, but I understand about the engine. We sometimes had to fly on two engines in the war, but we didn’t want to.”

Tour Coordinator Dale Ensing described the early warning that something was amiss with the plane’s engine. “We developed an oil leak and shut down engine No. 4 when we saw smoke. It could be an oil line or valve, or it could be worse. We will find out later when the maintenance trailer gets here. The plane will fly out of here on four engines or we won’t fly.”

Repair will proceed on the engine through Tuesday, hopefully preparing the bomber for a 9 a.m. media flight on Wednesday morning. Other flights are scheduled for later Wednesday, with ground tours from 2-5 p.m. each day. All veterans and active duty military will receive the ground tour for free. For updates on flight plans, call 704-232-0714.

“We are very fortunate to have this opportunity to share our facility with the community. It gives individuals of all ages a chance to experience history as well as hear stories from our local veterans. The airport staff is honored to be part of it,” said Rowan County Airport Manager Thad Howell.

The “Aluminum Overcast” B-17 bomber was built by Vega in Burbank, California. Vega later became part of Lockheed. Ensing said, “This plane was later sold for salvage value of $750. Originally, it did high-altitude survey and mapping, then later dumped fire ant control applied to corncobs. The EPA frowned on this practice, and a group of Tulsa, Oklahoma doctors bought the plane hoping to use it for a world-wide tour. Those doctors eventually gave the plane to the Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA.”

The big bomber stays at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin during the winter months, but has been touring annually since 1994.

Highlighting the Rowan County stay of the “Aluminum Overcast” will be “A Tribute to Veterans” on Tuesday evening. Featured are a prime rib dinner and music by the Salisbury Swing Band. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance from EAA Chapter 1083 members or at the Rowan County Airport Terminal. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Social hour begins at 6 p.m., with dinner served from 6:30 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to wear 1940s period dress and their military uniforms.

President Jack Neubacher of EAA Chapter 1083 said, “We want to show the veterans our appreciation. It has taken us 10 years to get this bomber back here, and planning has gone on for quite a while to make Tuesday evening a special night that our veterans will long remember.”

For more information, go to , e-mail, or call 704-232-0714.