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Bellevue veteran returns to skies in Flying Fortress after 64 years

Elden Larson stood Monday afternoon with a group of gawking spectators as they watched a B-17 roar toward the runway at Boeing Field.

Most of the observers were waiting in line to experience a flight in the World War II bomber, known as a Flying Fortress. Some had paid $425 for the opportunity.

Larson, in his own words, had “been there, done that.”

And so he would do it again, free of charge and with an honorary seat directly behind the co-pilot. It had been 64 years since the Bellevue veteran flew in a B-17, and he had buzzed London that time.

“The Colonel wasn’t too happy with me,” Larson said. “Of course, I was 21 years old. I guess I was still in teenage mode at the time.”

Excitement may have played a role as well. Larson, 86, had survived a tour that lasted 30 missions, starting with the Battle of the Bulge.

Many of his comrades didn’t survive, and most of those who did are now gone.

“There’s not many of them left,” said Greg Draper, a docent at the Museum of Flight. “I’m determined to gather these people and honor them.”

Larson will soon be a storyteller at the museum’s Personal Courage wing. Draper, who helped him land the job, took a spot on the first of two flights Monday as a return favor.

The 74-year-old Bellevue resident, a former Marine Corps air-traffic controller, was bug-eyed and giddy as he exited the plane.

“People my age drool over this,” Draper said. “As kids, these guys were our heroes.”

Larson enlisted in the Army Air Corps’ in 1943, completing 13 months of accelerated training with an aviation cadet program before joining the war effort as a B-17 pilot. The Flying Fortress was his airplane of choice.

“I wanted the one that could come back with more bullet holes in it,” he said.

The four-engine B-17 was known as a sturdy plane that could take flak. It carried 10 crewmembers, 13 .50-caliber machine guns, and a payload of 10 500-pound bombs.

Only 14 of the 12,000 Flying Fortresses are still in flying condition today.

Larson flew Monday in a relic dubbed the Aluminum Overcast, which tours the country offering flights to veterans and anyone who wants a taste of history.

The plane still contains authentic machine guns, radios, and even the plug-in outlets that heated crewmember’s flight suits.

Passengers can roam the rattling beast once it takes off, taking in views that could never be seen from a commercial aircraft – like the one from its glass-encased nose.

Also visible throughout the cabin are cables that control the plane, as well as the B-17’s bomb bay doors, which are still active on the Aluminum Overcast.

Larson ensures the crew that he still knows how to evacuate through those hatches in the event of an emergency.

“Just follow my lead,” he says with a smile.

B-17s traveled during World War II in bomber streams that included up to 1,200 heavy planes and several hundred fighter aircraft.

Larson flew missions into the heart of Germany during his tour, fire bombing targets like rail junctions, oil refineries, factories, airfields, and bridges. He says every flight was different, with some being more perilous than others.

“It depended on the targets and a bit of luck,” he said. “Sometimes you came home with 29 bullet holes, sometimes zero.”

Larson insists that the dangers of combat only got to him when he was on the ground.

“The scariest time was after you got down and thought about it awhile,” he said. “Things happened too fast to get scared. If something happened, it happened. You go for broke.”

No one in Larson’s crew died during combat, although one person, a gunner, was superficially wounded with a glancing blow from shrapnel.

“Basically he got a bruise,” Larson said. “Other than that, nobody got hurt. We were pretty lucky. A lot of people weren’t.”

Larson is still in touch with his comrades from the Eighth Air Force – those who are left. He meets with them for occasional reunions and calls some several times a year.

Draper considers them all to be heroes, but Larson says they were just doing a job.

“We were attacked,” he said. “We had a war, and we had to do something about it. Everybody in the country backed us up.”

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