COUNCIL BLUFFS — Picture trying to avoid hot machine-gun shells as they slide past on the floor in a space barely 4 feet wide.
Strapping on an insulated jacket to stay warm in an unheated plane when the temperature drops to 40 degrees below zero.
Trying to stay alive while enemy bullets hit a plane filled with 8,000-pound bombs.
Such was the life inside a B-17 bomber, the type of plane on display this week at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport.
“This plane is a symbol to thank that generation of fighters,” said Shelby Bolke, a flight loadmaster for the B-17 named Sentimental Journey.
Bolke has been touring with Sentimental Journey for 29 years through the all-volunteer Commemorative Air Force, traveling around the country from the group's base in Mesa, Ariz.
The plane, which was built in 1944, will be on display and open for paid flights through Sunday.
While Sentimental Journey saw little action during World War II because it was built later in the war, it has ferried soldiers to islands in the Pacific Ocean, mapped the Philippines from the air and guided another B-17 through a nuclear explosion test.
It was one of 12,751 built during World War II. Only about 50 remain in the United States, and just eight — including Sentimental Journey — can still fly.
Enter the nose of the plane and a low ceiling forces you to duck almost at a 90-degree angle.
“This plane wasn't made for big men,” Bolke said.
Climb the nose, and the seats of the bombardier and navigator come into view. Below are the seats for the pilot and co-pilot.
In a typical B-17 during World War II, all four of those positions were held by officers no older than 25. They were in charge of the B-17's six other crew members.
Step away from the nose and across a narrow walkway into the radio room where a black radio sits above a desk. Behind the desk, a machine gun points out the window. A box with a 9-yard magazine of bullets is next to it.
The plane's tail belonged to the tail gunner, who was responsible for keeping away sneak attacks on the bomber.
Seeing the plane, both inside and out, was interesting for George Dewitt, a former helicopter pilot and Vietnam War veteran.
“So much history is here,” said Dewitt, who served two stints in Vietnam. “It's just amazing to think about how each part of these machines was made for a specific reason and had a specific job to do.”
Bolke knows how Dewitt feels, and has lots of stories to tell. She points to the tail, remembering one B-17 whose crew had to tape the tail from falling off during a battle so the bomber could land.
She points to the middle of the plane, where crew members would lean against each others' backs and hold their knees to brace themselves in a crash.
Then Bolke points to the blue star painted on the outside of Sentimental Journey near the back door. She saw someone touching it earlier this week in Council Bluffs. She recalls asking the man if he wanted to look inside.
“All he said was 'No, I'm just saying goodbye to old ghosts,' ” Bolke said. “Then he walked away.”