GILLETTE — Charles Schuler had never seen a World War II plane up close.
“I’ve always wanted to see one with my dad, but I never thought I’d be able to actually fly in one,” he said.
Charles and his father, Gene Schuler, got to do just that Saturday after Charles bought them aerial tours on the World War II B-17 bomber “Sentimental Journey,” which was at the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport in Gillette last week with the Flying Legends of Victory tour.
“We’ve always wanted to experience something like this together,” Charles said before the flight. “I’m excited to get up there and experience it with my dad.”
The experience was made possible by the Commemorative Air Force Airbase in Mesa, Arizona, which travels across the United States each summer to provide hands-on education for those interested in World War II. Along with the B-17, the tour also features a B-25 bomber.
Mike Shepherd, a volunteer for the nonprofit organization, said his own passion for the vintage planes and their history, as well as the passion of the people he comes across, is what make the project possible. Shepherd said all those working the events, including the pilots, are volunteers. While people can tour the planes for the week on the ground for a modest fee, the seats on the weekend flights are what attracts the true aviation buffs.
While the Schulers went with one of the more economical waist compartment seats that go for $425 each per flight, Roxie Peterson said if she was going to pay to fly, she was going to go all out. Peterson reserved a bombardier/navigator seat, which cost her $850.
“My dad was in World War II and he would be glad to see me up there, just like I’m going to be glad I’m up there, too,” Peterson said. “I want to feel what they felt, not exactly what they felt, but I know it won’t be like flying in a normal plane.”
It took roughly 45 minutes to get the plane’s propellers oiled and temporary crew members into their flight suits, but by 9 a.m., the Schulers were escorted to the back of the plane while Peterson was taken to the nose.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be punching a hole right in the sky this morning,” Flight Commander Ed Campbell told the crew before liftoff. “They didn’t make these planes with ecology in mind, so you will smell a lot of burning gas and oil.”
Sentimental Journey was piloted by Fred Dewitt and Stephanie Myer, who decided to give the guests on the aerial tour a unique view of one of Wyoming’s most popular and famous landmarks.
“We will get within three miles of Devils Tower,” Myer said.
The B-17 did just that, taking seven guests and four crew members through the Wyoming sky as it began to bleed into late morning.
Campbell said Sentimental Journey never earned any real combat experience during World War II as it was manufactured after the war had practically been decided. Despite not seeing any combat, Campbell said the bomber did travel to meet troops in the Pacific Theater at the end of the war.
After Peterson and the Schulers snapped pictures from above Devils Tower, the B-17 made a U-turn and slowly descended back toward the runway of Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport.
As soon as the plane’s landing gear came to a halt on the airstrip, there was nothing but smiles from the Schulers and Peterson.
“I just was thinking about my dad the whole time,” Peterson said about the flight. “He was in World War II and I had so much respect for him before this flight, but now it’s even more. It was crazy.”
Peterson said she would do the flight again in a heartbeat, next time opting to sit in the waist compartment section to get a different experience of the plane.
As for the Schulers, both Charles and Gene were thankful to take the flight together.
“It felt like we were able to be a part of history,” Charles said. “It’s one of those things where you get to kind of see why it is we have all the opportunities we do now.”
Charles said imagining fighting in aerial combat was surreal and it makes him respect the military and veterans even more than he already did.
“Seeing everything they had up there, I can’t imagine what it took for those guys just to try and keep their balance and not lose their cookies,” Charles said. “Like those machine guns, there was so many different dials and corrections you’d have to make and you’re handling it all manually while flying in the air and possibly getting shot at.”
Gene said his mind traveled to what an American soldier would be thinking sitting in the B-17 during World War II.
“They definitely weren’t sitting around in their seats just waiting for somebody else to come take their lunch, that’s for sure,” Gene said. “It’s tight quarters in there, but they just had to adapt.”
Campbell joined CAF in 2012 after seeing a promotional video of the B-17 flying on the organization’s website.
“When I was a kid, that was my favorite airplane,” Campbell said, pointing to the B-17, dubbed the Flying Fortress. “Never once did I imagine I’d be a crew member on that airplane.”
Campbell served as flight medic in the Navy for six years shortly after the Vietnam War, an experience he said naturally encouraged his interest in airplanes.
Sentimental Journey’s flight commander said the Victory Tour is an opportunity to “show and tell” the vintage military aircraft and educate guests on the sacrifices made by the people tasked to crew the planes more than seven decades ago.
“We have the ability to constantly celebrate where our freedom today comes from,” Campbell said. “These guys gave up everything ... everything that got us the opportunity to sit here today is important because you have to look at the contributions that these men and these aircraft made.”
During Saturday’s flight, Peterson and Campbell came to realize neither one of them had seen Devils Tower before.
“This is a unique thing that we have the opportunity to tell people about, when you see things like Devils Tower, you think you only see them in movies or TV shows,” Campbell said. “We go to places like Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls and to be able to see them when you’re in the air, it’s an immeasurable feeling.
“It’s hard work sometimes, but it scratches an itch.”
Though Campbell will never take the enjoyment of flying in the aircraft for granted, he said his favorite part of the job isn’t the aerial tours. His favorite part is the people he gets to take on the tours.
“To tell them something they don’t know, I thrive on that,” Campbell said. “To see the light in their eyes and to talk to some of the families of people who were in combat or involved in World War II, it makes the people the attraction to me.”
Campbell said it’s possible the Victory Tour returns to Gillette again next year, but the schedule is tentative. If it does return, Peterson and the Schulers have one piece of advice for those on the fence about taking a flight.
“Do it,” Peterson said.
“Definitely worth it,” Charles and Gene said simultaneously.
Campbell is familiar with the sight surrounding the landing strip when Sentimental Journey’s engines shut down. He said through his eight years working with the organization, the people climbing out of the plane always have the same expression.
“I’ve never seen anybody get out of that aircraft without a smile,” Campbell said.