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

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

Stephen Flatow, far right, crouched inside the bomb bay of a B-17 bomber.
Stephen Flatow, far right, crouched inside the bomb bay of a B-17 bomber.

While I live in New Jersey, I have been following closely news reports on the Oct.  2 crash in Hartford, Conn., of a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. I flew on that exact plane with my friend and neighbor, Dave, at the end of August from an airport near my home in Long Branch.

It 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 the “Wings of Freedom” tour and attracts thousands of visitors to walk around and through the bombers, and EVEN to ride in several of the planes.

I had wanted to take such a flight for many years because my father served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and 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, not too far from London. All that’s left today of the base is a small monument.

While the plane flew at about 750 feet over our beach house, the noise on the ground was impressive; you heard it coming before you saw it, and long after it passed by. No modern mufflers for these four-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.

I was first been inside this plane about five years ago when it was open for tourists. My wife Roz and granddaughter Michal joined me at the airfield, but only my granddaughter was willing to go into it with me. To do that, we had to crawl part of the way on our hands and knees to get from one end of the plane to the other. The bomb bay was especially challenging as the catwalk was narrow, and some of us had to squeeze their bodies through a small V-shaped support.

It was, let me say, a tight squeeze — waist and height wise — and it helped me understand why the army corps turned down my father, who was 6’ 2”, 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.

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

A few minutes after a rather smooth take-off, I was told go upfront, and again I had to crawl on my hands and knees through the bomb bay to get into the nose. I’m 71 years old, six feet tall, and a bit overweight, so it was an experience going back and forth, and I repeatedly bumped my head on the strut over the catwalk. If I thought the plane sounded loud 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 cellphone — and I was glad I had brought ear plugs.

As I left my home that morning, I kissed Roz goodbye and told her where she could find a file on the computer with all our passwords.

The day after Rosh HaShanah, the plane crashed a few minutes after takeoff. It seems the pilot sensed something was wrong and got permission to return to Bradley Airport, and 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, seven died.

In the days after the crash, I thought of the UneSaneh Tokef poem that we had just read in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and would read again on Yom Kippur. The prayer 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 even more disturbing in 1995 when I thought of how my daughter Alisa had read those same words the year before during her last Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

“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 UneSaneh Tokef, “But repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil 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 vests around the bodies of impressionable, maybe brainwashed, young adults, whom they instructed them to 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.

At the end of our flight this summer, the plane landed as smoothly as it took off. We were exhilarated, if a little dizzy from the fumes, and I scraped the top of my hand as I swung out of the airplane, just like they do it in the movies.

I never thought of the flight as a bucket list item, but maybe it was. And I don’t think the Almighty minds our doing things that are a little dangerous, as most things that happen to us are out of our control, anyway. And God did not create us to stay indoors and miss all that is happening around us.

The survivors of the Oct. 2 crash — several were badly burned — and the families of the dead are in my prayers. Prayer, and a sense of wonder why things happen when they do, are the only things we are left with at times like this.

Stephen M. Flatow, an attorney in New Jersey, is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. His book, “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror” (Devon Square Press), now available on Kindle, was published in 2018.

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