Why was a bomber flying over Detroit yesterday?

If you were in Hazel Park yesterday at 4 p.m. (like we were), you were treated to an eerie sight: a B-17 bomber, all four propellers roaring, gliding over the city heading west, its shiny fuselage reflecting the afternoon sunshine, a U.S. Air Force roundel appearing on the undersides of the wings. Like a ghost from the past, the aircraft soared away from the one-time “Arsenal of Democracy.”

What was it? After a little investigating, and a bit of help from some pals on social networking, the answer presented itself: What flew over Hazel Park was an aircraft called “The Yankee Lady,” and it flies out of the Yankee Air Museum in Washtenaw County. It turns out that the planes carry passengers who pay a pretty penny to ride in the vintage aircraft.

Calling around, we soon got through to Norm Ellickson, 83, head of the flight crew for the aircraft. He confirmed that he was actually in that plane yesterday. He’s part of the flight crew and helps coordinate air shows for the museum, something he’s been involved with since he retired from his career as a licensed airplane mechanic for a major airline at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He tells us it’s not uncommon for people to call him or just drop in when they figure out what they saw. Some of them even pay the $450 for a half-hour ride in the aircraft.

Ellickson says, “We’ve been doing this for quite a few years. These bombers are so expensive to fly. And being we’re a nonprofit, all-volunteer group, the way we pay for these is we’ve been approved by the FAA for the last 15 years to sell rides to defray the cost and keep the operation going.”

The ticket price is so high because, between fuel, oil, indirect operating costs, and liability insurance, it costs the museum about $3,000 an hour to operate the B-17, one of only nine left in the world that are able to take flight. “If we weren’t giving these rides,” he says, “to be honest with you, we’d find another hobby.”

In spite of the cost, he says passengers are eager to buy the tickets: “We sell a lot of them. It’s on their bucket list. They really enjoy it.”

Ellickson says the rides aren’t normally up in the air that early: “Just about every Wednesday, we book rides locally out of Willow Run on our B-17 and our B-25, and we usually book them around 4, 5, or 6 o’clock in the evening, after people are getting out of work. We give hundreds of them, and it’s a nice trip. We usually take that trip down the river in around 30 minutes. We’re usually out from the middle of May to the end of October.”

The Yankee Lady was acquired by the museum years ago. Ellickson says they flew it back from a desert location in the southwestern United States, and spent nine years restoring it back to its original condition, based on blueprints from the Smithsonian, right down to the 12 machine guns (they’re dummies, of course). One exception to the restoration is the inclusion of seating for the passengers. “You’ve got to realize the crew members were 22 years old at the oldest. These planes were kinda made for kids. … Back then they just sat on the floor.”

He’ll be up in the air tomorrow, he says, flying the aircraft to an air show in Indiana. Flying in a B-17 is just an everyday thing for him. He says, “I’ve done thousands of these in the last 18 years. … I tell a lot of people who are hesitant about spending that kind of money that I know it’s a pretty big chunk of change. But if you get off the airplane and honestly tell me you didn’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.”

He adds with a chuckle: “Nobody’s taken us up on it yet.”

To arrange for a flight on the Yankee Air Museum’s historic aircraft, see the organization’s website or call Dave Wright at 734-483-4030, ext. 236.

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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