Most of the U.S. military's many terrifying and brilliant innovations remain out of reach for us lay-folks, but one mighty relic of World War II has landed in Burlington and is offering its nose gunner's seat to the public.

Thursday afternoon, I boarded a 1945 B-17 bomber along with other lucky media members. The plane's keepers, the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, are in town giving tours and flights today, Saturday and Sunday. The group tours the country with their old plane, giving paid flights to fund its preservation.

The plane, named the Aluminum Overcast, doesn't feel like it should fly. With a full payload, it's 65,500 pounds of flying death with a wingspan of 103 feet. When its pilots hit the gas, four 1,200 horsepower engines chuckle at gravity and rip into the sky on what feels like pure strength alone.

They stuck me in the radio room, right behind the pilots. Upon take-off, the first thing you notice is the sound. The engines' roar sounds like a large waterfall — constant and violent. Moving around can be difficult, as the plane tends to toss you around and several passages are rather narrow.

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Once in the air, the staff squeeze passengers one-at-a-time up over the ballast doors, where bombs are dropped, under the cockpit and into the nose gunner's dome. It's a glass sphere with a big gun, one of 13 Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine guns. I screamed things that can't be printed upon arrival, when I looked out over freshly planted cornfields and two mighty guns.

According to the EAA, B-17s got their nickname from a reporter who took a long look at the things and called them Flying Fortresses. I'll give it a modern update: the B-17 Horror of History.

There were 12,731 of these planes built, and 4,735 fell in combat. That's 4,735 crews of young men who gripped those guns for their lives and stared at fighters from that glass sphere, probably screaming the same things as me. That's 4,735 planes worth of airmen who strapped themselves in so that 72 years later people in Burlington, Iowa, could live in peace and treat their machine like a museum exhibit.

I spoke to one of the pilots, Tom Ewing, just a moment before boarding.

"The sacrifice that these guys made who flew these, well the more you know about it the more you are absolutely astounded by it," Ewing said. ". . . We bring the plane around to honor the World War II veterans that flew it."

The Aluminum Overcast turns 73 on May 18. That's the date Vega Aircraft Co., now called Lockheed, delivered it to the Army in 1945. At the war's peak, workers were building 16 such planes a day. Ewing said only seven are still regularly being flown.

Those interested in rides or tours can contact the EAA at (920) 371-2244.

Have a job or a pastime you thing think Tanner ought to try? Give him a call at (319) 758-8144, or email tcole@thehawkeye.com.