July 1, 2004
Julie K. Boatman
When the Boeing B-17G Yankee Lady leaves its home at the Yankee Air Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to tour the East Coast each summer, it is one of "six or seven B-17s still flying," according to Gen. Richard Bodycombe, a pilot lucky enough to sit at the controls. Bodycombe has more than 1,000 hours in the Yankee Lady, enough for a lifetime of fantastic flying tales. But Bodycombe himself has quite a history.
Bodycombe began his flying career like many young men of his era, by signing on the dotted line. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in September 1942 and was sent to the University of Pittsburgh for four months "holding," he recalls. There he learned meteorology, navigation, and other basic science to prepare him to fly. He moved from a Boeing PT-17 Stearman — a crop duster was his instructor — to the left seat of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator within the span of 12 months. After initial training in the Liberator at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, Bodycombe traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he met the nine "strangers" who would become his fellow crew members. "Talk about a 'band of brothers'!" he says. By the time he saw combat, he had 200 hours in the Liberator: "We weren't rushed into combat," he says. Which was a good thing, because his tours took him across Europe at the height of World War II. "The Tuskegees took me to Vienna nine times," Bodycombe recalls, referring to the two or four Red Tails from the 332nd Fighter Group who accompanied the big Liberator bombers on each mission.
"When things start coming through the side of the airplane — I don't care who you are — you gotta be scared," says Bodycombe. And the B-24s were restricted to 23,000 to 24,000 feet maximum altitude, which kept them that much closer to antiaircraft artillery. Bodycombe survived a crash landing in Italy, and returned from the war to finish college and earn a teaching degree.
Bodycombe started flying for the Ford Motor Company, a job he held for 27 years, flying everything from Douglas DC-3s and Beech 18s to the Boeing 727, including Convair 580s, a Gulfstream GII, and several Hawker models. He was the chief pilot when Lee Iacocca was at the helm.
The Air Force wasn't through with Bodycombe, however, and he stayed on to work with the original cadre that started the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He retained his commission, and in 1976 he was appointed to command the Air Force Reserve and promoted to major general. While leading the Reserve, he flew the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. In 1982, he turned 60 and was "put out to pasture" by the Air Force.
Upon his retirement, Bodycombe searched for something to occupy himself — and keep him in the skies. He found the Yankee Air Museum, which had a Douglas C-47 (a military version of the DC-3 he had flown for Ford) that he began flying. He looked all over the world for a B-24 and couldn't find one to buy, although he estimates that at the time there were three left flying. More B-24s were built than B-17s.
In 1985, the museum heard of four B-17Gs that had been used as fire bombers in the Southwest. The owner at the time couldn't get parts for the airplanes, so it put them up for sale. Although the company had paid $15,000 to $18,000 apiece for the airplanes, an auctioneer deemed they were worth $250,000 each. The Yankee Air Museum secured the last one and began restoration.
Nine years later, Bodycombe began flying the Yankee Lady as the chief B-17 pilot. The Yankee Lady spends summers giving rides, raising money for the museum and the airplane's upkeep.
Bodycombe co-owned a Cessna 310R in the 1990s, which he flew from October to March. During the airshow season, he had all the flying he could handle taking the B-17 across the eastern United States. He has a lot of respect for his compatriots in the Commemorative Air Force (formerly the Confederate Air Force), another group responsible for the upkeep and flying of many priceless warbirds. "We're not competing — they're wonderful. We joke about us being Yankees."
Although Bodycombe has more than 22,000 hours, he says, "The best flying of my career is in this great, beautiful bomber of ours."
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