FRENCHVILLE, Maine — It has been close to 70 years since Edmond Theriault of Fort Kent sat in the pilot’s seat of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, but on Thursday, the World War II veteran said it felt pretty familiar and perhaps he could fly it again, with a few adjustments.
“I’d have to front up the seat,” the 91-year-old said. “I can’t quite reach the controls like this.”
Theriault did not pilot the plane, but he was among several Aroostook County-area World War II veterans given rides aboard the Sentimental Journey during two special flights Thursday afternoon before the Acadian Heritage Air Show, which kicks off this weekend, Aug. 9 and 10, at the Northern Aroostook Regional Airport.
In 1945 and 1946, Theriault piloted a B-17 on so many missions over the Pacific Ocean out of what was then Formosa, now Taiwan, that he lost count.
“Everyone in those days wanted to be a pilot,” he said. “It was nice as long as there was not any trouble.”
Though technically a bomber, the B-17 Theriault piloted was used for search-and-rescue missions in cooperation with planes that could land on the water or submarines that could rescue downed airmen from below.
Instead of bombs, Theriault’s plane dropped 3,400-pound rescue boats in which he said 10 men could survive 60 days.
“I was the last resort,” Theriault said. “Once the boat dropped, they had to wait for another plane to come and get them.”
Theriault said his missions varied in length, but he recalled that his longest was a 1,400-mile flight from California to Hawaii.
“That’s when you pray there is not a strong headwind,” he said. “Those headwinds can make things difficult.”
Back on the ground Thursday after a 20-minute flight over the St. John River and Long Lake, Theriault said the plane’s pilots did a great job.
“This can be a tricky plane to land,” he said. “This was really smooth.”
Thunderstorms passing through the area delayed his flight, but Theriault said they were nothing like some of the storms he experienced decades ago over the Pacific.
“I remember one night there was so much lightening, the inside of the cockpit was like daytime,” he said.
On another flight, lightning struck one of the plane’s four engines, creating a circle of electricity and light around the propellor that he said the pilots called “St. Christopher’s halo.”
Despite Theriault having logged thousands of hours in a B-17, Thursday’s flight did mark a first for him.
“This was the first time I ever sat in back,” he said. “It was a little different than being a pilot [because] when you’re the pilot, you’re the boss.”
Fellow veteran James Jalbert of Fort Kent logged plenty of his own time in the air while piloting 58 missions over the Pacific in B-24 bombers.
“Was piloting those planes fun?” the 94-year-old veteran asked rhetorically while waiting for his ride in Sentimental Journey on Thursday. “Sure it was if you liked getting your fanny shot by flak, it was a lot of fun.”
The “flak,” or exploding shells from anti-aircraft guns, was a constant threat on bomb runs, Jalbert said, and the B-24 had no defensive armament around the cockpit.
“We used to sit on our parachutes so we did not get our butts shot,” he said. “There were times flak was coming up through the plane and out the top.”
On other missions, Jalbert recalled witnessing dogfights between Japanese and American fighter planes.
“Except for the combat,” he said, “the Army was fun.”
Jalbert still tears up, however, when he thinks of comrades who did not come home.
“I think the hardest thing for me was when I got home, the parents of the guys who got killed would seek me out and want to meet me,” he said. “I would talk with them and wonder what they were thinking [because] I made it home but their son did not.”
Roland Dumond, 91, never flew in a B-17 until Thursday, but remembered as he prepared to drive a tank into Normandy on D-Day looking up and seeing the sky darkened by hundreds of the planes flying overhead.
“You could hear them coming from a long way off,” he said. “It was like a growling, [and] I never thought I’d see one here in Frenchville.”
Friend and fellow veteran Alberie Nadeau, 90, served on the ground in World War II, and was thrilled at the opportunity to fly in the B-17 on Thursday.
“I am really excited,” he said as he admired the glistening silver plane. “This is one big bird, [and] I feel so honored they asked me to go for a ride.”
For the plane’s pilots, Reid Maccosham and Jim Dennison, they said the best part of flying the vintage craft was meeting veterans such as Theriault, Jalbert, Dumond and Nadeau.
“It’s always neat to meet these guys and take them up,” Maccosham said. “There are fewer and fewer of them, so every time we do it, it’s really special.”
Dennison’s father was a gunner in a B-17 in World War II, and he grew up listening to his dad and his crewmates talking about their missions in the plane.
“It’s an honor and a blast to fly these vets today,” Dennison said.
The Sentimental Journey is one of only eight B-17s still flying and, while a sturdy plane, Maccosham said it is far from a luxury flight.
“It’s like flying a dump truck,” he said.
Though Sentimental Journey never saw battle, it was flown continuously during World War II performing other tasks before being retired and later donated to the Arizona Wings in 1978.
Before arriving in Frenchville, the plane stopped for a few days at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton .
This weekend at the Frenchville air show, the Sentimental Journey will offer flights starting at $425 and will be joined by vintage and experimental aircraft from around the country.
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the fighter planes as “jets.”