After more than four decades as an airplane mechanic and inspector, Milt Kramlick has worked on everything from little Piper Cubs to Boeing 757s, but never anything like the B-17 bomber "Aluminum Overcast" that he spent two weeks maintaining this summer.
"Just under 13,000 were built, just under 5,000 were lost in battle, some days they would lose 60 or 70 a day," Kramlick said.
Less than a dozen of the B-17G "flying fortresses," which were used for long-range bombing missions in World War II, are still flying today. But unlike most of its brethren, the "Aluminum Overcast" never saw action in Europe. It rolled off the factory line too late and was sold as military surplus to a private buyer. Since then the aircraft has flown more than 1 million miles, serving as a cargo hauler, an aerial mapping platform and in fire and pest control operations.
In 1983, the plane was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association, which restored it and began offering flight tours to the public in 1994. The bomber is now flown to different American cities every summer.
"It's a living museum piece," said Kramlick, who served on the airplane's crew as it made stops in Minnesota this July.
Kramlick first met the plane on its visit to Billings in 2006. He asked the crew then what it would take to become one of them and he was encouraged to apply, which he did last August. In March, the retired inspector was on his way to Oshkosh, Wis., the "Aluminum Overcast's" home base, for training to become what is known as a crew chief.
Two crew chiefs travel with the airplane on its tours. They serve as flight engineers when the plane is in the air and perform a rigorous set of inspections and tests when it is grounded. "The entire aircraft gets inspected every day," Kramlick said.
Crew chiefs also attend to those taking a flight tour aboard the historic bomber.
"The noise, it's just deafening inside," Kramlick said. "It was built for war not for hauling passengers."
Kramlick began his work with airplanes as a crew chief during the Vietnam War. The Billings West High graduate was drafted in 1965. Draftees could not request service assignments, but Kramlick, who has loved planes since he was a small child, got lucky. "My work's love just happened to come true," he said.
After the war, he got civilian licenses as an airplane inspector and mechanic, and worked at Billings Logan International Airport until 2006.
While the "Aluminum Overcast" is a mechanically simple aircraft, Kramlick said, the plane transcends the sum of its parts.
"It's just such a big four-engine aircraft that it seems like it's living when it's flying," he said.
The bomber is decorated with the markings and nose art of another B-17 that was shot down over France in 1944. Since much of the original military equipment was removed before the plane's sale into private hands in 1946, its turrets, guns and other elements have been restored to give it the vintage look of a bomber with the 398th Bomb Group. With crews of 10 manning the planes, the 398th flew hundreds of missions over Nazi-held territory.
"You look at that and you just think, gee, the guys that did the real thing were the heroes," said Kramlick, pointing at one of the plane's turrets in a photo.
Through traveling with the bomber, Kramlick was able to meet some of those veterans, who come out to see the plane and remember their missions as it travels the country. Just like those vets are now in their 80s and 90s, the "Aluminum Overcast" is now in its twilight years.
"The EAA has a good supply of parts, we try to gather them, but there is a day coming when it will be grounded," Kramlick said.