Gil Mangels was born with the sound of B-17 heavy bombers rumbling overhead in 1942. It’s the sound of a happy childhood for him. Now, some 70 years later, Gil has had the honor of flying in one.
Gil’s parents, both from Lake County, Montana, moved to Seattle in 1941 to worked for Boeing Aircraft. They helped build B-17s, and later the larger B-29s, through 1945. The sound of bomber test flights hummed Gil to sleep as a baby. Perhaps it fed his soul, too.
“That sound of those radial engines on those bombers is something I can recognize from a distance. I’m sure I heard it constantly. As soon as they got them out the door, they did a test flight.”
Gil has spent several decades collecting artifacts of American history at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson. His deep love for his country is apparent everywhere including just about everything from Indian culture and the Revolutionary War to motorcycles and beauty aids. His head is full of information about every piece and every picture on the site.
Nowhere is Gil’s respect for America more apparent than when he discusses the intense efforts and sacrifices of those who fought in America’s wars. Museum displays include uniforms, jeeps, weapons, period posters, airplanes, even gas masks and pieces of flak.
Gil is currently setting up a replica of a B-17 crew member barracks at the museum, complete with everything from flight jackets to foot lockers. “They spent a lot of time in their barracks waiting for the next mission,” he says. And Gil’s telling of the gripping details of what fighters have gone through brings a visitor into their world.
This past 4th of July, Gil got a chance to visit that world up close. Frank Hale, a corporate pilot in Kalispell, is also a volunteer pilot on a B-17 owned by the non-profit Collings Foundation. A frequent visitor to the museum, Frank knew of Gil’s love for that plane, and had been trying to get him a courtesy flight for seven years. He finally got one — an hour and a half flight on the “Nine-O-Nine” bomber from Spokane to Kalispell, part of the Collings fleet of three heavy bombers and two fighter aircraft on a national “Wings of Freedom” tour.
Due to stormy weather, the flight was delayed a day from the intended July 3, so Gil was able to visit with the crew for two days, soaking in all the stories and aircraft facts he could. On July 4, they flew a direct line to Pablo Reservoir, and then curved north, flying just east of the museum so they could take pictures of it from the plane, and then over Flathead Lake. They made a dramatic arrival over the Kalispell courthouse and up Main Street as people were lining the street for the parade. “It was a real treat for them on the ground,” says Gil.
Gil took the opportunity to sit in most of the crew positions on the plane, including Bombardier and several gunner seats. “They’re very noisy,” he observed. “You just have a thin sheet of aluminum, and so I realized even more so how vulnerable the crew was to flak and enemy fighters.” He explained that some got frostbite from high altitude flights. “Trying to operate guns with fingers so numb … those boys really sacrificed a lot.”
Gil reflected that “You had to be a pretty sharp guy to fly in formation. I’ve seen a photo where a bomb from a higher plane hit one below it. And the gunners’ field of fire made it so you had to worry about shooting your own if you’re shooting at an enemy fighter.”
The B-17 was called the ‘Flying Fortress,’” Gil says with respect. “It carried a tremendous bomb load and had up to fourteen 50-caliber machine guns. It was a formidable airplane. The biggest danger was flak from anti-aircraft guns. Once they had the range and height of the airplane, those shells would explode and that would rupture hydraulic lines or whatever it hit. That probably took more of toll than enemy fighter airplanes.”
“It was a very strong, dependable airplane,” says Gil. He related stories of B-17s returning with one engine. One returned after a German fighter plane had crashed into it, with the tail hanging by just a few strands of cable and structure, with the tail gunner still in it. “The story from the crew was that if you wanted to get there faster and carry a bigger bomb load, you’d go on a B-24. You want to get home, you’d go on a B17.”
“I’ve always been appreciative of the sacrifice, collecting memorabilia, bits and pieces and stories, but this was just the icing on the cake. It’s a beautiful airplane.”