WWII pilot again takes flight in B-17

Not a day goes by that John “Lucky” Luckadoo doesn’t wonder how he could have made it past his 21st birthday, never mind his 91st — which he celebrated last Saturday.

Luckadoo, who’s lived in Dallas since 1960, was one of the original pilots in the 100th Bomb Group, known as the “Bloody Hundredth” in World War II. Part of the 8th Air Force based in England, the group flew the iconic B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing missions over Germany and France.

At that point in the war, there may have been no more dangerous assignment than to be one of the 10 men in the crew of the huge B-17 Flying Fortresses lumbering over Germany, loaded with up to 5,000 pounds of bombs. With the D-Day invasion a year off, the fate of the war remained very much up in the air. Allied pilots, mostly young British and Americans in their late teens and early 20s, waged ferocious battles in the skies against the Luftwaffe, the German air force.

On its first mission, the 100th Bomb Group lost three B-17s and 30 men. During one mission to Berlin, 15 aircraft were lost. During this time, Luckadoo flew his B-17 on raid after raid after bloody raid.

“They were cutting us to ribbons,” Luckadoo said of the German defenses. “We were playing against the pros, on their turf, and we were paying a heavy price.”

The Dallas Morning News reports that last week, 68 years after Luckadoo last flew in a B-17, he once again climbed aboard a Flying Fortress.

He was invited to be part of a short flight from Denison to Dallas as a guest of the Wings of Freedom Tour at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field. The event ran through today and included an exhibition of rare WWII-era bomber and fighter aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress, the P-51 “Mustang” fighter and the German Messerschmitt 262.

Luckadoo is a trim 6-footer, with a strong voice that still commands authority. He didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d like to be at the controls of the B-17 again. Though he isn’t certified to fly anymore, he said he wouldn’t turn down the chance to “take the stick for a minute or two if they allowed me.”

Even before the country entered the war late in 1941, Luckadoo had combat aircraft on his mind. In 1940, after graduating from high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., he and a buddy hatched a plan to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. They wanted a head start on the world war they knew would eventually pull in the United States.

Luckadoo’s dad refused to give consent. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Luckadoo got his wish. He left college to serve in the Army Air Forces and graduated from flying school in February 1943.

He was immediately assigned to the newly formed 100th Bomb Group. The outfit flew B-17 heavy bombers that traveled in large formations during daylight raids against strategic targets such as weapons factories, oil refineries and shipyards. They could be in the air for up to eight hours.

Luckadoo, a second lieutenant co-pilot, and his fellow crew members would soon be involved in many epic air battles over Germany. In October 1943, Luckadoo embarked on a particularly dangerous mission to bomb shipyards in the German industrial town of Bremen. He later described the events in an article he wrote in 1993 for the 100th Bomb Group association. The flak shot at the B-17s from antiaircraft guns on the ground was so thick, Luckadoo wrote, he could have “put down our wheels and taxied on it!”

German fighter planes attacked them from all directions. Of the 18 planes that the 100th Bomb Group sent out that day, only six returned. The rest, Luckadoo said, either exploded in the air, crashed or were shot down. Bullet holes in the fuselage of his plane let in so much freezing air that he developed frostbite in both feet as he struggled to get the craft back to England.

A year ago, Luckadoo appeared at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado to speak at a symposium on leadership.

“We were thrust into a position of leadership, whether we wanted to accept it or not, because of circumstances,” he recalled telling the young cadets. “You have to reach inside to discover the qualities you need to lead. It comes down to acceptance of responsibility for the welfare for others and yourself.”

He insists he was more lucky than good as a pilot and said there were many better pilots who were shot down. Of those who never came back, he said: “I’ll never forget them. When they’re gone and you’re still here, you think, ‘Why them and not me?’”

Luckadoo left the military after the war, settled in Denver with his wife and became a real estate developer. They moved to Dallas in 1960. He retired in 1987.

Luckadoo never figured he’d get another chance to fly in a B-17. “First time back in one in 68 years,” he said.

As luck, or fate, would have it, the weather Wednesday was perfect for flying — sunny and cool. Luckadoo boarded the B-17 in Denison and squatted down in the radio operator’s seat — just a few inches off the floor.

The B-17, owned by the Collings Foundation, completed 140 combat missions during World War II. About 2 p.m., the old, coffee-colored workhorse appeared on the horizon of Love Field and taxied down the runway adjacent to the museum.

A few minutes later, Luckadoo crouched through a side door wearing a tan jacket and khakis and a 100th Bomb Group commemorative blue cap. Smiling with sunglasses, shaking hands, joking, and looking relieved and exhilarated, he offered a glimpse of the young second lieutenant just after a mission some 70 years earlier.

The trip couldn’t have gone smoother, said the man who’d seen some rough rides in his time.

“I’m just glad we didn’t get shot at,” he said.

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