Len Root is the pilot of a legendary historic aircraft.
“The star is the airplane,” he said humbly. “I’m just flying it.”
Root, wing leader of the B-17 Texas Raiders, will be piloting the Flying Fortress this weekend at the Chennault International Airshow.
“I grew up on a farm in Oregon, and I used to sit on a tractor for hours doing the fields,” he said. “Spring would come along and an old crop duster would come in — it was a Stearman biplane — and spray the fields that I had just spent the winter plowing up. I’d watch that Stearman and to me it was a crop-dusting airshow. I would watch this old airplane do aerial applications and I said, ‘I’m going to fly someday.’ ”
Root said in junior high he sat next to the son of the crop duster’s owner and peppered him with questions all during class.
“All my questions got answered and as soon as I turned 16, I went out to the local airport and got a job,” he said. “Instead of getting paid, I took flying lessons.”
Root said he majored in aviation in college.
“I’m dating myself now but Vietnam had just shut down and the military was kicking guys out,” he said. “While I was in college I was talking to recruiters and they just laughed at me. They said they were kicking guys out with thousands of hours of airtime more than me. They said because I had just gotten my ratings they didn’t need me, so I came up through the civilian ranks.”
Fresh out of college, Root got a job in Kansas as a flight instructor.
“They had a Stearman, as well, and I have a love of old airplanes and the engines of old airplanes so I was thrilled,” he said.
Root said he eventually took a corporate job flying for Dow Chemical in Houston and later American Airlines in Dallas.
“My old boss from Dow Chemical called one day and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to be a flight engineer on a B-17?’ Back then, this was in 1991, it was called the Confederate Air Force and they needed someone to move the plane from point to point,” he said. “I’ve been with the B-17 ever since.”
Now known as the Commemorative Air Force, the organization purchased the B-17 in 1967 for the sole purpose of education and use as a flying museum.
This particular plane was one of the first airborne early warning and control system aircraft and her missions included scouting, search and rescue, electronic countermeasures and weather reconnaissance.
“She was not an actual European bomber aircraft,” he said. “One of the reasons she’s still around is because she was made at the end of the war. The Navy picked her up and used her.”
Her last military assignment was at Naval Air Station Atsugi in Japan, where she flew patrols during the Korean War.
Root said Texas Raiders has undergone extensive restoration and performs regularly in airshows, civic events and flyovers, reuniting veterans with the historic aircraft.
“My favorite story is when a father and son came out to see the plane,” he said. “The father had served in World War II as a B-17 crewman and he showed his son around during the visit. The son came back the next morning and I started to shake his hand but he gives me this big bear hug — I thought he was going to crush my lungs out. He said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve been trying to get my dad to tell me about his experience in the war forever. When I was a kid I’d tell him we were studying it in history, tell me about it. Dad would say to go read the books and listen to your teacher. He always put me off. I never heard anything from Dad until yesterday. I talked him into coming out to look at the airplane, we got home, had dinner, went into the living room and Dad talked straight for three to four hours. We laughed, we cried, we laughed, we cried.’ ”
Root said he lives to hear those stories.
“Our purpose is to honor those who served,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re losing those stories, but keeping the history alive is what we’re all about. We want people to come out, crawl through that airplane, imagine you’re 19 years old on an oxygen mask crawling through this airplane with German fighters shooting at you. It’s a completely different experience from what people see or think about now with our current military with cruise missiles and drones.”
Though she didn’t serve in World War II, she’s painted in the colors of the 8th Air Force, 1st Bomb Wing/1st Air Division; 1st Combat Bombardment Wing; 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy) exhibiting the “Triangle L” tail code.
The bomber is based near Houston and maintained by the Gulf Coast Wing of the CAF, an all volunteer organization.
“We try to bring her places where veterans can come see her with their families,” he said. “It’s a little piece of history, up close and personal.”