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Centenarian pilot visits 103rd Attack Squadron

Two Air Force pilots in flight suits help an old man operate a flight simulator.

Retired Lt. Col. William P. Bonelli, a 100-year-old former B-17 Flying Fortress pilot, sits in a declassified USAF MQ-9 Reaper simulator flanked by two pilots and a sensor operator assigned to the 103rd Attack Squadron during a visit to learn more about remotely piloted aircraft at the 103rd Attack Squadron at Biddle Air National Guard Base in Horsham, Pennsylvania, April 15, 2021. Bonelli, who flew more than 20 combat missions as the squadron lead during World War II, shared his experience as an aviator with members of the 103rd and learned about the unit's RPA mission, which allows pilots to fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from across the globe. This image was digitally altered for operational security. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Senior Airman Wil Acosta)

Air Force members pose for a photo with a World War II veteran sitting in a wheel chair holding a picture frame.

Members of the 103rd Attack Squadron here pose for a photo with retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. William Bonelli, a 100-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor and B-17 pilot, during a morale visit at Biddle Air National Guard Base in Horsham, Pennsylvania, April 15, 2021. Members of the 103rd ATKS presented the Bonelli with a lithograph of an MQ-9 Reaper signed by the squadron as a token of appreciation for his service. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Wil Acosta)

BIDDLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE -- A 100-year-old U.S Air Force retiree’s visit to the 103rd Attack Squadron here proved you can take the pilot out of aviation, but you can’t take the aviation out of the pilot. 

Retired USAF Lt. Col. William P. Bonelli, a Pearl Harbor survivor who went from being an aviation mechanic to flying a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, sat in a declassified USAF MQ-9 Reaper simulator and talked tactics with fellow pilots during a visit to learn more about remotely piloted aircraft from the 103rd ATKS at Biddle Air National Guard Base in Horsham, Pennsylvania, April 15, 2021.

The tactical advantage of the MQ-9, which allows pilots to safely fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from across the globe, did not escape Bonelli, who survived more than 20 combat missions while flying as the lead aircraft in enemy airspace. 

“I learned a lot,” said Bonelli. “I didn't know we had such an airplane. And, here it is with a propeller on it!”

Though both the MQ-9 and the B-17 are propeller-driven airframes capable of delivering ordnance, Bonelli was well aware of how air power differed in his day, especially bombing runs.

“When you came back to hit a target, you would be at about 7500 feet, and you would be within the blast shock, but you wouldn't get fried,” said Bonelli while discussing one of the platforms her flew later in his career with his host, 103rd ATKS Commander Lt. Col. Pete. “Is that the first time you’ve heard of that?”

“No, but it’s the first time I’ve gotten to hear it from a WWII vet,” said Pete. “So, I’m going to take that and never forget it. It means a lot more coming from you than from someone else.”

Pete said he considered military veterans like Bonelli and his grandfather super heroes growing up and valued Bonelli sharing his stories with the 103rd. He said talking to Bonelli reminded him of an aviation painting that depicted pilots gathered after a mission, using their hands to describe the day’s events.

“As an Air Force pilot, there’s great value in his mentorship,” said Pete. “But, as an American, I’m star struck. Here I am kneeling next to a WWII B-17 pilot, and he’s talking with his hands. It was amazing.”

Bonelli was using the hand motions to describe how he flew his squadron into enemy territory. He described flying farther left, or farther right from the traditional flight path depending on the target to minimized the risk to his squadron faced from enemy fire.

“They needed squadron lead pilots,” said Bonelli. “They were losing them quite a bit.”

When Bonelli became a squadron lead, he made the most of lessons he learned watching the enemy engage his wingmen on past missions.

“Deliberately, I flew my squadron offset,” said Bonelli. “I didn't fly the same tract everyone else flew. Flying offset prevented the loss of aircraft in my squadron. And by doing so, I was able to avoid direct hits. Direct hits is what brought the aircraft down.” 

“And, the Germans with the [88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun] were very accurate. Our squadron aircraft used to fly in trail, which was foolish to do because the Germans would be able to make minimum corrections. We saved lives by flying offset.”

Major Will, a pilot assigned to the 103rd, said he was surprised at how quickly Bonelli adapted to the MQ-9 simulator.

“He sat down and once I told him, ‘Hey, here’s your stick. Here's your throttle,’ he seemed right at home,” said Will.  “It was really fun showing him how things have changed in the airplane versus the B-17. There’s a little more technology and automation now, but the basics are still there, and it was really cool to see him pick it right up.”

Will, said it was a rare treat to talk with Bonelli and hear about the aviation history he had read about from a primary source. 

“Meeting someone like Lt. Col. Bonelli and hearing his stories makes us realize what we’re doing here,” said Will, who keeps a picture of his grandfather from WWII on his desk as a reminder of why he loves aviation and military history. “There’s a lot of heritage from then to now. We’re fighting for our country. But, it’s hard to think we’ll make an impact as big as someone from that era.”

However, Pete said he saw one thing in common between veterans like Bonelli and the men and women at the 103rd. 

“You know I see the same thing that U.S. witnessed in WWII, where citizens were called to defend our country,” said Pete. “They are serving locally, but they are defending globally. And, that parallel exists from what I witnessed today getting to talk to Lt. Col. Bonelli.”

As a token of appreciation for that common bond and to commemorate his visit, members of the 103rd presented Bonelli with a lithograph of an MQ-9 Reaper signed by the squadron. 

Bonelli commented that the MQ-9 lacked a cockpit for a pilot and a jet engine at first. However, he later said it had something more important in the ability to accomplish the mission while keeping service members safe.


“It’s great what we can do to save lives and prevent the loss of lives,” said Bonelli. “That’s more important. That’s the way I flew. That’s the attitude I had flying into Germany. I was preventing the loss of lives.”

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