MATHER FIELD — The B-17 Flying Fortress sitting on the tarmac was originally made more than 67 years ago. Though it didn’t fly in combat it did nearly break in half while parked at a New England air museum when a tornado deposited a flying boat on its back.
Despite that severe damage once the four 9-cylinder 1,200 hp engines fired up and turned the propellers, one could really feel the power of a plane that served in three U.S. wars plus Israel’s 1948 war.
The acceleration had a G-force similar to taking off in a jet, but the climb, once it began lifting off its escape from the ground was more gentle and gradual — no rapid climb. This flight would only be at 1,500 feet.
In bombing runs over Germany the planes would fly at 18,000-20,000 feet, but 14,000 feet on D-Day. Cold was the enemy as much as the German fighters and flak guns; oxygen dispensers were at every crew station.
Joining the press on this flight was Charles Casella, invited by his hometown paper, the Lodi News Sentinel. Casella said the plane was noisier than the one he served on as a tail gunner.
“We had insulation in our B-17s,” Casella said.
This plane is undoubtedly also draftier.
Not on the press flight, but due to fly later, was Keith Connell of Stockton who became a bomber pilot in 1943 after graduating in 1942 from what was then called College of the Pacific in Stockton. He completed the required 25 missions and then went back to the states to be a flight instructor.
He was a squadron leader in command of seven planes and 70 men. He was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded the Air Medal four times and earned three Battle Stars as well as a letter of commendation from Winston Churchill.
On Connell’s seventh combat mission over Kiel, Germany, his group was attacked by 18 German fighter planes. He lost an engine, but was able to crash-land in England. His tail gunner was lost when he bailed out over the North Sea. There were 2,000 bullet holes in his plane.
Connell’s luck held again during a bombing raid on factories in Schweinfurt, when his was one of the only two planes to make it back out of 15 planes that took off together.
Less lucky was Larry Wreyford of Carmichael. Though he was in the same 305th Bomber Group as Connell, the two didn’t know each other, both serving at slightly different times. Wreyford was in the 364th Squadron and Connell in the 365th. Wreyford was shot down in September 1944 and spent eight-and-a-half months in Stalag Group 1. He made a career of the military, retiring in 1963.
While Connell completed 25 missions and rotated stateside, Casella, 89, flew 31 missions as a tail gunner. “This is my 32nd mission,” he said about Monday’s 15-minute flight over Folsom Lake.
Connell flew those extra missions because his 25th mission was D-Day, the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy and six more missions in support of the invasion. He got out in 1945 and worked 39 years for PG&E.
As little cotton-ball clouds flew by the window and hawks appeared to go sideways, it was good to know there were no worries about birds getting sucked into the engines. Those big propellers would turn them into duck soup.
This plane, like so many of the 12,732 B-17s built between 1935 and 1945, was put in storage to be available for the invasion of Japan. Of course, bigger planes, the B-29s, were used to attack Japan. The B-29s were pressurized and could fly 350 mph at 40,000 feet.
This B-17, before its unfortunate time with the air museum, was bought for $2,700 by Pratt and Whitney engine makers from a mining company. Pratt and Whitney operated it until 1967, installing a turboprop engine on the nose to test and develop turboprop engines. Then in 1968 it was donated to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Society, which was then struck by the tornado in 1979.
Don Brooks of the Liberty Foundation bought it in 1987 and began restoring it in 1992. It took 14 years to complete the restoration.
Brooks, of Florida, founded the Liberty Foundation as a tribute to his father who served as a tail gunner on a B-17 named the Liberty Belle.
On Sept. 9, 1944, the 390th Bomb Group attacked a target in Düsseldorf, Germany, and suffered its second largest single mission loss of the war, according to the Liberty Foundation’s Website. “Over the target just prior to bomb release, one of the low squadron B-17s was hit in the bomb bay by flak. The 1,000-pound bombs exploded and nine of the 12 aircraft in the squadron were instantly destroyed or knocked out of formation.
“Six of the nine went down over the target, one flew two hours on a single engine and landed at Paris, another ‘crippled plane’ landed in Belgium and the other struggled back to its home base and landed long after the other 39 B-17s had returned from the mission. The one that came home was ‘Liberty Belle.’ She went on to complete 64 combat missions before being salvaged on Feb. 18, 1945.”
And that’s the story of how this plane that didn’t see combat was named the Liberty Belle in honor of that World War II plane.
The Liberty Belle will be available for tours while it is parked April 17 at Mather and those who can afford the $430 can take a 25-minute flight. It accommodates nine. There will also be a P-40 Curtiss Warhawk fighter plane.
The B-17 burns 200 gallons of aviation gas an hour and 4 gallons of 60-weight oil. “We have a hard time finding the right kind of oil,” said co-pilot Bryan Wyatt. The plane, which flies around the country, costs $1 million annually to operate, Wyatt said.
This plane was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003 and began flying in 2004. Liberty Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit flying museum.
Michael Raffety can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or 530-344-5067. He would like to hear from anyone who flew in a B-17 crew.