As the engine fired up, it was impossible not to smile. We were embarking on a journey to the sky. For 30 minutes, we were passengers aboard the B-17 “Memphis Belle,” and this weekend, the public will have the same opportunity.
The same bomber used to film the 1990 movie will be available for public flights and tours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on April 27-28 at the Mather Field Airport (Atlantic Aviation FBO, 10510 Superfortress Ave.) during the Liberty Foundation’s 2013 Salute to Veterans tour. It’s an experience unmatched by today’s standards, one very few still alive get to recall.
While we climbed the skies above Rancho Cordova, Folsom and Sacramento, there was a sense of sobriety amongst the media buckled in as we realized 10 men typically younger than 20 took the same flights on their way to war. Manning the “chin guns” or “waist guns” positions were a lot scarier when bullets flew both directions, and for even just a few minutes, we got to get a taste of a different time and place — one etched in the history books of American lore.
“Estimates place the number of World War II veterans dying each day at over 1,500,” a press release from the Liberty Foundation stated. “With each death, another story of courage, honor and sacrifice is lost forever. This aircraft represents that legacy of courage and valor.”
Public flights will begin in the morning, with ground tours set for the afternoon. For $450 a pop for non-members of the Liberty Foundation — members pay $410 — the public can take to the skies aboard the Memphis Belle, too. The B-17 flight experience takes 45 minutes with approximately 30 minutes in flight. Passengers can become a Liberty Foundation Member for $40 and receive the member discount for family and friends. Ground tours will be free to the public.
“While the cost to take a flight sounds expensive, it must be put into perspective when compared to the B-17’s operating cost,” the press release stated. “A Flying Fortress cost is over $4,500 per flight hour. The Liberty Foundation spends over $1.5 millin annually to keep the B-17 airworthy and out on tour.”
There will be a designated, secure area for those who would like to watch the aircraft flights at no charge. Those flying, though, get to move about the aircraft to the different combat crew positions to see the viewpoint that thousands of American solders saw in combat over 60 years ago. This was my favorite part. I journeyed to each spot excitedly, even getting on my hands and knees to crawl my 6-foot-4-inch frame below the cockpit and into the “chin guns” area. Watching the world below through the glass was both captivating and intimidating.
“The most interesting place in the airplane is in the nose,” said Liberty Foundation volunteer Bob Hill, who was one of two pilots of the bomber on Monday. “That’s where the bombardier sat and that’s where the navigator sat in these airplanes. When you do get up to the nose, it’s very easy to get mesmerized up there. You can see the world. It’s like the vista compartment. You can see forever up there.”
Been there, done that
Climbing aboard our flight was 90-year-old WWII and Korean War veteran Dick Austin of Granite Bay, one of two veterans joining media flights on Monday — Henry Engel of Sacramento, who flew in WWII also, was the other. Austin was a B-17 pilot in WWII and flew 35 missions overall in his career.
“They asked me to come out and take a couple of pictures around the airplane and I said, sure, I’d be glad to do so that, as long as I don’t have to fly this airplane on missions anymore,” Austin said.
Austin rode in the back with us this time, a change of pace from the pilot’s cockpit.
“It’s too noisy back here and I felt really sad that my crew had to put up with that noise and vibration,” he said. “I could always see where we were going, all the activity we were going into and what kind of weather we were flying into. They don’t. They were in their little peepholes looking out and can’t see.”
The former pilot said the flight reminded him of his time in the service, which he recalled both fondly and with appreciation that it was over.
“It brings back a lot of memories of course,” he said. “It’s one thing to fly 10-15 minutes in an airplane, it’s another to fly 8-10 hours. You get really pooped. I flew four missions in a row one time. We were so dead tired by the third mission that we could hardly keep our eyes open. We were just flying by reflexes.
He said the ride felt a lot different now than it did back in his heyday.
“To me, it seemed like a smaller airplane, much smaller than I remember,” Austin said. “But as a young 22-year-old kid, I guess it seemed a lot bigger. But now it seemed like, hmmm. Even the pilots up there were sitting right next to each other. The airplanes I flew later on, we got nice, soft room, all the comforts of home, air conditioning.”
Still, he encouraged the public to come give the flight a try, as it is an eye opener for anyone who hasn’t been through it before.
“They see it as a bit of history, like riding on some horse with a suit of armor or something like that,” Austin said. “It would be like redoing a bit of history. Everybody on board there seems to be really delighted with it. Regardless of the shake, rattle and roll, they seemed to enjoy it.”
History of the Memphis Belle
The Memphis Belle is one of only 13 B-17’s that still fly today. The B-17 is dubbed the “Flying Fortress” as a result of her defensive firepower, showcased throughout WWII. Of the 12,732 B-17’s produced between 1935 and 1945, 4,735 were lost in combat. The Memphis Belle was built toward the end of the war and never saw any combat. It is painted in the colors and nose art of the original historical “Memphis Belle” B-17 that flew missions with the 91st bomb group of the 8th Airforce, the first B-17 to complete 25 missions. That “Memphis Belle” sits in a museum today and will never fly again.
The one available for tours this weekend, though, was indeed the one taken to England for filming of the “Memphis Belle” movie. Restored from a B-17G to resemble a B-17F, it commemorates the original bomber of the same name, just as the movie it was filmed in did.
The Liberty Foundation’s “Memphis Belle” was built in January 1945 in Long Beach, then operated in the U.S., Germany and Japan for the Army Air Forces and later the U.S. Air Force. It was retired from service in 1959 and released to be sold as surplus. In 1960 it was converted to a firefighting tanker with two 900-gallon tanks added to the bomb bay. In 1982, it was purchased by the Military Aircraft Restoration Corp. In 2012, it was leased to the Liberty Foundation while the Foundation’s B-17 “Liberty Belle” is down for a major restoration and rebuild.
The Liberty Foundation
The Liberty Foundation flies across the country to more than 50 cities sharing history with veterans, children and families. Its mission is to “give visitors the opportunity to take a step back in time and gain respect for men and women who gave so much to protect our freedoms.” The foundation is a non-profit flying museum, and funds generated aim to merely help offset the high costs of operation.
“Only the public’s interest and other generous donations keep this historical aircraft flying and from being silenced permanently in a museum for years to come,” the press release stated.
For more information on the foundation, visit libertyfoundation.org. To schedule your flight, which is heavily encouraged to guarantee you a seat, call 918-340-0243.