Historic WWII bomber plane visits, offers flights

  • Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stefan Rogenmoser/Gazette The ball turret (bottom left) was one of the safest places to be during combat. It is seen below the fuselage in this photo taken from under the wing.


Pilot Cullen Underwood works his magic in the cockpit. The propellers begin to spin as the Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” engines sputter and catch and say, “Pop-pop-pop, pa-pa-pa-paaaaaaw-ruuuuumph!”

It’s a beautiful sound, followed by a puff of friendly smoke. The smell of aviation fuel exhaust from radial engines is like no other. It’s a smell thousands of airmen in World War II became familiar with as they boarded B-17s to drop bombs behind enemy lines.

It’s a smell that anyone could experience for $450 when members of the Liberty Foundation took guests for flights on the historic aircraft at Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island Oct. 12 and Oct. 13.

The flight were 25 minutes with a total experience of 45 minutes. It costs about $4,500 an hour for the non-profit to operate the airplane. They spend $1.5 million annually to keep it airworthy and on tour.

The B-17 burns 200 gallons of fuel per hour. Aviation fuel costs between $6 to $8 per gallon, Liberty Foundation volunteer Keith Youngblood said.

For those who could not afford to fly, the bomber was on display so visitors could walk through the plane after 3 p.m.

The Liberty Foundation is all volunteers who rotate weekends so they can return to their day jobs. They have about 30 pilots.

This touring piece of history is a good teaching tool for today’s kids who are taught little more about WWII than Pearl Harbor, Hitler and the atom bomb, according to Youngblood.

Seeing the airplane joggles veterans’ memories.

“Every weekend we usually see half a dozen veterans who come out to see the plane,” Youngblood said. “Families of veterans will hear their stories for the first time. It’s absolutely remarkable what they did. We can’t imagine what theses guys went through.”

“A lot of ground crew from the war come out with their log books,” Underwood said. “It’s great for family members of people whose grandfathers flew in it. It gives a great perspective. What attracts me to it is what they did in such a short time in those planes.”

The B-17 was known for being resilient to damage and attacks from Luftwaffe fighters and flak. About one-third of the B-17s made were shot down, Youngblood said.

Once the P-51 Mustang fighters came into the picture as escorts, far fewer B-17s were shot down, Youngblood said.

B-17s flew 150 mph at about 25,000 feet where it was -30 to -60 degrees Fahrenheit. Crews used oxygen tanks to breathe and often had frostbite around their mouths, Youngblood said. The bombers carried 4,000 to 8,000 pounds of bombs.

It was dubbed the “Flying Fortress” because it carried a crew of 10 men and 10 Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine guns that fired about 13 rounds per second. No gun aboard carried more than one minute’s supply of ammunition.

The crew was the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer (and top turret gunner), radio operator, two waist gunners, tail gunner and ball turret gunner.

This Memphis Belle is not the one featured in the 1944 documentary, “Memphis Belle: A Flying Fortress.”

The Memphis Belle crew was the first to complete 25 missions and return to the U.S. without losing a crew member. The Belle was part of the 91st Bomb Group in the “Mighty” Eighth Air Force.

After the war the original Memphis Belle was bought by the city of Memphis then donated back to the Air Force. It was on display at the Memphis National Guard Armory, where it was vandalized.

All the instruments were stolen and it was left to the elements. In 2005 it was taken to the National Museum of the USAF in Dayton, Ohio where it is being restored.

Only about 12 B-17s are still flying today.

The plane that visited the Lowcountry was painted as the “Memphis Belle” and flew to England with another B-17 in 1989 to be used in the 1990 Hollywood feature film “Memphis Belle.”

The “Movie Memphis Belle” was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Force on April 3, 1945 and served 20 years as a military transport. In 1960 it was sold to a private company that used it as a firefighting plane known as “Tanker 78.”

In 1982, WWII B-17 pilot David Tallichet bought it for the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation and restored it to resemble the military bomber.

To reserve a seat for a flight call (918) 340-0243.

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