Generations pass through history like wind drifting through pine thickets. Some called the World War II folks our greatest generation. Many are gone now but some remain, old with only brave hearts and memories of a frightening moment in time when madness almost won world domination.
Thoughts like this are ever present while sitting on a B-17 bomber listening to the engines warm up for a takeoff. The tightly cramped fuselage was once loaded with 10 crew members doing their jobs as machine gunners, radio men or other important components of a successful team. Each job being well done generally meant survival for the other crew members.
The Memphis Belle – not the original now housed in an Air Force Museum, but the plane used in the movie of that name – rolled down the Charles B. Wheeler Airport runway with a sleekness that defied its bulky bomber status. The vintage plane taxied past the downtown Kansas City airport where Charles Lindbergh and many other celebrities once landed and took off.
Four magnificent radial engines made a thunderous roar before takeoff, the very same amazing power that once carried heavy bomb loads and a big crew. The B-17 we rode on that day was built at the end of WWII in 1945 and never saw action. But many like it did, helping to win the war.
The plane smoothly taxied down the longest runway. Suddenly the four engines revved up and smoke from burnt fuel drifted back in the fuselage. The old girl picked up speed down the runway and lifted off with ease.
Her four engines made a smooth sound as the pilot trimmed pitch and leveled off. This would be a short flight around Kansas City – a tiny fraction compared to the thousands of miles flown in the 1940s to bomb German forces with more than 640,000 tons of bombs.
Soon the pilots were making soft turns over onlookers down below on the northeastern corner of Kansas City. Many wanted to observe an important part of history, or perhaps to admire this beautiful lady in flight. The four magnificent radial engines’ loud, steady purr was certainly just reason to look up.
A top hatch and the waist gunner ports were both open, creating an overwhelming roar of engine and wind noise through the fuselage. My imagination took over as images of the waist gunners checking their guns while the radio operator checked signals, a calm navigator confirmed course and the pilots watched their instruments appeared in my imagination.
They were a brave group that flew missions after seeing their comrades’ planes disintegrate in midair from German flak or fighter planes. The rest fought for survival and for their lost buddies.
The B-17 made its first circuit and turned back over the airport while everyone on board scrambled to take pictures from every angle. After all, you don’t fly on a WWII bomber every day.
The Liberty Foundation’s B-17 Memphis Belle is one of only 13 of her kind still flying. She is painted the same colors as the original historic Memphis Belle that flew countless missions with the 91st bomb group of the 8th Air Force and was the first to complete 25 missions.
The B-17 we few on had an interesting history after being sold as surplus after the war to National Metals for $2,687. By 1960 she was converted to a water bomber to aide fire fighters and later operated as a fuel tanker until the late 1970s.
The Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation started by David Tallichet, a war-time B-17 pilot in the 100 fighter group, purchased her and restored everything, including the gun turrets and original airplane’s paint schemes. She received her beauty treatment and was soon a movie star, the leading lady in the movie “Memphis Belle,” filmed in England, July 1989.
The Memphis Belle made two more circuits before everyone was told to sit down and buckle up. The old girl gently dropped down and touched the runway a couple of times before rolling in for a perfect landing.
Crowds of onlookers crowded the airport fence, taking pictures or just observing this beautiful airplane as she made one last turn and then stopped. I hated to see this ride end!
The Memphis Belle is owned and operated through donations and volunteers including the pilots. Their goal is to preserve history by presenting the Memphis Belle to the public while honoring veterans.
Problem is, operation expenses to fly the B-17 are $4,500 per hour and an engine overhaul is approximately $50,000. The original restoration of this B-17 cost $3 million. The Liberty Foundation needs corporate or individual contributions to keep history in the air.
Want to learn more about this historic project? Call (770)-480-9611 or write: The Liberty Foundation, 10988 South 4203 Road, Claremore, OK 74017.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org