People could get a glimpse this past weekend of the Flying Fortresses that ferried their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers through the skies during World War II thanks to the Liberty Foundation.
The non-profit group, which is dedicated to keeping historic aircraft in the air, was at Clark County Airport in Sellersburg, Ind., with the B-17 bomber “Memphis Belle.”
The aircraft was built near the end of World War II, and was used in the 1990 movie “Memphis Belle.” While the visiting plane is not the original Memphis Belle — which saw much action during the war — it does have a long and colorful history, and in 1989 was painted in the exact color scheme of its new namesake in preparation for the movie.
Fowler said the Foundation travels through the region about once a year. People could look at the plane for free, or take to the skies in her for $450 for a roughly 30-minute flight.
While that price might seem high, Fowler said the “Memphis Belle” is “an incredibly expensive” aircraft to fly, and the non-profit organization “spends more than we’ll ever bring in” on fuel and upkeep.
The plane is among only 12 flight-worthy B-17s left in the world, according to the Foundation, which travelled the country with the “Liberty Belle” until it was badly damaged in a fire last year.
“Our goal,” Fowler said, “is to keep them out of the museum, keep them flying. And the way we can do that is through public support.”
There were 12,732 B-17s built in the 1930s and 1940s, of which 4,735 were lost in combat during World War II.
Some of the remaining aircraft later saw action in Korea, Israel and even in Vietnam, though they they are most well-remembered and revered for their integral role in the WWII precision bombing campaign against German military and industrial targets. The high-flying, long-range bomber earned the title “Flying Fortress” with its impressive defensive firepower, boasting between seven and 13 guns, depending on the version.
The four-engine aircraft was also renowned for its ability to return safely home despite the loss of multiple engines or extensive damage.
Wayne Tabor, a 93-year-old WWII veteran, flew in the “Belle” last week, his first flight in a B-17 in 70 years.
He let out a deep laugh as the plane jostled him in his seat as it flew over Clark County, and turned to the young man beside him to recount how he’d once returned to base and counted, along with his crew members, 235 holes in their B-17.
Tabor served as waist-gunner in 30 missions during the war as part of the Eighth Air Force out of England.
“It’s like they’re 19 again for a small second,” Fowler said of the veterans he takes up in the plane; and with the wind rushing through Tabor’s snow-white hair from the open roof and waist-gunner’s windows, he did seem to smile the smile of a young man again, if only for a moment.
Tabor told another tale of his WWII service, which humbled the attentive crowd at the airport. “It was D-Day,” he began, as though everyone had a D-Day story, “and we had air superiority.”
The clouds, he said, had at first blocked the view of the beaches below, but “all at once, there was an opening in the clouds. Thousands of ships were going toward France. They looked like water-bugs,” he said, reliving the moment in his mind, still stunned by the magnitude of it all.
The goal of the Liberty Foundation is to “provide visitors the opportunity to take a step back in time and gain respect for the men and women who gave so much to protect our freedoms.”
Fowler said visiting the plane is a “living history lesson.” Climbing aboard the “Memphis Belle” is truly taking a step back in time, as the interior of the plane is just as it would have been during the war, with no upgraded features. Air rushes in as you cruise through the skies, and the bomber, which lacks hydraulics, bounces unpredictably in turbulence, just enough to keep its passengers on their toes.
Passengers on the flights were required to remain seated only for take-off and landing. They could move around the plane and explore each of the different positions during the flight.
The most impressive position to many is the plane’s glass nose, which offers once-in-a-lifetime views and inspires awe for the soldiers who spent hours at the gun here.
Toward the middle of the aircraft, passengers could stick their heads - or their cameras, if they were careful - out the open roof or waist-gunners positions.
The Liberty Foundation will have the “Belle” at three regional airports this month. This Saturday and Sunday they will be at the Indianapolis Regional Airport in Greenfield; on Oct. 14 they will be at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in St. Louis; and on Oct. 20-21 they will be at the Olive Branch Airport in Olive Branch, Miss., near Memphis.
For more information see libertyfoundation.org, or to schedule a flight call (918) 340-0243.