IF YOU GO
What: Public flights and ground tours of the "movie" Memphis Belle B-17 "Flying Fortress"
When: Flights are scheduled hourly from 10 a.m. through 2 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Augusta Regional Airport, 1501 Aviation Way, Augusta
Directions: From Statesboro, take U.S. Highway 25 North to Tobacco Road in Augusta. Turn right on Tobacco Road, which becomes Aviation Way.
Cost: Flights are $450 each. Ground tours are free, but donations are accepted.
Information: To reserve a seat on a flight, call (918) 340-0243 with your preferred flight time. After the last flight lands, around 2:30 p.m., the plane will be open for tours until dark.
AUGUSTA — When the 70-year-old Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" that starred as the Memphis Belle in the movie takes off Saturday from Augusta Regional Airport, things will be different than when new B-17s flew bombing missions against Nazi-ruled Germany.
Aside from the obvious points of not dropping bombs and getting shot at, Saturday's guests, who will pay $450 each for the privilege of flying, won't need heated suits and oxygen masks. The plane, under the control of a pilot and co-pilot who volunteer with the Liberty Foundation, will rise to a mere fraction of the icy and oxygen-deficient 30,000-foot heights these planes cruised at during World War II.
But flying aboard the "movie" Memphis Belle does give one a different glimpse into the conditions bomber crews worked in than just seeing a plane on the ground. Soon after the plane is in the air, crew members pass the word to begin your self-guided tour.
"As soon as the wheels break ground, you can out of your seat, you get to go to every position in the aircraft except the tail gunner position ...," said Liberty Foundation pilot Cullen Underwood. "You get to stand at the waist guns, play with the guns, act like you're shooting down German aircraft, and basically just experience the airplane, the smell and the sounds."
About 15 reporters, photographers and videographers, grouped for two separate flights, flew Monday afternoon aboard the Memphis Belle. A World War II Navy veteran and a Korean War veteran were also on the second flight. Disclosure: Media flights were free as the nonprofit Liberty Foundation, raising money to maintain the flights and restore two other B-17s to flying condition, seeks to promote its mission.
With some assistance for fastening the old military-style seat belts, the passengers were seated, some facing forward in single seats on either side of the plywood catwalk in the radio room and behind the pilot and co-pilot. Others farther back sat in canvas jump seats facing each other across the plane.
Thanks to its open machine gun ports, the B-17 was damp inside. But a mist of rain didn't stop the flight. One of the volunteers commented that the weather might have been typical of what American aircrews saw taking off from bases in England.
In wartime, the 10-member crew would often be on board for eight to 10 hours. Monday's flights, like those being offered Saturday, were in the air about 25 minutes. The total experience lasts about 40 minutes.
Besides the prohibited tail gunner's post, blocked by a net, nobody rode in the ball turret — not that anybody would want to. The ball turret gun position, underneath the plane, was a notorious death trap. Its closed, domed lid protruded underfoot in the plane's midsection.
The four 1,200-horsepower engines chugged and grumbled like a gathering of tractors as Underwood and co-pilot Stuart Goldstein warmed them and the plane began to taxi. But the plane's maintenance chief, Rod Schneider, whose paid job is reportedly with Delta Airlines, had made sure things were in order. As takeoff approached, the sound of the engines rose to the steady roar that continued throughout the flight.
A whiff of fuel and lubricant confirmed Underwood's description of a multisensory experience.
A singular highlight of the flight was the opportunity to visit the plane's transparent nose. A swivel seat there, surrounded by curved glass in front and sides, was the bombardier's work station. Underwood called the view "a glass-carpet, magic-carpet ride," and crew members warned journalists not to become mesmerized and spend too much time there, depriving others of the chance. Getting there from the rear of the plane requires shuffling sideways on the catwalk between the bomb racks and then climbing down into a space under the pilot's and co-pilot's deck.
The bombs are harmless replicas, and belts of hollow cartridges are attached to the nonfunctional machine guns. During the war, each B-17 bristled with 10 standard 50-caliber machine guns. It could carry 8,000 pounds of bombs.
"We fly the B-17 to honor our veterans and to teach our younger people a little of the history of World War II ...," said Ron Gause, a Liberty Foundation pilot who served as a ground crew volunteer Monday.
Gause, 78, learned to fly in the Air Force during the Korean War, but served in North Africa, not in combat. In 55 years of flying, he has flown about 45 types of propeller planes, but says the B-17, which he started flying in 2005, is his favorite.
"It is the aircraft that was the mainstay that helped to defeat Germany," Gause said.
Of the 12,732 B-17s built during the war, 4,735 were lost in combat. But many of the 47,000 crewmen from the downed planes survived, often as prisoners of war. Operated mainly by the U.S. 8th Air Force, then part of the Army, the Flying Fortresses dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs on European targets.
Tales of 4 planes
In combat Nov. 7, 1942, to May 17, 1943, the original Memphis Belle became the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions, its entire crew surviving despite extensive damage to the plane. After the war, it deteriorated and was vandalized while on public display in Memphis, Tennessee.
Now back in federal hands, the plane is being restored for static display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.
None of the dozen B-17s now flying ever saw combat, according to Liberty Foundation Flight Director Scott Maher. The "movie" Memphis Belle is no exception. Built in January 1945 and delivered around the time the war in Europe ended, it was used first as a transport and then as a tanker to fight forest fires.
In private ownership, it was one of two B-17s flown to Europe for the filming of the 1990 movie. Re-equipped and painted to look like the original, it was used in the close-up shots.
The Liberty Foundation leases the plane and is flying it while raising money and completing restoration of two B-17s it owns.
Aviation enthusiast Don Brooks of Douglas, Georgia, whose father, the late Elton Brooks, served as tail gunner on the original B-17 Liberty Belle, established the Liberty Foundation to preserve the planes as flying museums. The original Liberty Belle had been scrapped after being extensively damaged in combat, but the foundation restored another B-17 as the Liberty Belle, and first flew it December 2004.
However, it was virtually destroyed — no one was injured — in 2011 when a fuel system fire near one of the engines forced a landing in an Illinois field where fire trucks could not reach the plane. So the commemorative Liberty Belle is now at Douglas, awaiting a new restoration.
The foundation's other critical case is a B-17 recovered from Dyke Lake in Labrador, Canada, where it had been submerged for more than 50 years. Abandoned after being belly-landed on the frozen lake in 1947, the plane sank with the spring thaw.
While awaiting these long-term restorations, foundation volunteers fly the Memphis Belle, offering flights at airports around the country almost every weekend. Maintaining and operating the plane costs about $4,500 per hour of flight time, according to the foundation.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.