ATLANTA — Inside the B-17 bomber, five miles high over Germany in 1944, the temperature fell to 50 degrees below zero. Lt. Jonathan Swift, U.S. Air Force, wore thick gloves to keep his hands from getting stuck to his bombardier's sight like a kid's tongue on a flagpole.
As they neared Berlin, Swift, then a 20-year-old kid, could see the anti-aircraft fire coming straight up at his plane.
"It looked like there was no way to get through that," he recalled. "We used to say the anti-aircraft fire was so thick you could walk on it. I said to myself, hell has gotta look like that."
The World War II planes weren't called Flying Fortresses for nothing, though. When he and his fellow fliers examined the planes that made it back to the base in Molesworth, England, some had 200 bullets in them. Some had the bombardier's section in the plane's nose shot away. That's where Swift sat.
Swift, now 84 and living in Canton, is climbing back into a B-17 bomber again, to help promote the start of the 2009 touring season of the Liberty Belle. The restored World War II-era B-17 bomber, now an airborne museum, will fly out of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport on Sunday and Feb. 21-22. Flights are $430 for a 25-minute flight that's a loud, rattly re-creation of a fading era.
"We know that's a lot of money, particularly right now," said Ray Fowler, chief pilot for the Liberty Foundation, the nonprofit group that maintains and flies the 65-year-old bomber. But it costs about $1 million a year to keep the Liberty Belle flying and touring, he pointed out. The foundation donates part of its proceeds to Angel Flight (last year it gave $15,000), and they also give free tours of the plane on the ground.
Nine passengers can fit on the Liberty Belle, which was also the size of the crews that Swift rode with. When the pilot fires up the four propeller engines at DeKalb-Peachtree, pungent exhaust fumes belch out. Everything vibrates; the twin .50-cal machine guns jutting out the port and starboard windows jitterbug in time to the engines. The noise inside the dark green steel walls is as if you're standing outside right next to the props; there's no insulation or creature comfort of any sort aboard this craft.
Once the plane is airborne, passengers can unfasten their seat belts and roam, carefully; the curved walls and cramped quarters make bumped heads and knees inevitable.
The don't-miss spot on the plane is Swift's old hangout, the bombardier's seat. Tucked away under the pilot, it requires crawling on all fours to reach. The thick glass allows a stunning view of metro Atlanta spread out 1,000 feet below, while the complex siting mechanism reminds tourists of the plane's original purpose: to drop thousands of pounds of deadly explosive on the people below.
This Liberty Belle never saw actual combat, though. Built near the end of the war, it was eventually sold for scrap, bounced around through several owners and restoration plans, and eventually wound up with the Liberty Foundation, which completed restoration and started taking it to air shows in 2004.
More than 12,000 B-17s were produced from 1935 to 1945; of those, 14 are still flying. The planes also flew in Korea and Vietnam, but are most famous for the bombing runs by the 8th Air Force from England deep into Germany in 1944-'45.
Swift, a distant relative of the "Gulliver's Travels" author, specialized in the long runs, all the way to Berlin or Munich, dropping 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of bombs, then flying back to England. Fourteen hours in the air, eight of them over enemy territory, most of them in sub-zero temperature.
He doesn't remember exactly how many missions he flew — double digits, definitely — but he knows they were all in various B-17s: big, loud, cold. And for Swift, safe.
"That plane," he said, "just had a will to live."