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Get an up-close look at a B-17

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By John Barnhart

    A piece of living history is visiting Roanoke’s airport this week, and she’s welcoming guests.

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    She’s history because she’s a B-17. The B-17, dubbed the “Flying Fortress” because of the large number of defensive machine guns she carried, was the workhorse of the Eighth Air Force, which delivered tons of high explosive goodwill to German industry and rail yards during World War II.
    This particular B-17 is living history because she still flies. Of the 12,732 B-17s built during World War II, this particular plane is one of only 13 that still fly today.
    She’s also a movie star. Back in 1990  this airplane played the role of Memphis Belle, in the movie of the same name. She still flies today in the color scheme and nose art of the original Memphis Belle.
    Memphis Belle, owned by the Liberty Foundation, will be in Roanoke through the weekend and is offering tours, and flights to the public. In preparation, the Foundation took members of the press up, Monday. September 1, by the way, marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.
    “Our main, number one mission, is to honor our veterans,” said John Hess, one of the Liberty Foundation pilots who fly Memphis Belle.
    Memphis Belle will be open for visitation on Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. “or as long as the airport lets us,” Hess said. If there are still people waiting to go through the plane when 5 p.m. rolls around, Foundation volunteers will still let them go through the plane if the airport allows them to do so. Tours of the airplane are free, although Hess said donations are appreciated.
    Flying tours are available on Saturday and Sunday. These cost $450 and last 45 minutes. It costs $1.5 million to keep Memphis Belle airworthy and on tour and these flying tours help pay the cost.

What’s it like to
ride in a B-17?
    The B-17 carried a dozen 500 pound bombs, although the bomb load depended on how far the bomber had to fly to reach her target. More range meant the plane had to carry more fuel and, therefore, a smaller bomb load. Powered by four Wright Cyclone radial engines, the plane could reach a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet.
    She carried a 10 man crew. B-17s were not pressurized and the waste gun positions were open rectangles in the sides of the fuselage. This meant the the crew had to wear oxygen masks. They also had to wear heated suits — these were like wearable heating pads that the guys plugged into the plane’s electrical system — because temperatures at the altitudes the bombers flew at were between 50 and 60 degrees below zero. The B-17 also gave the pilot and co-pilot a real physical workout as none of the flight controls were hydraulically operated. They were all operated by cables and relied on the pilot’s muscle power to move.
    B-17s are stable airplanes. It was designed to fly with holes blown in the wings and flight controls are redundant with separate sets of cables running from the pilot and copilot seats. These planes were famous for absorbing a great deal of damage and still getting their crews back to base.
    By modern standards, a B-17 is not a large airplane. This plane is a long, narrow body slung between two enormous wings. Built for stability it rides fairly smoothly even on a breezy day. Earplugs are mandatory as it has no insulation of any sort and those four big radial engines put out a tremendous roar, especially as the plane builds up speed for takeoff and climbs into the sky. The take-off roll is much shorter than a modern airliner.

Monday’s flight
    During the flight on Monday, passengers got a chance to move about the plane and, among other things, sit in the bombardier’s seat in the nose. The nose is a clear, glass cone that offers a tremendous view, forward, sideways, up and down. Getting there, from the middle of the plane involves walking over a narrow catwalk over the bomb bay, a bit of a challenge for those of us who have put on a bit of weight.
    Monday’s event also included an opportunity to meet some men who actually flew combat missions on B-17s.
    Earl Baker flew 28 missions as a waist gunner and had to bail out at the end of one mission. The pilot got them back to England, but the flight controls were so badly damaged he didn’t think he could land safely, so he ordered the crew to bail out. Baker recalls that there was a big hole in the airplane, right by his leg.
    His first missions came before the P-51 fighters entered combat and he saw a lot of German fighters. The P-51 changed the missions because these fighters could escort the bombers all the way to their targets.
    “They are the reason I’m here today,” Baker commented.
    Leo LaCasse, a retired Air Force general, was a B-17 pilot and was awarded the Silver Star.
    “What we did, on two engines, was bomb a target of opportunity,” he said, when asked about it.
    Two of the plane’s engines — the starboard outboard engine and the port inboard engine —  had been shot out, but the crew found a German target to bomb and LaCasse brought the plane back and made a gear-down landing on his air base’s runway.
    LaCasse also earned the Purple Heart for that mission. A piece of shrapnel from a German antiaircraft shell hit him in the face. It went in one cheek and out the other, taking out two of his teeth in the process.
    James Litchford, a flight engineer and top gunner, was briefly captured after being shot down, but escaped after being rescued by his plane’s tail gunner. Litchford said crews were told to scatter after going down so they all couldn’t be captured at once. Litchford was captured but the tail gunner, a fellow named Norman Auger, evaded capture and, once it was dark, used a combat knife to kill the German soldiers guarding Litchford.
    For more information about the tours, call Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243 or e-mail him as smaher@libertyfoundation.org. Liberty Foundation has a web site at www.libertyfoundation.org.
    Liberty Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit flying museum.