- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2014

MIDDLE RIVER, MD. — S

oaring 1,200 feet above the ground in a 70-year-old plane held together with what feels like little more than nuts, bolts and prayers can test just about anyone’s mettle.

Raise the altitude to 28,000 feet, and add a night sky full of Nazi planes with guns blazing, and that barely scrapes the surface of what American bomber crews went through during World War II.

The courage of those soldiers and resilience of American engineering are what the Liberty Foundation is hoping to share with visitors this weekend at Martin State Airport, where flights are available aboard a restored B-17 Flying Fortress.

“We hope people, especially young people, see the plane and become inspired,” said Robert “Bob” Hill, a pilot with the Liberty Foundation. “Become inspired to learn about World War II, inspired to learn about the B-17, inspired about airplanes, and in some capacity become inspired so that they want to achieve something.”

The price for a flight isn’t cheap — $450 per person for a 30-minute ride — but that goes to the cost of the $4,500 per hour it takes to operate the B-17.

Having landed at Martin State Airport outside Baltimore earlier this week, B-17 The Movie Memphis Belle rested in the bright sun. Its faded green-brown paint job, complete with a pinup girl painted on its side, stood out in contrast to the gleaming white and silver private jets housed in a nearby hangar.

Despite being gutted of many of its original accessories, the plane’s interior offers little free space, and is dim and narrow.

A radio room about the size of a small walk-in closet is outfitted with a wooden desk and transponder similar to what would have been used during the war. At the nose of the plane, a glass turret allows up to three people to look out at the sky.

For the 10-person crews on board B-17s during the war, Mr. Hill said there wasn’t much time spent enjoying the views.

“It was an absolutely horrible environment to be in combat,” he said, adding that the only thing worse was for a crew member to fail his comrades.

The gunner in the ball turret beneath the plane was often stuck in a tucked position for hours on end. During combat, some men would get so scared they would vomit, only to have it freeze and choke them while wearing oxygen masks.

Many of the B-17s used during the war, including the original Memphis Belle, flew with the 8th Air Force in England. Mr. Hill said B-17 crews in the 8th Air Force had a 77 percent chance of not returning to base after a mission.

“The odds were certainly against you,” he said. “They flew in unpressurized, unheated planes, and it was not cool either.”

None of the dozen or so B-17s that are still around and able to fly, flew in combat, Mr. Hill said. “Most of them survived because they were of use,” he said. “They actually had a function.”

The history of The Movie Memphis Belle began in April 1945, when it came off the production line and was flown to a depot in Texas for storage and await orders to Japan as the war wound down.

Once the fighting was over, the government began selling off surplus planes to civilians. Buyers, Mr. Hill said, chose the brand new models over the “war-weary combat veterans.”

“A lot of World War II planes were smelted and turned into pots and pans,” he said.

This particular B-17 was released in 1959 and became a forestry tanker “putting out fires” a year later, Mr. Hill said. In the early 1980s, it was sold to the Military Aircraft Restoration Corp. and owner David Tallichet restored it.

In 1989 the plane was used as a stand-in for the Hollywood film Memphis Belle, and today it travels across the country, visiting airfields and allowing a first-hand experience of aviation history.

“The B-17 for the most part is viewed as the quintessential [example] of World War II American air power,” Mr. Hill said. “We want people to learn not only about their own history, we look at it as it brings people out to the airport who’d never normally come out. We hope that does inspire young people. …

“It doesn’t necessarily mean the young person comes up to the airplane and wants to become a pilot or mechanic, but it might inspire them to do something else.”

If You Go

WHAT: The Movie Memphis Belle, a restored B-17 Flying Fortress

WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, flight times are generally 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with ground tours after the last flight

WHERE:Martin State Airport, Martin State FBO 701 Wilson Point Rd., Baltimore, MD 21220

COST: $450 per person for a 30-minute flight; ground tours are free

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