On Monday, September 22, a fortunate few media representatives experienced the thrill of flying in a restored B-17 Flying Fortress ahead of the public flights that will be given this weekend at the general aviation side of Augusta Regional Airport.
The flights will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 27, and continue every hour on the hour through 2 p.m., at which point the airplane will be opened up for free ground tours until approximately 6:30.
Each 30-minute flight costs $450, which is tax deductable and helps offset the tremendous cost of keeping the WWII bomber in the air. Currently, only 12 B-17s remain airworthy.
“We typically spend around $15,000 a weekend just on fuel,” says Scott Maher, director of flight operations for the Liberty Foundation, the nonprofit group that has a lease to operate the bomber, which was restored for the movie “Memphis Belle.” “Engines are $150,000 a year, tires are $5,000 a piece. Does the airplane ever pay its way? Absolutely not.”
Maher says that while the cost is enormous — and the volunteer man hours to keep it operational are staggering — the plane’s ability to touch the remaining WWII veterans and their families is priceless.
He says family members often contact him after one of their weekend visits — they fly to approximately 50 cities a year — with stories about how their father or grandfather opened up about the war, sometimes for the first time.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Maher says. “A lot of the veterans who come out couldn’t tell you what they had for breakfast this morning, but they could tell you exactly what they did on a certain day 70 years ago.”
Flying in the plane, it’s easy to see why. It is a singular experience. Though the FAA requires certain modern instrumentation, the plane looks and feels exactly as it did in WWII. It doesn’t matter that neither this plane nor any of the other B-17s that are still flying actually flew in combat, they were built for that war. The radio operator’s station is exactly as it would have been on a mission over Germany. The exposed cables run down the length of the fuselage just as they would have back then. You can smell the exhaust and feel the wind coming through the open doors, and if you close your eyes you can almost hear the antiaircraft fire exploding all around you.
During the war, B-17s dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on European targets during daylight raids. A total of 12,732 planes were built between 1935 and May 1945. At one point, one B-17 was coming off the assembly line every hour and 15 minutes.
All of that is just back story, though. Once you’re inside the plane, first rumbling down the runway and then moving freely about the plane almost as soon as the wheels leave the ground, you feel as if you’re transcending history.
The Liberty Foundation was founded in Douglas, Ga., by Don Brooks, whose father was a tail gunner in a B-17 in WWII. The foundation actually owns two other B-17s, both of which are being restored with the hopes of getting back in the air. According to Maher, the foundation has a crew of 10 captains and 10 copilots to operate the planes, most active military or airline pilots, and at each stop they make sure they have a veteran B-17 crewmember present to answer questions and serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by that generation.
“That’s our mission,” Maher says. “We want to preserve our aviation history and teach current and future generations about the high price of freedom.”
For more information, call the Liberty Foundation: (918) 340-0243
For video, click here