A Taste Of What It's Like To Be A WWII Flyboy
Liberty Belle offers flights in famed B-17 bomber.
Until today, my pre-takeoff ritual onboard an airplane
consisted of configuring my personal air conditioning portal just above my
head, readying my iPod, and stowing my book in the seat pocket in front of me.
This afternoon, it was a much different experience.
I tightened my seatbelt, attached to the canvas bench I was
sitting on. Then, I inserted my ear plugs, tapped on the thin metal wall of the
plane to ensure that, yes, it really is that thin, and I said a little prayer.
I was going up in a B-17 bomber that was forged in the United
States of America in 1945 as World War II
was coming to an end. The plane had served proudly in combat, running bombing
raids throughout the European continent.
Each 10-man crew felt the same rumbling, smelled the same fuel exhaust
and looked out the same windows that now surrounded me. The whole experience is
one I won't soon forget.
As part of an effort to preserve our aviation history, the
Liberty Foundation bought this particular B-17 in 2000, after it had been sold
as scrap, salvaged, used as a test plane and sold to a collector, who began the
restoration process. By 2004 the plane was ready to fly again and the plane was
dubbed the Liberty Belle, taking its name after the original B-17, which went
down over Belgium
in 1945. Liberty Foundation founder Don Brooks' father was a tail gunner in the
original Liberty Belle.
The plane tours the U.S.
offering flights aboard the "flying museum", allowing regular folks to take to
the skies in the same way thousands of young men did in World War II.
This weekend, March 14 -15 the Liberty Belle is at Burbank Airport, and for
$430 anyone can climb on board for a flight through history. The price reflects
just how expensive it is to keep the plane in the air, as the standard operating
costs for a one hour flight exceed $4,500.
The experience begins with a short history of the B-17 and its combat tales.
Called the "Flying Fortress," the plane was widely used in the war for bombing
runs. Ten-man crews operated the flight controls, bomb drops, radio
communications and the many gunner positions all over the plane.
After getting strapped in, the pilot starts its engines, popping and shaking
the plane. After a short taxi, the bird revs up, shoots down the runway and
lifts off so gently you almost forget that the plane is 64 years old.
Once in the air, the experience is vastly different from any other. When the
plane moves, you feel every inch. The slight ups and downs associated with
normal flying are enhanced, providing brief feelings of near weightlessness.
Not long after the wheels are off the ground, the crew gives the thumbs up, and
the fun begins.
Just walking around the plane is like a long surfing run. As the floor bobs and
weaves underneath you, your legs compensate and act like shock absorbers. All
the machine gun positions are intact, and you can't help but grab this gigantic
weapon and spin it around in the turret. You wonder how long men had to stand
there, bent forward, firing at objects as they zoomed past, being mindful not
to shoot their own wing full of holes.
After a quick stroll through the radio room, you face the bomb bay. A narrow
catwalk is the only way across, and as the plane circles in the air, you need
every ounce of concentration.
Nothing seems overwhelmingly dangerous, but it certainly feels like you are in the
belly of a true beast, built to bring the muscle of the United States to a far
and dangerous enemy.
Once passed the catwalk, the cockpit awaits. With strange instruments and surprisingly short
windows, you wonder what it must have been like to stare from those windows
into the heart of the German empire.
Underneath the cockpit, the gem of the trip was presented. In the nose of the
Liberty Belle lies the bombardier's area. Sitting alongside the navigator, this
section offers 180 degree views from the clear walls above, in front and below.
Looking down upon the San Fernando Valley several thousand feet below your
shoes is by itself a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Those who opt to take a ride this weekend will enjoy about 30 minutes up the
air, which feels like much more. There is ample time to move about the cabin,
and curiosity is encouraged.
When its time to land you shimmy back to your seat, climbing up through small
hatches that lead to the main fuselage. By the time you strap in, the plane is
already descending and touchdown comes quickly. A few screeches from the tires
get your blood pumping, but soon enough you realize that the plane has flown
another successful mission, and is slowing to a stop.
After so much noise, movement and life, the plane almost seems unhappy on the
ground. You too, feel a little remorse that it's over, although the
adrenaline that runs through your veins now will be slow to drop off.
I turned inward, thinking about the men who took to those planes under
much different circumstances. They flew higher, colder and with more at stake
than I did. Anti-aircraft fire came from below, machine gun fire from above and
The statistics are sobering. Nearly 13 thousand B-17's were made during the
war, and 4,735 of those never cam back from the missions they were assigned to.
The "Flying Fortresses" suffered immense casualties and even those who survived
are leaving this word at an alarming rate.
The story must be told. In a war bigger than any one man, woman or country, the
stories of the brave souls who made our freedom a reality lie within the walls
of planes like the Liberty Belle.
To take your flight through history, make reservations for this weekend's rare
opportunity with the Liberty Foundation by calling 918-340-0243.
See videos of the plane in action at www.libertyfoundation.org.