High-flying history: Restored World War II bomber comes to town

You’re 18 or 19 years old, and you’ve volunteered or been drafted after the United States’ entry into World War II. You’re assigned to a B-17 for bombing runs, along with nine other crewmen. There’s a good chance it’s night, a good chance that, once airborne, you hear nothing but the roar of the four engines and the rush of the wind. The plane is neither pressurized nor even sealed, with gaping open spaces in the forward top section and in back.

A typical bombing run might be at around 30,000 feet, with an air temperature between minus 30 and minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s no oxygen up there. You have a mask and an oxygen tank. If the tank bursts or the mask breaks, you’ll pass out in a few seconds and die in a few more.

Once the plane reaches the target, the sky lights up with anti-aircraft fire. Sometimes the flak rips right through the fuselage or else comes straight in through those open spaces. Supposedly, all 10 crewmen have parachutes. If the plane does go down, you’ll have to quickly wriggle into one and bail out — all while nose-diving and most likely spinning fast enough that the centrifugal force welds you to your seat.

Often, the guy in the ball turret, a totally enclosed section hanging underneath the aircraft, has no parachute. But even if he does, he’d have be unlatched and pulled out by his mates, find his chute and then somehow manage to jump.

Still, the B-17 was the plane airmen wanted to ride in, because it gave them the best chance of surviving the run. If one engine went out, no one would even notice. If two went out, the plane could stay airborne. Even with three engines out, the B-17 would simply make a gentle descent. These planes have stayed airborne with plate-sized holes in the wings, with wings torn off, with tail sections shredded to confetti, with the entire nose blown to smithereens. Yet one-third of them didn’t come back.

Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 4-5, the Liberty Foundation is exhibiting a fully functional World War II B-17 Flying Fortress at the Asheville Regional Airport. Established in 2005, the foundation aims to “teach younger people about World War II,” according to volunteer Ron Gause, a former Air Force pilot. The group’s B-17, which came off the assembly line near the end of the war and never saw action, is modeled after the Memphis Belle, famous for being the second such plane to complete 25 runs during the war. It was widely reported to be the first, but this, says volunteer Colin Underwood, is technically incorrect:

“Memphis Belle had a better PR department,” he explains, adding that the first plane, Hell’s Angels, also had a decidedly less marketable name.

To avoid confusion, the Liberty Foundation’s plane is called the Movie Memphis Belle, because it was used in the film of that name, painted to look just like the original. The real Memphis Belle, meanwhile, is undergoing extensive restoration at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Once that’s complete, it will be capable of flying, “But it will probably never fly again,” says Gause. “It’s of too much historical significance.”

. . .

The media flight is supposed to take off at noon, and reporters trickle into host Landmark Aviation’s small but comfortable lounge, mingling. A correspondent in a khaki vest tells how, on a previous visit to Asheville, a B-17 pilot flew the plane right between the Buncombe County Courthouse and Asheville City Hall (an on-site memorial now commemorates the event).

“They tried to court-martial him,” the reporter says cheerfully, sounding positively giddy. I later learn that his daughter had been born the night before, and he was functioning on two hours of sleep, so his enthusiasm was probably compounded out of genuine interest, sleep deprivation and lingering adrenaline.

At 12:30 a Landmark Aviation staffer tells us the plane’s headed here from Greenville. Ten minutes later, they say there’s a shuttle coming to transport the 13 media reps to the flight area, a whopping 40 feet away. Thirteen people, plus crew, in a 69-year-old plane on a windy, overcast, low-visibility day?

. . .

During the preflight briefing, Gause explains that originally, the foundation flew a different B-17, the Liberty Belle, but it was put out of action due to an in-flight fire.

In-flight fire?

“Yes, it was in June 2011,” Gause adds.

No one asks for details.

. . .

Eventually one of the air traffic controllers points out an incoming plane.

“I think that’s it,” he says. “Yeah, it’s big and slow: That’s got to be it.”

The movie Memphis Belle approaches and lands with little difficulty as a swarm of camera-wielding correspondents jockeys for position, blocking one another’s view as they attempt to get pictures of the plane.

With its olive-green skin, yellow-tipped propellers and transparent nose, the MMB is a magnificent machine, beautiful in the way that old cars are, and regal in a way that modern planes just cannot match. The cranking engines sound like an old tractor firing up, recalling a now mostly vanished America. Indeed, the very principle that drives the B-17, called “tractor propulsion,” seems archaic: The propellers are actually “pulling” the aircraft along instead of pushing it forward, Gause explains.

Just over 74 feet long, the plane has a wingspan of 103 feet 9 inches and a top speed of 287 mph. Four nine-cylinder, four-stroke engines, with two spark plugs per cylinder, power a crankshaft that rotates the propellers. The number of cylinders is crucial: An even number would create harmonics so powerful the plane would tear itself to pieces.

“They actually made some even-cylindered aircraft,” says Liberty Foundation mechanic Jon Eads. “But not for long.”

. . .

The propellers have three blades, each about 5 feet 8 inches long; in motion, they create cirlces 11 feet, 6 inches in diameter. The B-17 can carry up to 14 500-pound pieces of explosive ordnance, represented by two fiberglass replicas in the bomb bay. There are multiple heavy gun sites: two out the back, two more close to the midsection, two near the cockpit and two in the ball turret, which looks like something out of a steampunk science fiction film.

Nearer to tail than cockpit, the ball turret is totally enclosed. Every run, some unlucky soul had to ride in there, providing the only underside protection for the aircraft. The airman would climb in and a couple of the other crewmen would latch him in. The space inside looks not much bigger than a large domestic oven.

Made of aluminum, the B-17 was “overbuilt,” says Underwood, repeatedly asserting that this is one of the safest aircraft you could ever fly in (never mind those in-flight fires). It started coming off the assembly line in July 1935, well before the war began; about 12,000 saw action.

Completed in April 1945, the MMB was immediately put into storage along with whole fleets of other planes. After the war, when no one was really worrying about cultural or military history, the planes were sold to private parties who “sold the gasoline for more than they bought [the plane] for and then sold the plane for scrap,” Underwood reveals. Fortunately, the MMB was spared this fate.

I’m assigned to the second flight, so I get to see the first group take off. There’s a greasy, mechanical feel when the engines crank up that contrasts starkly with the ear-rupturing, oversized-vacuum whoosh of jet turbines. In an astonishingly short distance, the massive plane is airborne, swooping off into the wild blue yonder.

. . .

In a sense, every MMB flight is a pyrrhic victory, breaking the bank just to perform once-routine duties. Our flight time will be shorter than usual, Underwood explains, “because it’s a considerable expense to us to do this.” But the Liberty Foundation is hoping the assembled news organizations will provide heavy coverage of the flight and, thus, attract more paying customers.

The foundation has already placed a large add in the Asheville Citizen-Times, yet it’s also willing to take a $4,500 hit to fly the press around. Correspondents are split into two groups, each of which will fly about half the normal time. Still, every one of us is getting a $225 experience absolutely free.

Correspondent: “Do you usually get a big crowd?”

Gause: “If y’all do a good job, we’ll have a big crowd.”

. . .

The B-17 has six compartments. First there’s the cockpit; beneath it is the nose, which you have to crawl to get to. Behind them is the bomb bay, which has no floor save a maybe foot-wide passage running directly down the middle. But don’t worry: There are trusty rope handholds. In the forward center, metal struts flanking the purported walkway form an acute V, wider at the top than the bottom. They’d make an effective test for admission into the Air Force: If you can manage to squeeze through this foot-and-a-half-wide gap, you’re in good enough shape to enlist.

Behind the bomb bay lies a more traditional seating section with a few padded chairs. Behind it is a section with two main guns and green mesh or canvas seats hooked to two metal struts, with more green canvas attached to the ceiling. Behind that one, blocked by red netting, is the tail section, which is off-limits. “Every once in a while, a particularly ambitious person will try and climb back there,” notes Underwood. “I mean, did the red net not tell you what you needed to know?”

. . .

The Liberty Foundation, Underwood explains, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that tours the contiguous United States; everyone flying and working on the plane is a volunteer. Even so, a 45-minute flight will cost you $450 ($410 for foundation members, but an annual membership is $40).

Three key factors figure into that price, according to the foundation’s website:

• Operating costs on the B-17 have reached nearly $4,500 per flight hour.

• It costs over $50,000 to replace just one engine.

• Restoring the fire-damaged Liberty Belle has cost well over $3 million and isn’t finished yet.

Gause clarifies that an engine replacement can actually cost up to $75,000, and they always keep at least one extra on hand. Meanwhile, fuel for the aircraft goes for a whopping $6 per gallon, and the B-17 burns about 200 gallons per hour. That works out to about $900 in fuel expense alone for a 45-minute flight.

What’s the cost of keeping history alive? Excluding the vast majority of the very people you’re keeping it alive for. Mr. Smith’s U.S. history class probably won’t get to fly on this aircraft — and neither will 90 percent of World War II buffs. Or veterans.

“We know not everyone can afford to fly,” says Underwood. “So we do offer ground tours, and places where you can watch the planes take off and land.”

. . .

Even at 1,000 feet, the wind is chill, harsh and biting, yet the big plane moves swiftly and smoothly: Most of the noise comes not from the engines but from the wind. Upon takeoff, there’s a fascinating moment when the particulate matter in the exhaust reveals the wind’s path as it’s forced up and over the plane’s topside curve in an elongated, sideways S. This tiny curve is what makes heavier-than-air flight possible.

The wind, having to travel just a bit farther over the wing than under it, creates a pressure differential: lower on top, higher on the bottom. Ever seeking to equalize, the pressure rushes toward the low point, pushing up on the underside of the wing — lifting it. That tiny elongated S can hold thousands of pounds of metal in the air indefinitely.

Modern air travel is all about safety (or the appearance of it, anyway). The fuselage is thicker, as are the tiny Plexiglas windows. There’s bulk everywhere, seats jammed together, TVs on the ceiling. Obviously this is preferable to minus 60 degree temperatures and having to wear an oxygen mask throughout the flight.

On the other hand, it’s very odd to hear someone tell you to just “stick your head out the window” if you feel sick. It’s very odd to be able to stand on your tiptoes and peer out the top of the plane — even take video from there. The unobscured view out the window is exhilarating: You can look about as far as you like in any direction. That’s something you definitely can’t do in a modern plane, and it’s certainly different from any flight you’ll ever take that’s not a crop dusteror biplane. A light mist clears away the haze that typically engulfs the region, and we can see as far as nature allows, to mountains dozens of miles away.

. . .

Where’s the boundary between advertising and reporting? If a food critic gives a restaurant a good review, isn’t he or she, in effect, giving said restaurant free advertising — and getting a free meal in the process?

In this case, the Liberty Foundation invited the press, and they expected us to enjoy it and write about that. Gause’s comment, and the language in the press release, make all that clear. But this is part and parcel of how the system works — and, in fact, one key way media outlets find out about topics worth reporting on.

Every organization that issues a press release is hoping for media coverage that results in more visitors or more profit or more units sold. Yet I imagine they must also harbor at least a niggling fear that attracting press attention could backfire: that what those reporters ultimately say or write might hinder rather than advance their program.

Amid such ethical ambiguities, this reporter can only strive for a measure of honesty. So:

1. Should you go?

Absolutely. Ground tours are free, and you can also see the B-17 take off and land. Try to squeeze through the bomb bay’s V struts. Crawl into the nose. Get a photo taken right beside a machine gun. Traverse the plane’s length. It’s a beautiful machine, and you won’t see much like it that’s actually working nowadays. All this will take about an hour or so.

2. Should you fly?

If you’ve just come into a big inheritance or have some Google stock you want unload, you should fly. It’s a unique experience.

But for most folks, a 45-minute novelty flight, no matter how singular, just isn’t worth $450. And that’s a shame, because vast swathes of people could really benefit from flying on the MMB. In high school history classes, students get maybe a day and a half per semester, if that, to understand a relatively recent war that significantly helped shape today’s geopolitical landscape.

The Liberty Foundation’s website says it’s “not supported or sustained by regular city, state or federal grants of any kind,” relying instead on “corporations and personal contributions to help defray the operational expense.” Maybe they should try for more grants, or at least campaign more for donations. It’s nobody’s fault that it costs $4,500 per flight to keep a 69-year-old airplane operational. But it does mean that only a select few will get to ride the B-17 — and the rest will miss out on a chance to experience history in singularly tangible fashion.

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