For years, I’ve craned my neck toward the sky to learn about airplanes from my husband. He’d point and exclaim numbers and letters that meant nothing to me, but were clearly exciting to him. Then he’d reminisce about the model of that very same airplane hanging from the ceiling of his boyhood bedroom, and how he’d dream of flying in these amazing planes. One of those models was the Boeing B-17, dubbed the “Flying Fortress” and this week that dream came true.
The Liberty Foundation, whose No. 1 goal is the preservation of aviation history, offers flights aboard the Madras Maiden. Built in 1944, it is one of only 12 B-17s that still fly. The airplane is wrapping up its first 50-stop tour around the country, offering a unique historical experience and reminding us of how we’ve come to enjoy our freedoms.
Flights are available to the public this weekend; see below.
Our experience began with Ray Fowler, Liberty Foundation’s chief pilot, sharing a little history about the B-17’s role in WWII and its interesting postwar service. There were more than 12,700 B-17s produced from 1935 to 1945. The airplanes served in WWII, the Arab-Israeli War, Korea and Vietnam. More than 4,700 planes were lost in combat and many more scrapped after military service.
“After World War II, you could buy a B-17 for about $700, and most people would buy it just for the fuel,” he says. “The fuel was actually worth more than the airplane, they came fully fueled, and they would just scrap them.”
Fowler continues that unlike many war planes, some of the B-17s went on to civil service jobs. “I think even our government probably wished they had thought to put a few of these away because of the value of them today.”
After a quick safety briefing, we are ready to board through a small hatch near the rear of the plane. These planes were not built for passenger comfort. They were engineered for war and especially when listening to veteran Phil Killey, it wasn’t difficult to imagine what the young soldiers experienced and the bravery it took to complete their missions. Working in darkness and under gunfire, the soldier experienced tight spaces and temperatures in the nonpressurized cabin dropping to 40 below zero. Bullets cut through the plane like a hot knife through butter, it was said.
We began our flight seated in the radio room. The small space seats three and has a small desk with a radio and telegraph key. The hatch above, where a dorsal gun would have been manned by the radio operator, remained wide open and we were able to poke our heads outside—an incredible thrill in flight. The airplane is louder than your average passenger plane, but not as loud as I expected and by no means an uncomfortable noise level.
The interior of the plane is quite narrow and has what seems like plywood floors, exposed ribs and beams. As you walk forward, you have to step around the ball turret in the floor that, in wartime, housed a single young man cramped in an awkward position for hours, and whose job it was to defend the plane against enemy fighters.
Between the radio room and the cockpit is a very narrow plank that leads you through the bomb bay—the focus of the plane’s mission. You can see light and the ground below through the seams of the unsealed bomb bay doors.
Electronic components and varying sized boxes with knobs and levers are littered throughout each compartment, their duties are quieted by the lack of wartime necessity and are tempting to touch. The cables of the flight control system run exposed along the ceiling of the fuselage and you can watch them move as the pilot works the controls in the cockpit.
The bombardiers position in the nose is surrounded by equipment, electronics and boxes that contained yards of ammunition. The bomb sights are situated prominently in the center of the nose offering a precise telescopic view of the ground below where the bombs will ultimately land. The mission today though had nothing to deliver but thrills for the passengers.
The cockpit is spare with no-nonsense instruments; room for the pilot and co-pilot, Jim Lawrence. Two small seats behind them allowed passengers an up close and personal view of the flight action. As you make your way through a narrow passage under the cockpit, and just past the .50-caliber machine guns readied at their posts, it’s hard to imagine a more thrilling view than through the plexiglass nose of the plane.
On the way back, look upward. You’re just under the pilots who you can see, and could actually touch their feet working the control pedals. I wouldn’t recommend that. To experience flight in this historic airplane and to be able to explore the combat crew positions is an exceptional experience that truly inspires appreciation for aviation history, and the servicemen and women who fought for our freedoms.
The unexpectedly smooth flight followed a pattern over North Phoenix around Deer Valley Airport, and a little south of the 101. Flying at a relatively low altitude, you might be tempted to try and spot familiar landmarks and areas of interest. The plane, however, was the star of the show, looking outside was almost an afterthought. You will notice the patterns of planned communities and the sparse sections of open desert that still surround Phoenix.
The Douglas, Georgia-based Liberty Foundation is a nonprofit flying museum that survives solely off public donations and through the work of its volunteers. A Delta pilot, Fowler volunteers his time flying for the foundation. The cost to operate the B-17 is around $5,000 per flight hour, and the foundation spends over $1.5 million annually to keep it airworthy and on tour. Each public flight accommodates nine passengers, and helps to offset the high operating costs. One of the foundation’s missions is to keep Madras Maiden and other historic planes from being quietly, permanently parked in museums.
“You can go to a museum and see them sitting there and never fly, which is still pretty neat, like looking at a classic car – but there’s nothing like getting in it, actually taking a flight and really learning history that way in the airplane.”
Liberty Foundation Flights, Deer Valley Airport, Cutter Aviation FBO, 732 W. Deer Valley Road, Phoenix, libertyfoundation.org, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, November 4, and Sunday, November 5, $450 for a 30-minute flight.