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History takes flight on a B-17G

Posted: March 8, 2008 12:44 a.m.
Updated: May 9, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Don Gause of the Liberty Foundation stands by as the Liberty Belle motors up and prepares for takeoff Monday at Long Beach Dougherty Field Airport.

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LONG BEACH - When your flight experiences are limited to being packed like one of myriad sardines in a safely pressurized metal tube to jet cross-country, there's something to be said for sticking your head into the wind.

Out of the roof of a World War II bomber.

At 150 mph.

I jumped at the pretty much once-in-a-lifetime chance Monday to strap in and take off in the Liberty Belle, a Boeing B-17G, as a preview of what the Liberty Foundation is offering for the next two weekends.

Don Brooks of Georgia restored the plane as a clone of the original Liberty Belle on which his father, Elton Brooks, was a tail gunner.

It's a visceral experience, to not simply hear, but feel, the rumble of four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone engines cranking to life, throttling waves of power through your body.

The plane taxis down the tarmac, and next thing you know, the massive beast is powering into the sky, all of Long Beach spread out beneath you and growing smaller.

Once airborne, we're free to unbuckle our safety belts and move around the plane. I quickly pick up the steps to the dance required to move with the motion of the behemoth, and avoid slamming my head into its unforgiving steel framework.

I squeeze through the hatch in the floor of the cockpit and crawl into the glass-capped nose of the plane, enjoying a bombardier's-eye view of the city below me.

I try to imagine what it must have been like for some fresh-faced kid from Indiana to be entrusted with pinpointing a target about to be pelted with bomb after Allied bomb.

And it seems that as quickly as we take to the sky, it's over.

We strap in, land, and climb off the plane.

* * *

"Talk about walking on Cloud Nine. I was," said Ron Gause, recalling his maiden voyage flying the Liberty Belle.

He said climbing into the cockpit was, "just unimaginable ... the honor and the thrill."

Gause served on active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1958, and in the reserves from 1958 to 1966. Now, the Georgia resident is a volunteer with the nonprofit Liberty Foundation, traveling around the country with the Belle's crew, giving people an up-close history lesson.

"There's nothing else like it," he said, and added when aged war veterans get on board, they're no longer old men, but, "for a few minutes they are back in their youth."

On Sunday, a 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound World War II vet showed up with his son and grandson. After the flight, when he was carried off the plane, Gause said the man was smiling. The man's son noted that it was the first time he'd seen his father smile in three months.

The Liberty Foundation has been offering flights on the Liberty Belle since 2004, after a roughly 14-year, $3.5 million restoration.

The volunteer-driven group has traveled throughout the U.S., and this year plans a tour of Europe. Gause said he's looking forward to being on likely the last B-17 to cross the Atlantic.
* * *
With its four engines and heavy firepower - 13 .50 caliber machine guns - the B-17 is likely one of the most recognizable bombers of World War II.

Boeing Aircraft Co. of Seattle began construction of a four-engine heavy bomber in 1934. The Model 299 had its first flight on July 28, 1935, and the U.S. government summarily placed an order for production of 13 of the aircraft and began to take delivery of them between Jan. 11 and Aug. 4, 1937.

The so-called "Flying Fortress" saw a number of refinements and improvements over its 10-year production run. The final production model, the B-17G, was produced in the largest quantities - 8,680.

During World War II, the B-17 saw service in every theater of operation, but was operated primarily by the 8th Air force in Europe and participated in countless missions from bases in England.

While my flight Monday lasted about 20 minutes, a typical B-17 mission often lasted for more than eight hours, burning 200 gallons of aviation fuel per hour. During the war, B-17s dropped about 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets in daylight raids.

Between 1935 and May 1945, Boeing produced 12,732 of the planes. Despite their resilience, nearly 5,000 were lost in combat. After World War II, the planes were used in Korea and as late as the Vietnam conflict.
Today, fewer than 100 B-17 airframes exist. Fewer than 15 planes can still take to the sky.

* * *

Flying the Liberty Belle is "a dream come true," said pilot John Bode, who served as captain on Monday. He noted that flying the plane gives him a little taste of what it was like for World War II pilots.

One of the most rewarding aspects of flying on the Liberty Belle is hearing veterans' stories, said volunteer Fran Hess.

For the next two weekends, the Liberty Foundation will be offering flights in the Los Angeles area - today and Sunday from Long Beach Daugherty Field Airport, and March 15 and 16 at Van Nuys Airport.

After a short history of the plane, it's into the air for a roughly 25-minute flight.

* * *


Midway through the flight, I move past the radio room, and into a small section where the plexiglass roof has been removed. I stand up straight and shove my head into the wind, which roars in my ears like thunder as I try to snap a few photos. It's like an adrenaline shot. And for just a moment, I'm transported back in time.

 

 

For more information on the Liberty Belle or to book a flight, visit www.libertyfoundation.org or call (918) 340-0243. Flights are $395 for Liberty Foundation members and $430 for non-members. 

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