“The Movie Memphis Belle” taxis into Thomasville Regional Airport on Monday. The Liberty Foundation will offer rides in the legendary B-17 heavy bomber, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. Of the 12,732 “Flying Fortresses” built between 1935 and 1945, just 13 remain airworthy today. (Staff Photo by Terry Lewis)
THOMASVILLE — More than 65 years ago during World War II, the skies over Europe were darkened by swarms of U.S. B-17 bombers. The Boeing Flying Fortresses pounded Nazi Germany into submission, helping end the war in Europe, and, as pilot Bob Hill said, “served as the quintessential projection of American air power.”
On Monday, the B-17 “Movie Memphis Belle” flew into Thomasville Regional Airport as a prelude to this weekend’s Liberty Foundation’s tribute to veterans. Public flights will be offered on Saturday and Sunday with 30-minute flights at $420 for foundation members and $450 for non-members.
“While the cost of a flight sounds expensive, it must be put into perspective when compared to a B-17’s operating cost,” Liberty Foundation volunteer Keith Youngblood said. “A Flying Fortress costs more than $4,500 per flight hour and the Liberty Foundation spends more than $1,500,000 per year to keep the B-17 airworthy and out on tour.”
“The Movie Memphis Belle” was built toward the end of the war and never saw combat. It is painted in the colors and nose art of the historic “Memphis Belle” that flew countless missions with the 91st Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. The movie Belle was the aircraft used in the Hollywood movie Memphis Belle.
The foundation’s B-17 is one of just 13 that still fly today. There were 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and 1945. Of that number, 4,735 were lost in combat. The original Memphis Belle, the first to complete 25 bombing missions during the war, is currently undergoing restoration in Dayton, Ohio.
Hill and Bryan Wyatt were the pilots who flew the Belle into Thomasville. They are among a small group of volunteer pilots that fly the legendary warbird to more than 50 locations per year.
“It’s awesome flying this aircraft. It’s like driving a truck without power steering,” Wyatt, a pilot with Delta Airlines, said. “I enjoy being a part of this living history. It’s also fun to meet the veterans who went into combat on a B-17. You can see them drift back in time when they look at the plane and recall their experiences.”
Wyatt spoke of a recent reunion of the 100th Bomber Group where a former pilot, 93, asked if he could take the yoke (steering wheel) of the airplane, saying flying a B-17 one more time was ‘on his bucket list.’
“We’re always a little hesitant at those types of requests, but he was in good shape and getting around pretty good, so we put him in the right (co-pilot) seat,” Wyatt said. “He kept his heading, made a few small banks and did fine. When we got back on the ground, he shook my hand, smiled and said, ‘thanks, I can die now.’”
Hill, the Belle’s co-captain on this trip and an inspector for the Federal Aviation Agency, said he was hooked after watching a TV show.
“People like me who grew up in the 60s watched “12 O’Clock High” (which chronicled the exploits of the 918th Bomb Group),” Hill said. “I built model planes, but I never though I’d be flying this stuff.”
“Our B-17 provides visitors to step back in time and gain respect of the men and women who gave so much to protect our freedoms,” Foundation spokesperson Scott Maher said. “For enthusiasts who chose to take a flight experience on this legendary aircraft, you’ll be able enjoy the opportunity of moving about the aircraft to different combat crew positions to see the viewpoint that thousands of our heroes saw in combat more than 60 years go.”
Flights will be available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Thomasville Regional Airport. For more information call 918-34-0243 or visit www.libertyfoundation.org.