WINSTON-SALEM — The Liberty Foundation has returned with historic aircraft to give visitors an opportunity to step back in time and gain respect for the men and women who gave much to protect freedom.
It seems fitting that the visit to the Smith-Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem by Memphis Belle, a restored World War II Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, coincided with Labor Day because the talents of those who manufactured the planes is also an important part of history. Between 1935 and 1945, a total of 12,732 B-17s were built.
Don Brooks, who founded the group, explained its new mission is to rebuild the Liberty Belle B-17, which was destroyed by fire more than 16 months ago in Illinois. He said that a plane accompanying Liberty Belle spotted fire in the left wing and the pilot landed the Flying Fortress in a corn field.
Brooks added that firefighters were unable to get close to the plane because of the muddy field and the group had to stand by helplessly and watch it burn. Once again, a B-17 protected its crew under adverse conditions just as it was designed to do.
“We are going to try and restore it and fly again,” said Brooks. “We don’t know how long it will take.” The project is a way for Brooks to honor his father, who was a tail gunner on the original Liberty Belle. His idea was simply to restore and fly these aircraft to cities across the nation to honor veterans by keeping attention on what they accomplished for the country with these aircraft.
Sadly, the plight of the B-17s are much like that of the veterans who flew them. Only 10 B-17s in the U.S. are flown as well as one in England and one in France. Brooks predicted in five years there would not be many veterans left to tell about their experiences in the B-17s.
Brooks also was involved on recovering a variety of vintage aircraft from frozen lakes and has the distinction of designing a heating coil that allowed teams to recover valuable aircraft parts from a frozen lake in Canada.
Foundation member and pilot Ray Fowler explained that the group flies hundreds of people in the plane every month. This trip to Winston-Salem marks the beginning of Memphis Belle’s first national tour.
“I’ve never seen anybody that is not impressed (with the B-17),” said Fowler. “We don’t keep these airplanes flying, you guys (the public) do. We restore them to fly not put in museums.”
This Memphis Belle was built towards the end of the war and never saw any combat. It is painted in the colors and nose art of the original Memphis Belle and was hired for use in filming the Memphis Belle movie in England in 1989. She and another B-17 crossed the Atlantic to participate in the filming of the movie. The original Memphis Belle was one of the first B-17s to complete 25 missions.
It is on lease to the foundation and was originally a B-17G model that has been refitted to resemble the B-17F with its power turrets, tail gunner compartment and a dorsal turret that was recovered from a South Pacific wreck. Before it was refitted by David Tallichet’s Military Aircraft Restoration corporation in 1982, it was converted to a water bomber and operated as Tanker 78 until the late 1970s.
The B-17 flight experience will be available to the public Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Smith-Reynolds Airport main terminal building, 3801 N. Liberty St. The schedules are for public flights in the morning and ground tours in the afternoon. The experience takes 45 minutes with about half-hour in flight. B-17 flights are $410 for Liberty Foundation members and $450 for non-members. Passengers can become a Liberty Foundation member for $40 and receive the member discount for family and friends.
While the cost to take a flight sounds expensive, Liberty Foundation officials said it must be put into perspective when compared to the B-17’s operating cost, which is more than $4,500 per flight hour.
Reach David Broyles at email@example.com or 719-1952.