History buffs taken for a ride in ‘flying fortress’

Here’s a chance to travel up and back — up in the air in a B-17 bomber and back in time to an era when 19- and 20-year-old pilots had the destiny of the free world riding on the success of their missions.
During World War II, these B-17 Flying Fortresses dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets — more than a third of all the bombs dropped during the war years.
Now there are only 14 of these vintage aircraft still flying. One — the Liberty Belle — is offering rides this weekend at Gillespie Field in El Cajon. Chief pilot Ray Fowler of Carrollton, Ga., will be flying the venerable warbird in the San Diego skies.
“I’m 39, but tell people that I don’t feel a day over 85,” he said, referring to the age of some of the surviving pilots. “I tell these pilots that you can get on this airplane and for just a second, you’re 19 again.”
Despite his youth, Fowler already has 14 years of experience piloting Flying Fortresses, a model of airplane known as “tail draggers” because of the rear wheel. He took the Liberty Belle on its first test flight in December 2004 after a painstaking 14-year restoration.
The aircraft’s savior is Don Brooks, who named the restored plane after the original Liberty Belle in which his father flew numerous combat missions as a tail gunner. Brooks funded the entire restoration and founded the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit museum in Tulsa, Okla., dedicated to preserving aviation heritage. (To see photos, videos, a history of the plane and an interview with a veteran pilot, visit www.libertyfoundation.org.)
The Liberty Belle is based in Douglas, Ga., and belongs to the foundation. It visits 50 cities annually “to honor veterans, educate future generations as to the high price of freedom and preserve our aviation history,” spokesman Scott Maher said.
It costs about a million dollars annually to keep the Liberty Belle airworthy, and all of the pilots, crew and mechanics donate their time to keep her in tip-top shape.
“The B-17 is a very simple airplane,” explained Fowler in a phone interview from Carrollton, Ga. “But it’s getting harder and harder not to put it in a museum … because it costs about $4,500 an hour to keep it in the air.”
There were 12,732 B-17 Flying Fortresses produced between 1935 and 1945; 4,735 were lost in combat, and all but 47 were scrapped. The plane also saw combat in Korea, Israel and Vietnam.
“I like to fly the B-17 not only because of its significance to our nation’s history and freedoms,” explained Fowler, “but … as a pilot or passenger, you get to experience many of the sights and sounds that… our great patriots saw in combat over 65 years ago. Being at the controls really gives you a sense of the golden age of aviation, when the flying outcome was most definitely more dependent on pilot skill.”
Passenger reactions vary according to their relationships to the plane, he added. He recently received an e-mail from a passenger that rode in the Liberty Belle about a month ago.
“The experience was cathartic for me as I sat in the nose where my uncle sat as both a bombardier and a navigator,” he wrote. “ … he paid the ultimate price on 12/11/1944. It reminded me again to thank (veterans) for your sacrifice for our freedom.”
You can take a 45-minute ride in the Liberty Belle between 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 27 and Feb. 28 at Gillespie Field, Main Terminal, 1960 Joe Crosson Drive, El Cajon. No, the experience is not cheap, but it’s one you won’t forget. Tickets are $395 for Liberty Foundation members and $430 for nonmembers. Become a member for $40 and get the discount for all family and friends. All funds are used to keep the Belle flying. Bring a warm jacket. For more information, call (918) 340-0243.

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