History in flight

Published 6:06 pm Thursday, August 6, 2009

When Bob Hill steps inside his most recent volunteer project he carries with him a briefcase of sorts. On it, among many other aviation style stickers, is one that reads “My other car is a B-17.”

For area residents, this weekend offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride in Hill’s other car.

As part of a 50-city national tour, the Liberty Foundation has arranged for public flights this weekend in a World War II-era B-17 bomber, the Liberty Belle.

“This is an opportunity, we often say, for people to experience history with their five senses,” Hill said before a Monday afternoon flight aboard the plane manufactured in 1945. “They can actually come on board and touch it, they can hear it, they can see it — and if they really want to — they can taste it.”

The Liberty Foundation’s mission is to bring history alive for today’s generations and those of World War II by offering half-hour flights aboard the B-17 bomber.

The Liberty Belle was originally constructed in May 1945 as the Allies were marching through Europe on the way to victory over Germany. And while many of the war supplies, such as tanks and planes, were not immediately needed, they were put into storage for what many believed would be a long campaign to win the war in the Pacific.

After Japan surrendered later in 1945 after the atomic bombings, much of the stored equipment was sold off.

After a tumultuous history, which included having another plane land on top of it in the midst of a tornado, the Liberty Bell was purchased by the foundation and restored to its current, beautiful condition.

“This plane never saw combat but is in service today to honor those servicemen who served aboard these planes in World War II,” Liberty Foundation staff member Scott Maher said. “This could very well be the last chance we will get the chance to see these planes in flight, much less have the opportunity to see them in their natural setting, the skies.”

According to Maher, the Liberty Belle is one of only 14 remaining B-17s that are considered in flying condition and one of only eight that fly with any regularity. He added that the Liberty Belle is just one of four that are open to public flights.

Once inside the fuselage, passengers get a clear understanding of the close quarters that World War II crews experienced and the close connection many of those who served still have to this particular aircraft.

Written just behind the pilot’s chair reads, “Lee Bever, 1st pilot of the Vera Mae, shot down over Germany 4-14-44, POW till 5-13-45, 26 missions, 96th B.G. (bombing group).”

There are also similar messages from men such as Norm Menard, from West Boyington, Mass., who served 22 missions, and Lee Shank, who served as a top gunner for 33 missions and for one as the ball gunner.

The Liberty Foundation has arranged for public flights aboard the Liberty Bell on Saturday and Sunday at Chesapeake Regional Airport. Tickets are available for $430 and include about a 45-minute experience, with 30 minutes in the air.

“We are a non-profit organization working to keep flying and keep honoring our veterans,” Maher said, adding that the cost of upkeep for the plane is close to $5,000 per flying hour. All ticket purchases are tax-deductible.

To schedule a flight for this weekend, call (918) 340-0243. For more information on the Liberty Foundation, log on to www.libertyfoundation.org.