Awe-inspiring flight with a special purpose

Published 5:34 pm Saturday, August 8, 2009

Whenever I have the chance to meet a veteran of any battle, I come away from the conversation more in awe of the courage it must have taken to go head first into danger, without consideration for their own safety.

And while Monday’s meeting with a World War II veteran may not have been a meeting in the traditional sense, the meeting was no less awe-inspiring.

In an effort to promote the public flights this weekend at Chesapeake Regional Airport, the Liberty Foundation allowed members of the area media to fly aboard a World War II-era B-17 bomber.

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The Liberty Belle, built in May 1945, never saw battle, but instead was placed in storage, sold off and then later refurbished to memorialize the thousands of men who flew aboard similar bombers in nearly ever theater of operation in World War II.

Of the nearly 12,000 bombers built, only four remain operational today for flights for the public.

We’ve seen movies and mini-series depicting World War II and the battle for Europe. We’ve seen images of young men posing for group shots outside their bombers as they return home safely from yet another mission.

But, never did I fully appreciate the conditions in which these men flew, and the danger they put themselves each time they went on a mission.

Inside the fuselage of the Liberty Belle is cramped, hot and does not provide much between you and the outside world. Levers, fuses, moving parts and live bombs were just inches away from walkways and seats.

Little it appeared went into making these planes comfortable for the crew. Instead, they were built for a specific purpose – a purpose they performed extremely well.

While the 30-minute flight over the Chesapeake area was enjoyable, there came with it a bit of sadness and immediate understanding of just what these brave men went through in carrying out their bombing missions.

Written inside on one of the bulkheads was a message from a Lee Bever who was a pilot of a B-17 bomber that was part of the 96th bomber group in Europe. Bever, who obviously flew recently aboard the Belle, left the message saying how he was shot down over Germany on April 13, 1944, one of his 26 missions.

The message simply said, “Lee Bever, 1st pilot of the Vera Mae, shot down over Germany 4-13-44 – POW till 5-13-45, 26 missions, 96th B.G.”

The Liberty Belle is a fantastic plane and the chance to fly aboard her was a highlight for me. But, it is the realization of what this plane stands for, the history she aims to preserve and the men she memorializes that I will most remember.