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B-17 bomber visits Chesapeake

Jim Ritchie thinks about his dad a lot during his volunteer work with the Commemorative Air Force.

Ritchie is a flight crew chief, flight engineer and flight mechanic on a B-17 bomber like the one his father flew during World War II. His father flew 35 missions before transferring back to a base in America to train on the B-29 bombers, which he later flew in the Pacific Theater prior to the end of the war.

But it’s not just his father on his mind when he’s flying the B-17.

“Not only him, you think about the kids that flew these during the war,” he said. “My father was considered old. He was 26.”

The B-17 piloted by Ritchie for the Commemorative Air Force is in the area through Sunday at the Hampton Roads Executive Airport, on U.S. Route 58 in Chesapeake just over the city line from Suffolk. There are opportunities for the public to tour and fly in the plane.

“Sentimental Journey” is a Boeing plane that was manufactured by Douglas Aircraft Company under contract. It rolled off an assembly line in California in November 1944 and soon entered the war effort, according to Ritchie.

But while the first B-17s went into combat in 1941 and earned a deadly reputation with the Japanese, this particular plane didn’t see combat, as the war was already nearly over when it was built. It was sent to the Pacific Theater but wound up doing photo reconnaissance, mapping and nuclear testing work.

Later, the plane was acquired by a firefighting company, where it became Tanker No. 17 and flew missions across the western half of the United States to fight wildfires until the Commemorative Air Force acquired it about 30 years ago.

“She’s pretty much the queen of our fleet, obviously,” Ritchie said.

Donald Williams, pilot services manager for Hampton Roads Executive Airport, was instrumental in arranging the B-17’s visit and also got to take a flight on Tuesday morning. He said it fulfilled one of his bucket-list items.

“I’ve always been in love with this plane,” Williams said.

He noted that a Bombardier Challenger — a multi-million-dollar private jet — was waiting to take off from the airport during a flight for media on Tuesday and waited for the B-17 to land before it made its attempt.

“Pilots respect the past,” he said. “It’s something we always want to cherish. It reminds us where we come from.”

Ground tours of the B-17 this week are $10 for adults, $5 for children and $20 for a family of four.

Those who tour the plane will be able to view signatures on it from veterans who have visited. Only veterans who flew on a B-17 during the war are allowed to sign, and many who have done so noted the years they served, their units and, in some cases, the dates they were shot down in combat.

Ritchie said meeting veterans is a favorite part of their volunteer work for the crew.

“We get fewer and fewer,” he said. “At most stops, we’re lucky to get a handful.”

Flights are also available, but they are pricey. A seat in the waist area will cost you $425, while a seat in the nose will set you back $850. Passengers must be 12 years old or older. Folks who take the flight will be in the plane for about 45 minutes, with about 25 of that in the air.

Proceeds from the flights and tours help support the upkeep of the B-17, which will head to Bristol, Tenn., following its stay at the Hampton Roads Executive Airport.

Visit azcaf.org for more information or to book a flight.