Historic B-17 offers flights in Wichita

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May 25--It's a heart-stopping, stomach-turning, nerve-jangling ride even in peace time.

Who knows what it would have been like riding in a B-17 more than six decades ago on bombing missions over enemy territory.

On Monday, the Liberty Belle, a restored B-17, flew over Wichita. It will fly again this Saturday and Sunday, offering flights to those brave enough -- and wealthy enough to pay around $400 per person.

Think of it as a living history museum in the sky -- a chance to have your ears bombarded by the roar of engines and wind, your nose blasted with engine exhaust fumes, and adrenaline course through your body.

The Liberty Belle is one of only 14 of the 12,732 B-17s produced that are still in flying condition.

"This plane was built in 1945 -- at the end of the war -- and it was due to be scrapped," said John Hess, one of the volunteer pilots who flew the plane Monday. "Before it was smelted, Pratt Whitney had a need for an airplane to do some test flying. They took this plane and beefed it up."

For years, the Liberty Belle was used by the aircraft engine manufacturer until Pratt Whitney donated it to the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Conn. The plane, Hess said, sat in a back lot -- and wasn't considered valuable.

In 1979, the plane was nearly destroyed by a tornado. It was a wreck when Don Brooks purchased it in 1987.

Through the efforts of many volunteers -- 88,000 man-hours and several million dollars -- the Liberty Belle was brought back to flying condition. The Liberty Foundation, which Brooks founded, is the nonprofit group in Tulsa that restored the historic aircraft and remains dedicated to preserving it.

The old planes fly to nearly three dozen cities a year to offer people experiences in flight, Hess said.

On the ground Monday, 25 mph winds simply buffeted people's hair.

But with the engines roaring several hundred feet above ground and air gusting over the open radio operator's window at 140 mph, the winds are tumultuous and whipped hair and the plane with equal abandon.

Those who dared could walk to each of the crew's positions: look over the pilot's shoulder, stare down a gun turret, or sit where the bombardier sat -- the glass nose.

"It is the closest thing to a magic carpet ride you'll get," said Chuck Giese, one of the crew members.

An 8-inch-wide, 8-foot-long catwalk stretches across the bomb bay into the navigator and pilot seats. And with the winds blowing and the plane pitching back and forth, it took guts to walk the catwalk, which is suspended several feet above the bomb bay doors.

"This is an ex-military aircraft," Giese said. "It's not built for creature comforts."

Strings of cable are constantly moving inside the plane as the sights behind gun turrets revealed handkerchief-sized green fields, cracker-box houses, matchbox cars and cotton-ball clouds.

During the war, the B-17 planes were used in daylight strategic bombing campaigns against German industrial, civilian and military targets, dropping more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II.

On Monday, as the plane taxied into the James Jabara Airport, it caught the eye of 51-year-old Mike Quackenbush of Kenesaw, Neb., who was on his way to visit his mother in a hospital.

"It's a B-17!" he said. "There's just something nostalgic about them."

People who are interested in seeing the plane rather than taking the ride can still go out to Jabara Airport on North Webb Road this weekend for a close-up view, said Natalie Maher, volunteer for the Liberty Foundation. The best opportunity is during the afternoons. There is no charge to see the plane; donations are accepted.

Proceeds benefit the Liberty Foundation.

The fee for the plane ride helps offset the cost of fuel, the plane's maintenance and insurance, Hess said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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