B-17 to Send Locals Soaring Back in Time

This weekend out at Spirit of St. Louis Airport, pilot Ray Fowler will take paying customers aloft in a relic from World War II, a B-17 bomber.

Fowler also flies fighters for the Alabama Air National Guard and airliners for Continental. When he talks about his B-17, Fowler - like so many pilots - lapses into politically incorrect English. He calls the aircraft "she."

If this B-17 were truly a she, the plane would be what the French call, approvingly, "a woman of a certain age."

At age 63, the B-17 lacks the zip and sex appeal of newer warplanes. But the bomber - named the "Liberty Belle" - has both experience and curves going for it.

Restoration of the Liberty Belle has been a labor of love for an Oklahoma-based nonprofit group called the Liberty Foundation. Since the group started flying the plane late in 2004, about 6,700 people have pulled themselves aboard for half-hour flights - and a taste of WWII history.

Anyone willing to dish out $430 can have the same experience from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.

If the price seems steep, consider that the Liberty Belle:

- Ate up more than $3 million in being restored.

- Costs almost $4,000 an hour to fly. (One reason: Its four engines guzzle 200 gallons an hour of 100-octane aviation gasoline, at $4.65 a gallon.)

- Goes through about $1 million a year in tour costs.

For those willing to pay the price, a jaunt in the Liberty Belle offers a physical experience as well as a historical one.

For starters, the seating falls short of first-class. For takeoff, up to nine passengers buckle up in canvas bucket seats. On a media flight Monday, taxiing to the runway proved noisy and bumpy. The takeoff was noisier, and bumpier.

But once aloft ...

The crew encourages passengers to walk about the cabin - and the flight deck, and the bubble nose, with its eye-popping view.

Some dexterity is required. Getting into the flight deck means traversing a narrow plank above the bomber's remarkably small bomb bay. (Today's fighter jets carry a vastly heavier bomb load.)

And to get into the nose bubble, passengers must all but dance the limbo. But at 1,500 feet and 150 mph, the view is worth the indignity.

(Other prime views are available at the waist gunners' positions, complete with fake but genuine-looking .50-caliber machine guns.)

Aboard Monday's media flight, as a guest of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, was Norman Coats, 81, of Kirkwood.

In WWII, Coats flew 18 missions over Europe as a ball gunner in a B-17.

Until Monday, he hadn't set foot in a B-17 since he came home from Europe and landed in Connecticut on July 4, 1945.

Aboard the Liberty Belle, he smiled and shook his head in wonderment. Afterward, he said softly, "That's something, all right."

On the ground, bystander Holly Taschler of Wildwood took her 5-year-old twins Chase and Austin up to the bomber's belly for a look at the ball turret, with its twin .50-caliber weapons.

Then she pointed to Coats and all but shouted to her boys, "This man shot these guns. He really did it - in real life!"

Reservations are encouraged but not required. They may be made by calling 918-340-0243. The foundation has a Web site at

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