History rattles and whines, and smells like smoking airplane fuel.
A B-17 named for the famous “Memphis Belle” flew around the Wichita area on Monday. People noticed.
The plane may have a glamorous direct link to a dreadful and heroic era for the country, but in reality, the bomber is 68 years old now. And that is part of its charm.
The aircraft, owned by the Liberty Foundation, was parked at Jabara Airport on Monday, in anticipation of flying the public on Saturday and Sunday. The rides are $450 per person and support the plane’s operation and the group’s efforts to renovate other B-17s.
Plane buffs all over Wichita saw it flying overhead Monday and headed to Jabara to see what was going on.
The airplane is an authentic B-17 but was built near the end of World War II and never flew combat missions.
It served as a transport and forest fire suppression plane for decades after the war. It was restored in the 1980s and played the part of the famous “Memphis Belle” bomber in the 1990 movie of the same name.
The Liberty Foundation has nicknamed their plane the “Movie Memphis Belle.”
It’s big. B-17s carried crews of 10 people, plus 4,000 to 8,000 pounds of bombs, 13 heavy machine guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and oxygen tanks.
On Monday, the Liberty Foundation took local reporters on two short flights around the area. The plane feels ponderous, but the four engines are powerful.
The plane looks and feels close to its original utilitarian form. Passengers can watch the cables that control the wing flaps actually slide back and forth along the ceiling.
The most startling thing about the plane is the open windows: two where the waist gunners stood and one above the radio room. It’s possible, as the plane ascends, to stand in the radio room, poke your head out of the plane and see bright green Kansas farm ground rolling away.
“It’s good for anyone who wants to reimagine what it was like, but with this you don’t even need your imagination,” said Cullen Underwood, a volunteer pilot from Atlanta, Ga.
Keith Youngblood, also from Atlanta, said that volunteer crews from around the country handle the airplane, handing off control from one crew to the next as the plane moves from city to city.
There were 12,732 B-17s built, according to the Liberty Foundation, and 4,735 were lost in combat.
Jacob Thigpen, a crew member on B-17s during WWII, hitched a ride from his home in the Denver area to help with the promotion.
Asked what serving on a bomber crew during WWII was like, he answered succinctly: “Rough.”