June 16, 2014

Veterans get chance to take ride on Memphis Belle during stop in Wichita

World War II airmen aboard a B-17 bomber had a 23 percent chance of returning home from a mission.

World War II airmen aboard a B-17 bomber had a 23 percent chance of returning home from a mission.

Melvin Fast beat those odds.

Fast, of Hutchinson, said he was a waist gunner aboard the Shack Rat, a B-17 bomber with the Eighth Air Force. On Monday, Fast boarded another B-17, the Memphis Belle, during the Liberty Foundation’s 2014 Salute to Veterans tour at Jabara Airport. The flight was offered to members of the media and local B-17 veterans.

“The real problem will be at night when I go to bed,” Fast, 90, said after his 15-minute flight Monday. “Every time I go to bed after something like that, I have nightmares.”

The Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit museum on flying, takes the movie version of the Memphis Belle on tour across the country. The original aircraft – the name originates from a pilot’s girlfriend – was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions with the crew completely intact.

This weekend, the aircraft known as a Flying Fortress will be available to the public for flights and viewings. The Liberty Foundation charges $450 to take a 30-minute flight. Flights will be offered from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, depending on demand.

After the flights, the public can climb aboard and view the aircraft for free. Keith Youngblood, volunteer crewman with the Liberty Foundation, said the tours will last as late as people come.

On board the restored plane, visitors can witness history using all five senses, said Bob Hill, one of the foundation’s pilots.

“You can go visit a Civil War battlefield or a World War II battlefield,” Hill said Monday, “but you can never visit the airman’s battlefield. It’s in a piece of sky somewhere.”

After takeoff, fliers can wander about the plane, visiting the glass cockpit, the bomb bay – which housed nearly 8,000 pounds of explosives – and handle the side, tail and front machine guns. The space is cramped and loud, so crews offer ear plugs to riders. Windows are open to the outside, so fliers can stick their heads out the top and sides of the aircraft.

During the war, the bombers were unpressurized and climbed to altitudes of nearly 30,000 feet. It was cold, World War II veteran Lewis Smith said. Temperatures dropped to about 50 degrees below zero, he said.

“Nothing to it, piece of cake,” said Smith, a Wichita native.

Smith was unable to take a ride when the second media flight Monday was canceled because of high winds. But he was in high spirits on the tarmac at Jabara. As a captain, he said, he flew 35 missions with the Eighth Air Force.

“The main thing I like to come out here is I like to hear the sound of the engine,” Smith said. “You just don’t hear it anymore. It’s such a nice roar.

“Of course, on missions, you’re always listening to the engines to make sure that one’s not out of sight. Because you’re praying for ’em.”

The Memphis Belle is one of 13 B-17 planes that still fly. Although the movie version on tour this weekend never saw any combat, Smith said the experience is just as valuable.

“Hundreds of memories,” he said of the aircraft, “good and bad. It just thrills my heart, because there was never a plane built that was prettier and more reliable than a B-17.”

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