Liberty Belle Bomber
Kansas City, Mo. Dan Anderson looked at the World War II era bomber parked on the tarmac at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport and thought of his late uncle.
"There were a few times when he flew back over the White Cliffs of Dover with one or two engines missing, but he survived the war," Anderson said. "He never lost a plane. That's amazing."
Anderson's uncle - as a 21-year-old Army Air Force captain - flew B-17 bombers similar to the Liberty Belle, a restored bomber that will be on display to the public this weekend at the airport. Those who can afford to part with $430 will be able to take a 30-minute ride in the four-engine plane.
The plane is owned by the Tulsa, Okla.-based Liberty Foundation, which was founded by aviation enthusiast and vintage plane collector Don Brooks. This particular bomber was produced at the end of the war and never saw combat. But it is named after a plane Brooks' father flew during the war. It is one of only 14 B-17s still flying today.
The Liberty Belle, with its collection of pilots and maintenance crewmen, is on a 50-city tour intended as a salute to World War II veterans. Meeting and talking with the veterans who flew a B-17 or manned one of the plane's dozen 50-caliber machine guns is the highlight of the tour for Liberty Belle's entourage.
"Sometimes they haven't seen the plane in 60 years - maybe since the last time they were shot down in it," said Clint Fraser, of Tucson, Ariz., one of the Liberty Belle's pilots.
John Bode, another of the plane's pilots, agreed.
"The emotions and the memories it invokes are incredible," he said. "Their memories come back and they start telling these stories, and their children are hearing these stories for the first time. It's fantastic and heart-rending at the same time."
Bode and Fraser are former airline and corporate jet pilots. But they find none of the modern plane amenities in the no-frills B-17.
"It takes a lot of strength to fly this plane; that's something people don't realize," said Bode, of Albuquerque, N.M. "It is a job to fly, and it's physically exhausting. With all that being said, this is one of the luckiest things I've ever been able to do."
The B-17 is noisy, has no heat or air-conditioning, is not pressurized for high altitude and sometimes provides a rough ride.
"It is an honor to be flying such a historic artifact," Fraser said.
Anderson, himself a corporate pilot from Las Vegas, said seeing the B-17 and its cockpit gave him a better understanding of what his uncle faced during the war.
"It's kind of cool sitting there and seeing what he flew, let alone thinking about the flak (anti-aircraft fire) that was up there hitting them," he said.
Fortress in the sky
While the B-17 on display at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City did not actually fly combat missions in World War II, the aircraft has been painted and restored as a testament to the Liberty Belle, one of the aircraft in the 390th Bombardment Group.
Don Brooks' father, who started the Liberty Belle Foundation, served in the 390th during the war.
Based at Framlingham, England, the bomber wing took part in 301 missions between August 1943 and April 1945. Of the 275 bombers assigned to the unit during that time, 75 made an appearance at VE Day. Eleven of those 75 were "war-weary" planes that could not have taken part in a combat mission. In all, more than 200 B-17s from the 390th were lost in the war or mangled beyond repair.
For about two years, the bomber wing amassed a stellar record of service, bombing targets all over western Europe.
The 390th's first mission took place in the skies above Bonn, Germany. All of the 19 planes that took off from Framlingham returned home, but because of cloud cover, most of the bombs they dropped drifted off target and into fields or residential neighborhoods.
The unit's second mission over Vitry-En-Artois, France, resulted in the loss of its first B-17 - in a midair collision. The mission also accounted for the first enemy aircraft shot down by a B-17 in the 390th.
The 390th's third mission above Regensburg, Germany, was a stellar victory marred by horrific loss of life. Of the 146 planes that left England for Germany, 27 would not return home. The enormous casualty rate and additional loss of aircrews stung deeply, but the bomber group had penetrated farther into Germany than any other allied command up to that point in the war. The 390th was awarded one of its two Distinguished Unit Citations for its part in the battle.
The bombing of a ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt, Germany, in October 1943 gave the bomber group its second Distinguished Unit Citation. The 390th only lost one aircraft in the engagement, but the overall toll taken on the attack force was staggering. Of the 291 planes sent on the mission, only 228 attacked the target. Some were lost to mechanical issues, but most were lost to enemy fighters.
During its two years of service over the skies of Europe, the B-17s of the 390th Bombardment Group dropped more than 19,000 tons of bombs. The accuracy of their attacks was the highest of any unit in the 8th Air Force, and while still staggering, their aircraft losses were the least in terms of missions flown or bombs dropped.