Video: Flying Fortress offers a ride into history

Robert Barlow

When taking in the bird’s-eye view of Rochester's pastoral fields from the glass nose of the Liberty Belle, it’s difficult to imagine the World War II bomber was created for one purpose — war.

Now that the B-17, known as the Flying Fortress because of its multiple machine guns and overall reliability and safety, has been surpassed by bigger, faster and more technologically advanced airplanes, it serves a much different purpose — as a high-flying adventure for aviation history buffs.

On Sunday, the Liberty Foundation’s B-17 Liberty Belle is offering the public the opportunity to take a step back in time and fly over Rochester.

Passengers will know what it was like to fly on a bombing run in the skies over enemy territory — minus the enemy aircraft and bullets. After the four, 1,200-horsepower engines lift the historic bomber into flight, passengers will be free to move about the airplane for approximately 30 minutes, experience the various crew positions and even grab a machine gun.

During flight, passengers can see the heavy metal wires moving through the aircraft from the cockpit to all of the control surfaces. The cabin is not pressurized and there is a small hole on the top of the plane; there is nothing between you and the sky, the sound of the wind blowing through the entire cabin only canceled out by the noise of the engines. The B-17 is old but still offers a relatively smooth ride.

The highlight of any flight, according to Capt. John Shuttleworth, is the panoramic view from the glass nose where navigation and target calculation was done during the war.

“It’s a mesmerizing look at the world,” said Shuttleworth. “The B-17 is such an iconic figure in aviation history and it’s impossible to describe to someone just what it is like to fly in it.”

The Liberty Belle is one of only 14 remaining B-17s of the 12,732 produced between 1935 and 1945, of which 4,735 were lost in combat. This particular Flying Fortress was built near the end of the war and never saw any combat but has a unique history of its own.

The Liberty Belle was sold as scrap in 1947. The aircraft was then sold again to engine builder Pratt and Whitey and was used as a test bed for its turbo prop engines. In 1968, the Liberty Belle was donated to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Society but was damaged in 1979 when a tornado threw another airplane onto its midsection. In 1990, the slow and laborious restoration of the Liberty Belle began.

Don Brooks, founder of the Liberty Foundation — a nonprofit museum dedicated to preserving aviation heritage — helped fund the complete restoration. Brooks’ father was a B-17 tail gunner during World War II, and the plane is a tribute to him and all the aircrews that flew during the war. The restoration took 14 years and $3 million to complete. The Liberty Belle returned to the skies Dec. 8, 2004.

“It was a Herculean effort,” said Co-Capt. Ray Fowler. “The biggest problem we have today is the rising cost of fuel, as the B-17 burns through about 200 gallons an hour. It’s because of this cost that planes like the B-17 are becoming too costly to operate.”

The 45-minute flight experience costs $395 for Liberty Foundation members and $430 for non-members. Passengers can become members for $40 and receive the member discount for family and friends.

“While $430 sounds expensive, it must be put into perspective when compared to the operating cost of a B-17,” said Scott Maher of the Liberty Foundation. “A Flying Fortress costs over $4,500 per flight hour and the Liberty Foundation spends over $1 million annually to keep the Liberty Belle air worthy and out on tour. Only the public’s interest and other generous donations keep the aircraft flying and from being silenced permanently in a museum.”

Public flights will be available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. After the last flight of the day, the public can tour the Liberty Belle in exchange for a small donation to the Liberty Foundation. When the aircraft leaves Rochester, it will be flown to Europe in what will most likely be the last Atlantic crossing for a Flying Fortress because of the expense involved with such a flight.

For more information about the Liberty Foundation and the Liberty Belle, go to www.libertyfoundation.org or call Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243. Flights are held at Landmark Aviation, 1265 Scottsville Road, near the airport.

Messenger Post writer Robert Barlow can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 320, or at rbarlow@messengerpostmedia.com.