Fly a World War II bomber
May 13, 2011
World War II veteran Wayne Whitlock settles into the back of the B-17 bomber’s seats – metal benches, thinly padded and covered in army green canvas. He gazes at the inside of the door, where former vets have flown on the same plane, recalling, just like he does, their war-hero buddies.
Whitlock turned 89 a week ago. He walks with a cane, but when he first set foot on a B-17 as the Flying Fortress pilot, headed to England with the 8th Airforce, 96th Bomb Group, 337th Bomb Squadron in 1945, he was a young man, literally swinging himself into the cockpit.
Dutch officials estimate the food drops servicemen like Whitlock made in May of 1945 from the bombers saved 2 million people from starvation; the Germans still occupied part of Holland, blocking all railroad service, and the war had destroyed docks, which the Dutch depended upon to receive food and other supplies.
Whitlock flew his B-17 as part of the Dutch “Operation Chowhound.” He recalls placing the wheels and flaps down to go as slow as possible as the plane descended to only about 100-300 feet in elevation. He needed to position the plane as low as he could because they didn’t use small parachutes for the food they dropped out of the bomb bay.
Whitlock flew two missions at the tail end of the war; “being at the end of the alphabet, you get left behind in a lot of things, but in this case, that’s not a bad thing,” he said about his timing of service.
He flew all over Europe with his crew of nine men.
“We were together for a very short time – some of us were only together for six months – but we remained lifetime friends,” he said, adding that of the nine, only he and his navigator are still living.
Keeping history alive
The Liberty Foundation dedicates itself to restoring and maintaining historical aircraft. It is, in fact, a flying museum.
But, it’s a very expensive museum to operate: The Liberty Foundation spent $3 million to restore its B-17, and it costs the nonprofit more than $1,500,000 a year to keep the aircraft operating safely. In fact, fuel adds up to more than $4,500 an hour to fly the B-17 during public rides. As a result, the foundation charges the public $430 ($395 for Liberty Foundation members) for a half-hour flight and 15 minute introduction.
Still, it’s an experience of a lifetime. The foundation’s B-17 “Liberty Belle” is one of only 14 B-17s that still fly. The 8th Airforce operated the majority of the B-17s during World War II in Europe, though some flew in later missions in Korea, Israel (1948) and Vietnam. Of the 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and 1945, 4,735 fell due to enemy fire. The government built Liberty Belle at the end of World War II, so it never went into combat. After going through two owners, it moved to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Society in 1968, but in 1979 a tornado damaged the aircraft. In 2000, Don Brooks, whose father flew B-17s during World War II, purchased the plane and founded the Liberty Foundation to preserve the United State’s aviation heritage. He painted the B-17 as the Liberty Belle in tribute to his father, who was a tail gunner, as well as to honor all veterans.
As passengers board the B-17, it’s hard not to notice the inside of the door, where veterans who have flown on the plane sign their names.
“It’s a chance to reconnect with vets,” said pilot Ray Fowler. “Never pass up the opportunity to thank these guys.”
As the loud engines rev up, passengers buckle their seat belts, but once the aircraft takes flight, people can walk to various crew positions including the nose, cockpit, bomb bay, radio room and waist-gunner stations. A narrow bridge leads to areas where passengers can man the guns or crawl under the cockpit to the glass-encased nose, where a circular glass window opens up views toward the Rocky Mountains and small reservoirs along the western part of the Front Range. One of the most exhilarating experiences involves “the convertible,” an open ceiling on the plane that passengers can actually stick their heads out of during flight.
“It’s the ultimate history lesson,” Fowler said. “We want to get these planes flying for years so we can honor these veterans.”
Since his last mission in May 1946, Whitlock has flown only once on a B-17, 10 years ago. After the flight on Monday, Whitlock comments on the soft landing, saying, “It’s a good old airplane.” He lists every man he flew with by first and last name and state from which they originated.
While flying on a B-17 can stir up some sobering thoughts about the 300,000 soldiers, sailors and aviators who died throughout the 46 months of war – and about the fact that about 1,500 World War II vets die each day, so firsthand accounts are quickly fading away – Whitlock prefers to joke around, saying the wind is messing up his hair and looking for a “barf bag” to take home to his friend, who has a collection of 1,600 of the little receptacles passengers dread using.
“We remember the funny things,” he said. “You start to think about the bad things, and then you get in too deep.”