Mile High with a Belle 

Taking a ride in a roaring museum

Sixty-five years ago, the guy sitting in my place was slowly freezing. His heated fleece and leather flying suit had shorted out again. But at 30 below and 23,000 feet, that was the least of his worries. Accurate flak and swarms of cannon-firing fighters were more urgent perils to him and the nine others aboard. They were trying to breach the relentless German defenses and bomb Schweinfurt, then return to England alive. Like hundreds of other crews, they did this several times a week until they completed the required 25 missions or were shot down. The oldest of them was twenty-four.

Monday morning I was strapped in the radioman’s compartment of the Liberty Belle, looking forward into the bomb bay where inert 500-pound bombs hung above open bomb bay doors. The odors of engine exhaust and hot oil blended with the 90 degree heat. We were riding in a shrine: a World War II, Boeing B-17G heavy bomber. Almost half of the 13,000 Flying Fortresses built were shot down or crashed from battle damage, taking a third of their crews with them. The “survivors” returned with honor to America and parked. Within two years, almost all were melted down to make cookware and rustproof patio furniture. In all the world, less than a dozen still fly.

Four big radial engines bellowed as we lifted off Runway 9 at an old bomber base on Johns Island, known today as Charleston Executive Airport. While the bomber climbed over Folly Beach, the crew chief invites us to unstrap and change positions. I made a beeline for the plexiglass nose, where the navigator plotted courses and the bombardier used his secret Norden bombsite to obliterate Nazi factories, refineries, airfields, and, sadly, civilians who got in the way. The view was indescribably panoramic.

Too soon, Liberty Belle settled onto the concrete in a perfect 3-point landing and trundled to a halt. We exited quickly, making way for the next riders.

You can fly with the Belle this Saturday or Sunday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Call the Liberty Foundation at (918) 340-0243. Cost is $430 for a 30 minute flight in an airplane that changed the world.

 

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