Thursday, June 26, 2014

Grandview Gal Meets Memphis Belle

Click on the video to experience takeoff in the Memphis Belle, overlooking downtown Kansas City.

By Mary Wilson

This week, I had the incredible opportunity to step back into time and channel my inner Rosie the Riveter as I experienced the “Flying Fortress” herself, Memphis Belle B-17. With her sleek belly, loud purrs and tattoos of swastikas and pin-up girls, Memphis Belle is surely a sight to be seen.

While the Memphis Belle I saw on Monday wasn’t used in battle, it is the aircraft that was used in the movie Memphis Belle. She was built tough, able to withstand heavy combat and bring her soldiers home safe. Just walking around her on the outside, I could feel her power and authority. She means business.

The Boeing B-17 is by far the most famous bomber of World War II. In 1934, the Boeing Aircraft Company began construction of a four-engine heavy-bomber. Known as the Model -299, the first flight was achieved on July 28, 1935. As a result, the U.S. Government placed an order for production of thirteen of the aircraft and began to take delivery of the production between January 11 and August 4, 1937. The Final B-17 production model, the B-17G was produced in the largest quantities (8,680) than any other previous model and is considered the definitive "Flying Fortress".

During WWII, the B-17 saw service in every theater of operation, but was operated primarily by the 8th Air Force in Europe, and participated in countless missions from bases in England. A typical B-17 mission often lasted for more than eight hours and struck targets deep within enemy territory. During the war, B-17's dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on European targets in daylight raids. This compares to the 452,508 tons dropped by the B-24 and 464,544 tons dropped by all other U.S. aircraft. The B-17 also downed 23 enemy aircraft per 1,000 raids as compared with 11 by B-24's and 11 by fighters and three by all U.S. medium and light bombers.

There were a total of 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and May, 1945. Of these, 4,735 were lost in combat. Following WWII, the B-17 saw service in three more wars. B-17's were used in Korea, Israel used them in the war of 1948, and they were even used during Vietnam.

Today, fewer than 100 B-17 airframes exist and fewer still are in airworthy condition. At one time, more than 1,000 B-17's could be assembled for mass combat missions. Now, less than 15 of Boeing’s famous bombers can still take to the sky.

“The minute that people start to think that this sort of thing is boring, we have a big problem,” said volunteer pilot John Ferguson. “We need to get the word out to the public on the history of the wartime veterans and what they did for us. If they didn’t do what they did for us then, we wouldn’t be able to do this today. That’s what we’re all about.”

Memphis Belle is anything but boring. Climbing aboard through her small door, I sat in the back of the aircraft, closest to a veteran who remembers flying in B-17s during the war all too well. 95-year-old Jake Simonitsch was in a B-17 during the war and was gunned down.

I sat down, strapped myself in, and readied for takeoff. The four engines roared to life, and we were on our way. The flight itself was much smoother than I anticipated. Once we were in flight, we were able to unbuckle and walk, sometimes crawl, through the plane.

I crawled all the way to the nose of the plane, which would have been manned by a gunner engineer to defend the aircraft from enemy fire. The view from that seat was simply breathtaking, as we circled above Kansas City.

When finished exploring all of her nooks and crannies, and receiving a few “souvenirs”, or love bites of my own, as Ferguson calls them, we headed back to our seats to ready for landing. Once again, I sat toward the rear of the plane, closest to Simonitsch. He had a look of pure joy on his face as we neared the landing strip.

When the wheels touched ground, he looked at me and smiled, giving a thumbs up. To experience something that so long ago was so prevalent in this man’s life alongside him is truly something I will never forget.

“I was a navigator on one of these planes for eighteen missions,” said Simonitsch. “That eighteenth mission was when the Germans decided I didn’t need to fly anymore.”

The Memphis Belle, leased by the nonprofit Liberty Foundation, will be on display for free tours this weekend at the Wheeler Downtown Airport, and will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, as part of the foundation’s 2014 Salute to Veterans tour. Public flights will also be available for $450, and last about 30 minutes with nine seats available. Call 918-340-0243 to book a flight.

The volunteers with Liberty Foundation will be running the flights and tours all weekend, and hope to keep the history alive with donations from the public.

“We’re volunteers because World War II and the airplanes flown are in our DNA,” said Ferguson. “It’s why I became a pilot. This is home for me.”

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Problem Solved


By Paul Thompson

The South Kansas City Alliance connected eight city departments with constituents on Saturday, June 14, in the first of (hopefully) many “problem-solving” events to be held in South Kansas City.
Cribbed from the successful Northland neighborhood alliance problem-solving events, 6th District Councilman John Sharp suggested that the SKC Alliance attempt something similar with their constituents. So it was last Saturday, when representatives from the water department, the South Patrol police department, the 311 Action Center, the codes department, public works, street repairs, parks and recreation, and the Public Improvement Advisory Committee (PIAC) came to the Trailside Center from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. to meet with citizens face-to-face and listen to their problems.
“You aren’t just emailing someone or calling someone, you can actually have face-to-face contact and have the time to fully explain the problem,” said Sharp of the event. “We think it will really facilitate the city addressing problems and solving them more effectively, and quicker.”
Each department was split up at their own tables, with chairs opposite the department representatives for citizens to sit and explain their respective issues. With dozens of city residents crisscrossing the room, moving from table to table, the scene more closely resembled a round of speed dating than a typical public meeting.
City staff enjoyed the opportunity to meet with the people.
“It’s great to come out and actually meet the people. It gives us a chance to actually have a conversation,” said Roosevelt Parks of the Parks and Recreation department. “Oftentimes, you just get a problem and then you have to work on it. When you get a chance to actually sit down with somebody, you can talk about some of the challenges and give them an understanding of what we’re facing.”
Andy Shively of the water department agreed that the event proved to be a strong benefit for all involved.
“It’s a great opportunity for the city and for water services. It’s a great chance to interact with our customers,” said Shively. “We really enjoy these opportunities to get out and interact with the residents and give them a chance to talk to a live person. I think everyone is pleased so far, and I’m sure it’s going to be a success.”
Chris Korth of the Kansas City Alliance organized the event, and he was pleased with the amount of interest from both the citizens and city staff. Everyone at the Trailside Center had volunteered their time, and he felt the effort was well spent. Korth said that his group will keep working to ensure that South Kansas City residents remain properly represented moving forward.
“We’re concerned about doing many things for South Kansas City to make it a better place to work, to live, and to play,” said Korth.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Foot Golf Kicks Off in Kansas City

by Paul Thompson

There’s a new way to get your kicks in Kansas City, thanks to the rise of an increasingly popular sport known as foot golf.

The game, which has now infiltrated the KC Parks system through the Heart of America Golf Course, is structured just like golf.  There are 18 holes in a round, a course par of 72, tee boxes to begin each hole, and flagsticks marking the cup. But there is one significant difference: foot golf is played with a soccer ball.

The sport was originally founded in Europe around five years ago, and has recently picked up in America, specifically along the west coast. So when Heart of America brainstormed ways to increase revenue while offering new services to Kansas City residents, the idea of foot golf came up.

By the beginning of May, enlarged holes had been installed alongside the Heart of America par-3 course, new foot golf tee boxes had been set up, and thousands of foot golf scorecards had been printed. Foot golf had officially spread to Kansas City.

“The first weekend it was open, we did maybe $780 worth of $10 greens fees.” said Craig Martin, the general manager of the Heart of America Golf Academy. “Throughout the community, the word is out.”

Typically, foot golf holes are about half the distance of a regular golf hole. Martin guessed that the longest hole was about 225 yards. So far, the course record is a 63, although more and more players come in every day to challenge that mark. Last weekend, the course was jam-packed with dozens of competitors in town for a kickball tournament.

“It’s a little bit of a special occasion, but we’ve noticed that Saturdays and Sundays are incredibly popular,” said Martin. “It’s a social event. They’re definitely coming out in groups.”

Martin added that the burgeoning new sport generally attracts a less competitive clientele than golfers. It’s easy for newcomers to grasp, and at $10 per round, it’s affordable enough for families to come out for an afternoon. Interested parties can even set up a “toe time” with the course to ensure that there’s availability. And those aren’t the only perks.

“It’s easier to find your ball in the weeds,” joked Martin. “There are less lost balls.”

Martin and his colleagues at Heart of America hope to continue growing the sport of foot golf throughout the summer. They’ve looked into hosting tournaments at the site, and have already set up one league, scheduled to begin in mid to late June. They want to expand the sport even more, and are looking for feedback from their first wave of foot golfers to help mold services to the will of the people.

“Leagues are looking to be formed,” said Martin. “We’re trying to figure out what the public wants most. There are things that we’ve kicked around, but we haven’t got anything down yet.”

 For now, Martin is focused on the possibilities. While golfers typically lay down their clubs throughout the winter months, Martin envisions foot golfers enjoying the sport almost year-round. After all, soccer is played in all conditions, rain or shine. The foot golfers helped proved the theory last weekend, when the kickball group played right through a brief drizzle.

“You’ll notice that it doesn’t seem to bother them, they’re just going along,” noted Martin. “Soccer players will come out more in all types of weather.”

Foot golf has been an experiment so far, but it’s worked well enough that Martin foresees it sticking for the long haul.

“It’s job security, it’s facility security, it’s good for Parks and Rec,” said Martin. “It’s good for the bottom line.”