Thursday, June 26, 2014

Grandview Gal Meets Memphis Belle

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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.”

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