Ninety-six-year-old Edwin Bell, a former B-17 air crewman from Smyrna, walks up to the plane like it’s a long lost friend. In a way it is.
This is the second time he’s flown in a restored B-17, the same aircraft that carried his crew on 35 sorties during World War II. The Liberty Foundation is paying for his ticket today from the Smyrna Airport as a media promotion for the nonprofit museum that restores antique warbirds that tour the country offering flights and ground tours so a new generation can touch a piece of history.
“There wasn’t much between us and the blue sky but one piece of aluminum,” said Bell, before the flight. In 1944, Uncle Sam trained Bell to operate the radio. The Army Air Corp. issued him the newest electric flight suits to keep him from freezing at altitude, where the temperatures could get down to minus 70 degrees.
Today, the tarmac is a scorching 95 degrees. The olive drab plane waits, huge rotary engines primed with oil will power the plane into the air at cost of $4,500/air hour.
Bell climbs aboard. This is not a commercial aircraft. The hatch is a cutout in the aft of the fuselage, just behind the waist gunner ports. Twin .50 caliber machine guns jut from the plane like antenna in Plexiglas ports. In Bell’s day, some of the early models of the plane would have been open to the thin air and rushing wind at 30,000 feet.
The media flight only reaches about 1,000 feet, that’s about five miles lower than the altitude that Bell’s missions flew. From the bombardier’s spot at the nose of the bird, the low altitude offers a great view of passing hills, highways and subdivisions. It’s a far cry from the bombed-out Europe of 1945, still though, that was a lifetime ago for Bell.
All too soon the B-17 makes its final approach, Bell no doubt knows from the feel of the plan what’s happening. The loud roar of the engines cover the “bailout alarm” that signaled reporters to return to their seats. The touchdown is gentle, breaking firm and loud.
This weekend, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 21-22, The Liberty Foundation will offer flights and ground tours of one of only 12 operational B-17 Flying Fortresses at the Smyrna Airport, 300 Doug Warpoole Rd.
To book a tour, call 678-589-7433 with your questions or to book your ride. B-17 rides are $475 per non-Liberty Foundation Member or $435 per Liberty Foundation member.