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Flying fortresses are living history

By Rob Felt

As soon as the B-17's four 1,200 horsepower engines roared to life, it was clear that there would be no snack or in-flight movie on this flight. The nine passengers were strapped into row seats with their backs to the hull of the 60-year-old WWII bomber, and an air of nervous excitement filled the plane as it rolled down the runway.

Before the flight, the group had been briefed on the tarmac by the Experimental Aircraft Association's B-17 program director George Danbuer. "You have to be aware of what you're doing when you're walking around inside the airplane, it was made for combat, not for comfort," Danbeur said.

The plane was going to move around, and exposed machinery and metal would substitute for the plastic and seat cushions the group was familiar with on commercial flights. "It's just common sense in the airplane, be safe and just think about what you're doing," Danbeur said.

Shortly after the plane was airborne, the passengers clicked their seatbelts open and began exploring the plane. The main attraction was the glass nose of the bombardier's seat at the front, under the cockpit.

To get to it, the passengers made their way through the radio room and the bomb bay, down a very small opening just behind the pilot's seats and under the cockpit.

Trent Morris took his first ride on a B-17 with the group. "It's much more seat of the pants, it's much more of a thrill ride. You're reliving the history of where we came from. When I got a chance to go I said ?I don't care what the price is, I'm doing it'," Morris said.

How did this group get the opportunity to ride in a vintage military plane? The Experimental Aircraft Association landed its Salute to Veterans Tour in Atlanta this weekend, and the public is invited to tour a collection of historical military aircraft at the Fulton County – Brown Field Airport in Atlanta.

The B-17 used in the tour was not active in combat during the war. It was manufactured in 1944 and shipped to the Pacific, but stayed out of active duty. Its nickname and paint, "Fuddy Duddy," is modeled after a specific plane that was shot down over Germany.

More than 12,000 B-17s were manufactured during WWII. Of those, 4,735 of them were lost during combat and only about a dozen of the "flying fortresses" can still take to the sky today.

Kerry Bedsworth runs publicity for the Marietta chapter of the EAA, and says that despite the cost of a flight, the group's events are usually well attended. "Everywhere it goes there are certain people who recognize the sound of the B-17. It's a nostalgic thing for them, because they actually lived it. Oh man, the stories you hear around the airplane," Bedsworth said.

At a price tag of $395 for 20 minutes in the air, the B-17 flights are definitely geared for diehard fans.

Pilot Sam Bass has been flying with the program for 10 years. "It's expensive to operate. We try to generate enough revenue to keep it going so people can really understand what WWII was all about," he said. "The B-17 was instrumental in us winning the war in Europe," he said.

Dan Bowlin flies these tours with a respect for those who used them in wartime. "Every time you go out there you're losing a third of the planes, and you've gotta fly 25 missions – there's no way you can make it statistically, and they went out there and did it every day," said Bowlin.

Sam Bass is passionate about communicating WWII veterans' experiences to younger generations. "Can you imagine being in that airplane for up to 12 hours, and you're flying at 30,000 feet and it's minus 55 degrees below zero, and you know there's someone out there trying to kill you?"

Thanks to the EAA's flying museums, we can at least try.