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September 25, 2012

The ultimate history lesson: B-17 ‘Memphis Belle’ to take flight this weekend in Clark County

SELLERSBURG — If the B-17 is World War II’s most iconic airplane, then perhaps there is no single WWII airplane more famous than the B-17 “Memphis Belle.”

Although the original Memphis Belle is no longer operational, the B-17 that stood in for her in the 1990 big-budget movie of the same name featuring Eric Stoltz and Harry Connick Jr. still remains. And on Saturday and Sunday at the Clark County Regional Airport, the Liberty Foundation will give history buffs and veterans the opportunity to take to the skies in the iconic bomber.

“Everyone always asks, ‘Is this the real Memphis Belle?’” pilot Ray Fowler said. “So this is the real, fake Memphis Belle. This is the one they used for the movie studio.”

The real Belle saw action in the Atlantic Theater at the height of the war with Nazi Germany, and was the first to complete a tour of duty by completing 25 missions. The Belle downed eight fighters with .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the nose, tail and turrets as it dropped more than 60 tons worth of bombs over Axis-controlled Europe.

The morning flights will take about 45 minutes, including about 30 in the air. The cost per passenger is $450, and a maximum of nine passengers are permitted per flight.

“The two pilot seats are the best seats in the house, but everybody gets to go down the nose to the bombardier’s seat and move through the different combat positions,” Fowler said. “We tell everybody it’s a great way to experience a B-17 without getting shot at, which is important. It’s an amazing piece of aircraft.”

The Liberty Foundation gave some local veterans and several members of the local media a chance to take a flight in the Memphis Belle on Monday. Flying at an altitude of about 2,500 feet with wind blowing into the plane through an open hatch in the top and gun turrets in the plane’s tail, WWII veteran Wayne Tabor, 93, felt a mix of emotions as the memories of war returned.

“Scary, some scary, [but] a lot of good memories,” Tabor said. “One thing about it, you were always surrounded by friends. Actually, a combat crew gets closer than brothers do. You depend on each other every day, and everybody’s getting shot at.”

Tabor fought as a waist gunner for the Eighth Air Force out of England, flying bombing runs across Nazi-occupied Europe. Each time his plane returned from a bombing run, the ground crews would count the number of bullet holes in the bomber. Once, there were more than 230, a testament to the Flying Fortress’ durability.

But today, only 12 air-worthy B-17s still exist.

“They goofed up,” Tabor said. “They destroyed thousands of these airplanes, and they should have kept some of them. They sold them for scrap.”

Fowler said it’s hard to believe there’s only a dozen airplanes still flying that can come around and do these types of stops for the public.

“Our goal is to keep them out of the museum, to keep them flying and we do that through public support,” he said. “So we hope everyone comes out to see this airplane this weekend.”

In addition to flying tours in the morning, the Liberty Foundation will offer members of the public tours of the plane on the ground for a small donation.

The Memphis Belle consumes 200 gallons of fuel per flight hour. The Liberty Foundation will spend $1.5 million to keep the Belle moving from tour stop to tour stop, and donations are imperative to keeping pieces of living history like the Belle alive, Fowler said.

“I hope this lasts forever,” Tabor said.

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Allan Leith, and daughter, Grace, Louisville, head back after reaching the now blocked off end of the Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville Wednesday afternoon.

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