Flying high in the Memphis Belle

B y Linda Ellingsworth

Readying for lift-off, the World War II era B-17 bomber’s engines went from a low roar to a deafening thunder. The plane’s cabin filled with blue smoke, most of which escaped from the large hole in the roof above my head.

From this moment, I knew my flight in the Memphis Belle would be no Disney ride. This was the real deal, a plane ride back in time to the gritty days of World War II bombing flights.

On Monday, Aug. 5, I accepted an invitation for a media flight offered by the Liberty Foundation on one of the few remaining “Flying Fortresses,” the Boeing B-17, which flew hundreds of missions over Europe during the war.

This plane, a restoration of the Memphis Belle (made famous in the 1989 film) is one of only eight B-17s remaining in the U.S. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the original Memphis Belle’s completion of 25 missions. That was goal for each B-17, but most never made it. Six out of 10 B-17s never returned from their dangerous missions over Germany and Italy.

Once we were airborne, we were given the signal to unlatch our seatbelts. From this point, we were free to move about the plane, something easier said than done.

The B-17 was designed strictly for its mission – to drop bombs accurately and shoot down any enemy planes that might attack it. Comfort was not a consideration.

My first move was to head to the cockpit from my seat at the radio operator’s desk. Here was my first physical and psychological obstacle. To get to the cockpit, I had to walk on a narrow metal strip through the bomb bay.

Fortunately there were ropes on either side of this narrow walkway to hang onto, which came in handy as the plane lurched and rolled. Passing by the two bombs stowed there, I made it to the cockpit, cursing the large handbag I had brought along.

The view from the cockpit was awe-inspiring, and it was fascinating watching Captain Bob Hill and co-pilot Chris Tuckfille operate the antique controls. But my ultimate destination was literally at my feet – the opening that lead to the glassed-in nose of the plane.

There was only one way in. I had to drop through the opening feet first, and once inside, get on my hands and knees. There were already two people inside, so it was a little cramped.

But the view was worth it. This is the iconic portrait of a B-17, the same view recreated as homage to the revered plane in the opening scene of the original “Star Wars.” In the front of the nose was the bombardier’s chair, from which he operated the accurate Norden bombsight. To the right was a fearsome machine gun.

Sitting in this completely glassed-in enclosure, it’s hard to imagine the nerves of steel it took for the bombardier to do his job as thousands of German bullets streaked by.

We had been cautioned not to overstay our welcome in the nose (so everyone on board could see it as well), so I went back up through the ceiling to the cockpit.

There was a lot of air turbulence, resulting in the flight getting a little rougher as we went along. This was a test of agility, endurance, and your wits. I found I didn’t make any move without first deciding what part of the plane I would grab onto.

Between the deafening roar, the movement of the plane, and the wind rushing through as we cruised at 160 mph, the feeling can only be described as the ultimate adrenaline rush. As we readied to land, I discovered my fellow passengers to be in the same euphoric state. “Best news day ever,” shouted the WNYT cameraman sitting next to me. In just 15 minutes, we had all somehow bonded over our unique experience, survivors of a ride back in time in a rough and tumble plane.

But our serious thoughts were for the men for whom every eight-hour mission in this rugged plane was literally a matter of life and death. Going through this while being shot at must have been hell itself, and for their fortitude and sacrifice we are forever grateful.

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