'Memphis Belle' takes off for nostalgia at Allegheny

Matthew Santoni
| Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Like the veterans who flew them through flak and enemy fighter planes during World War II, the enormous B-17 “Flying Fortresses” are a disappearing breed.

A surviving crewman boarded one of the few remaining B-17s on Monday at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin to begin several days of tours and history lessons with the Tulsa, Okla.-based Liberty Foundation, slightly more than a year after one of the aircraft was badly damaged.

George Cahill, 87, of Mt. Lebanon grinned and counted off the four engines as they started, rattling the narrow metal cabin and filling it with exhaust as the plane prepared for takeoff on a preview flight.

“You never forget that sound,” he said, later finding his way forward to the glass nose of the aircraft where he'd served as an enlisted bombardier and tail gunner with the 390th Bomber Group. “I may never get another chance to get in here.”

The “Memphis Belle” — a B-17G built in 1945 and restored to resemble the combat-hardened B-17F bomber it was named for — will be parked at the airport next to a restored P-40E fighter on Saturday and Sunday as part of a nationwide living-history tour.

The original Memphis Belle was the first B-17 bomber to fly 25 combat missions in the war. It returned to the United States and toured to promote war bonds.

The Liberty Foundation flies the aircraft from airport to airport, meets with veterans to stir their nostalgia and help them tell their stories, and sells seats on flights to pay for the planes' operation and maintenance.

“A fair number of veterans come out,” said David Lyon, one of the foundation's pilots. “A lot of times, they see this airplane and it brings out a lot of stories they'd never told their families.”

The Memphis Belle is leased to the foundation from the Chino, Calif.-based Military Aircraft Restoration Corp., after a June 13, 2011, accident in which an engine of the foundation's “Liberty Belle” caught fire mid-flight, forcing an emergency landing in an Illinois cornfield. One passenger had minor injuries; three crew members and three other passengers escaped unhurt while the plane burned.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating that incident and may release its report this fall, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.

“If we'd wait another three, four years until the Liberty Belle comes back, we're going to miss a lot of veterans, miss the chance to hear a lot of stories,” said Ray Fowler, who helps fly the foundation's aircraft.

Cahill had stories. Once, he said, ice formed a cone 2 feet thick on the front of the bomber and crusted enough of the wings that the pilot could not climb higher. Another time, his navigator turned to talk to him just as a shot traveled cleanly through the deck, between his legs, through his tiny table and map, and out through the wall.

Free ground tours of the B-17 and the P-40 will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days at the West Mifflin airport; Memphis Belle flights can be booked for $450 per person ($410 for foundation members) at libertyfoundation.org. Flights aboard the P-40 are $1,150.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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