Historic B-17 Flying Fortress on display this weekend

A piece of World War II history sits on the tarmac at the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport — but for this week only. 

The non-profit Oklahoma-based Liberty Foundation brought the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress — the Movie Memphis Belle — for both paid flights and free tours June 28-29. Flights cost $450 and will be held from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day. Free tours of the plane will be held from 2-6 p.m. each day. “World War II history just isn’t taught in schools today, so if we can introduce these planes and this history to new generations, those sacrifices won’t be forgotten,” said Liberty Foundation spokesman Ron Gause. “Let’s face it, if the men who flew these planes hadn’t done what they’d done, we wouldn’t be here today and be able to share this history.” The Flying Fortress is a four-engine bomber developed in the 1930s for the US Air Force and was primarily used for daylight bombing runs over Germany during WWII. Perhaps the most famous B-17 is the Memphis Belle, which is currently undergoing restoration to be displayed at the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. According to the Liberty Foundation, the Memphis Belle is a wartime legend famous as the first B-17 to complete her tour of duty during WWII. Also, despite severe damage, the plane managed to bring its airmen back unharmed, every time. Gause said of the 12,737 B-17 bombers built between 1935-45, only 13 remain airworthy today. Nearly 5,000 of the bombers were lost in combat in WWII, but the planes also saw service in Korea, the Arab-Israeli War and Vietnam. But this Memphis Belle never saw combat. Built in 1945, the Movie Memphis Belle — as the name suggests — was the star of the 1990 movie by the same name. The Movie Memphis Belle saw service as a transport plane in Japan and Germany before her retirement from military service. In civilian service, the plane was used to fight fires in California until it was restored to military appearance in the 1980s. Still, according to 95-year-old Jake Simonitsch of Kansas City, the paint job could use some work. “It’s black,” he said. “They were always silver, or green, I don’t remember black.” Simonitsch would know. As a member of the 390th Bomb Group, he flew missions over Germany as a navigator on a similar B-17, flying 18 missions until March 8, 1944. His B-17 and two others were shot down by German fighters and the crews parachuted out only to be captured. He spent more than a year in the Stalag Luft prison camp in Barth, Germany. Despite his rocky experience on a B-17, Simonitsch jumped at the chance to get aboard once again. After touchdown, he described the flight as noisy, but enjoyable. “That’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done since World War II,” he said. Despite its age and lack of creature comforts, the B-17 took off and landed more smoothly than most commercial airliners. Once in the air, what sets the B-17 apart is its openness to the sky through the radio room and waist gunner windows. The air whips through the plane during flight as if passengers are in a wind tunnel, making walking through the cramped quarters tricky. The in-flight tour includes the cockpit, bomb bay — complete with replica bombs — and the nose turret. From the nose turret, located beneath the cockpit, the ground below is visible through a large plexiglass cone. This is a well-armed cone with machine guns mounted to the front and both sides, as well as controls for the bomb bay doors. For more information on the Liberty Foundation flights and free tours, visit libertyfoundation.org.