B-17 returns to local skies seven decades later

More than 70 years after reporting for duty at Wright Field, an Army Air Forces B-17 Flying Fortress lumbered over the skies of Dayton on Monday in a salute to history.

The restored aircraft, nicknamed the Madras Maiden, landed at Dayton International Airport, where the public will be able to see and fly aboard the World War II-era plane Saturday and Sunday.

SEE: Photos from B-17 flight around local skies

With its engines rumbling, propellers spinning and gunners ports unmanned, the old bomber flew around downtown Dayton and near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on a return flight.

The nonprofit Liberty Foundation, based in Claremore, Okla., expected to fly the old bomber to 50 cities across the country this year to tell the story of the airmen who flew dangerous wartime missions in the four-engine bomber. Keeping the old plane aloft, one of only about a dozen still flying, costs could $1.5 million a season, or $5,000 per flight hour, according to the foundation.

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Crews aboard swarms of B-17s on bombing raids over Europe endured temperatures 30 to 60 degrees below zero and flights that could last for eight to 10 hours, said volunteer crew member Keith Youngblood, 46, of Atlanta, Ga.

“The weather was trying to kill them just as much as the flak and the fighters,” he said.

In April 1945, Gailard “Red” Ketcham, 91, was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 stationed with the 306th Bomber Group in England on the doorstep of combat against Nazi Germany. The bomber had a 10-man crew to fly the plane, operate radios, shoot machine guns and drop bombs.

But the Centerville man said the war ended before he was sent on his first wartime mission. Immediately after the war, he enlisted on a more than year-long aerial photography mission over Europe and North Africa. “I was shooting film instead of bullets,” he said. “The majority of the time the weather was our enemy.”

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Ketcham recounts his story as a volunteer at the Champaign Aviation Museum, which is restoring its own B-17 in Urbana. He hoped to fly aboard Madras Maiden this week.

“That was a real good airplane, and all the flying I did I never had any apprehension of any kind to get aboard and go,” he said.

B-17 pilot John Hess, 55, of Fayetteville, Ga., typically flies a Delta Airlines Boeing 737.

The old World War II bomber is a much more hands-on aircraft demanding both brains to calculate where you’re going without flight computers and brawn to muscle heavy manual controls, the airline pilot said.

“It’s kind of a workout, and the kind of flying we do (on airliners) is really easy compared to what they (did),” he said.

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For veterans, the old plane is often an emotional connection to their wartime past. When World War II airmen see it, they have told stories family members say they have never heard, Hess said.

For some, “it really brings back some tough memories,” he said. “You see the tears, they remember the causalities and they remember the bad parts of it and I’m sure it’s overwhelming…Then some of them remember the good and they want to talk the good stories.”

The Army Air Forces lost about 30,000 airmen in the aerial war against Nazi Germany, or about 70 percent of all losses Air Force airmen had in combat over a century, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. In the heaviest combat, American bomber crews had a one in four chance of survival during the World War II missions.

Of the more than 12,700 B-17s built during the war, more than 4,700 were destroyed in combat.

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The Madras Maiden, which was nicknamed in recent years, never flew in war. Once the bomber rolled off a Lockheed-Vega production line in Burbank, Calif., the plane was sent to Wright Field in Dayton in late 1944. Once there, the B-17 tested “Pathfinder” radar that could see through clouds to bomb ground targets, Hess said. The plane was pulled out of military service in 1959 after research work at several airfields and sold for $5,026 to an Ohio steel company.

The bomber found new life in the air. It was converted to a cargo hauler and transported fresh produce between Florida and the Caribbean in the early 1960s before the U.S. Department of Agriculture used the plane as a fire ant sprayer. Since 1979, three different owners have owned the bomber until the Liberty Foundation leased it for cross country tours. The plane is based in Madras, Oregon.

The B-17 will be at the Stevens Aviation hangar, 3500 Hangar Drive off Wright Drive at Dayton International Airport, for flights Saturday and Sunday. The facility is off North Dixie Drive in Vandalia. Tickets cost $450 per seat, or $410 for foundation members. Foundation membership costs $40. To make a reservation, call Scott Maher at 918-340-0243 or at smaher@libertyfoundation.org. For more information, log onto www.libertyfoundation.org.

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