The Memphis Belle, a WW2 B-17 bomber from the 1990 movie, at Ft. Wayne International Airport, Monday.

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Frank Gray

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The Memphis Belle, arriving at the airport Monday, will be open for free tours this weekend – and flights, for a fee

WWII bomber drops in on city

If you go into most museums, you’ll find plenty of staffers warning you to keep your hands to yourself.

On Monday morning, though, the ultimate in hands-on museums arrived at the Fort Wayne International Airport.

The museum, a flying one, was a B-17 Flying Fortress, and this Saturday and Sunday, it will be offering the public rides in the plane, though the price will be salty – $450 per person.

The rides will be offered between about 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and afterward, visitors will be able to climb through the plane on the ground to see just what it was like inside of one of the iconic bombers.

There is no charge to just get inside the plane on the ground, though the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit that owns the airplane, will accept donations. They could use them. It costs $4,500 an hour to fly the plane, volunteers say.

The B-17 in question is called the Memphis Belle. It was manufactured toward the end of the war and never saw combat. It was later used as a transport and as a fire-bomber (dropping water on forest fires) before being restored and used in the 1990 movie “Memphis Belle.”

The visit to Fort Wayne on Monday was to get the media’s attention and to drum up publicity and public interest for the public flights this weekend.

Just crawling through the plane, though, is an eye-opener and a lesson in what it was like to be a 19- or 20-year-old pilot, bombardier or gunner 72 or 73 years ago, flying over Europe and realizing that your chance of coming back was better than even – but not a whole lot better.

In all, about 13,000 B-17s were made, and about a third of them were shot down.

From the outside, the plane looks huge, with four 1,200-horsepower radial engines dripping oil, but inside the tube of the fuselage is narrow and cramped, with lots of places to bang your head; lots of superstructure but not many places to grab onto; and a catwalk about 8 inches wide to get from the back of the plane, over the bomb bay doors, past the belly turret and to the front, where the pilots, bombardier, navigator and radio operator sat in individual spaces perhaps as roomy as a phone booth.

Add to all this that everyone in the plane was dressed in heavy leather and fleece outfits – it sometimes hit 50 below zero when on a mission at 30,000 feet – and wearing parachutes.

How could you possibly get out of the plane if it got shot down? I asked one of the pilots, Bill Clark. Fliers would be able to bail out. There is plenty of film footage from the war. Trying to get to get out gave them something to think about on the way down, he said.

And if you did get out, you’d be landing behind enemy lines. America didn’t have boots on the ground in Europe until late in the war. Sometimes the fliers would be lynched by locals, said Keith Youngblood, another volunteer with the Liberty Foundation.

Youngblood calls the airplane a flying museum. “It’s a shame what they teach in school about World War II,” he said – only Pearl Harbor, Hitler and Hiroshima. The rest of the story is skipped over.

But the flights do attract passengers. The crew flies as many as 10 flights a day in most of its stops, and they like to have a minimum of six passengers, who are sometimes veterans in their 90s, or a father taking his son up to see what his grandfather flew.

The plane will be flying out of Atlantic Aviation at the airport this weekend. People can reserve space on a flight by calling 918-340-0243.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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