Those of you who have seen my emails and read my blog know that I have more than a passing interest in WWII aircraft. Especially, the B-17.
When I learned that the Liberty Bell was going to be visiting Tucson International Airport this past Saturday, I made plans to visit.
And, I was lucky. When I arrived, the plane was parked on the tarmac, all by itself, behind a cyclone fence. I walked over to the mobile information vehicle and asked what was going on. Scott Mayer looked up and said the Liberty Bell wasn't schedule to fly again for another hour and three quarters. Then he looked me over and said, you wanna walk out there and look close up? In my mind I said, "you gotta be kidding!," but what came out was, "sure."
Scott opened the gate to the tarmac and off I went. To my amazement, There wasn't anyone even near the plane, except myself and one crew member on board, who promptly left the scene as soon as I showed up.
So, let me give you a little tour of my plane
The first thing you notice is the beautiful and artistic rendition of the aircraft's ID on its nose, the Liberty Bell. America isn't always associated with fine arts, but the fly boys of WWII certainly had a way with fuselage art! And they had a way of turning a machine meant for maximum destruction into a playful and provocative proclamation of youthful fun and brashness.
At least until Liberty Bell was over its target. Then, not so much.
The next thing on your walk around that you notice is, this thing is like an ocotillo. Pretty to look at in season, but painful to touch. It's loaded with defensive weapons pointed every which way!
This is what I call the "Hatch of Honor." I don't know the exact story behind this. It appears as though any veteran who flies on Liberty Bell has the opportunity to leave a lasting memory in Sharpie ink on the fuselage hatch. I examined the hatch for quite some time and found loads of signatures from former pilot and crew members of other B-17s. If my understanding of who can sign this hatch is correct, I think that this is a fitting tribute to the many brave men who flew these crafts. Over the few years that I've witnessed people boarding these planes, I've seen so many veterans, some barely able to walk to the plane unassisted, board with obvious pride. Some were making the journey with their grown children, some with grand or great grand kids, some by themselves. I even met one who was a German fighter pilot whose daughter bought him his ticket because he always wanted to see what it was like to fly from the perspective of those he was trying to shoot down (and those who were trying their level headed best to kill him.)
I suspect that for many of these men, being transported briefly back in time, brings to the forefront the defining moments of their lives. And I thank every one of them.
OK, we're in the Liberty Bell (which, by the way, isn't quite so easy to get into. You've got to grab hold of the rounded protrusion above the hatch and pull yourself up through a deceptively small portal. Unless of course, you decide to go ass backwards. That probably wouldn't have scored you any points with your crew mates. Please don't ask me how I boarded.) Your looking at one of two waist gunner's positions. The other one is diagonally opposite this one. I had a conversation with a veteran B-17 ball gunner a couple of years ago and expressed my admiration for the way that he voluntarily crammed himself into the belly turret under the fuselage, on every mission. He looked at me for a moment and then exclaimed that he wouldn't have wanted any other position on the B-17. If you've ever seen the belly turret, you'd understand my amazement at his statement. So I asked why? Simple he said. Look at the olive drab skin of the B-17 that surrounds the entire crew. It's a fraction of an inch of aluminum. The cannon shells and flack would rip through that material as though it was tissue paper he said. At least he had a hunk of solid steel (his gun) between him and the fighter planes spitting those lethal projectiles in his direction. I smiled and went on to another subject, not quite buying his explanation. But who am I to question him. Maybe that belief helped him swing his body through the small portal every day.
Moving forward, you lurch your way toward the front of the craft and come to the bomb bay area. The first surprise is, it's wide open. Yep, those are the bombs that drop out of the belly of the beast. And there's nothing to prevent anyone dropping with them if you're in the wrong spot at the wrong time (although I've never hear of that happening.) The next surprise is, see that 6" wide beam on the floor? Well, that's what you've got to negotiate to get to where the pilots and bomandier needed to be. Not so hard on the ground, probably not very easy in the air.
The next to the last position on our journey forward in the Liberty Bell. The cockpit. The seats look crude by today's standards and the instruments look very basic (not counting some of the newer dials that have obviously been installed due to safety regulations.) What got my attention was the all around superb visibility. Looking at the aircraft from the tarmac, you'd think that the squat looking cockpit position would have limited visibility. But not so, at least to my untrained eye. All together, a basic but handsome environment.
You wanna talk visibility? How about maybe a little too much visibility. This is the most forward position on the plane. It can only be accessed by crawling (I'm not kidding) under the cockpit. When you emerge from the opening, you step up slightly and now the bombardier is in position to arrive at his destination ever so shortly before his crew mates. And your instrument awaits. The Norden Bomb Site. This instrument was so hush hush and secret that (I've read) the bombardier had to remove it after every mission and place it under lock and key.
It must surely have felt to the bombardier that he was flying without an aircraft around him when he was leaning out over the bomb site. It must also have felt that he was naked and alone when being attacked from the front by a fighter whose combined closing speed could be 700+mph! Imagine seeing tracer bullets zero in on your B-17. And you're in front with nothing but Plexiglas between you and the cannon shells that you couldn't see but knew were there between the iridescent tracer shells. And it's my understanding that you had to volunteer to be part of the Army Air Force!
Now, I need your help. If you've read this far, please tell me, by leaving a comment, which of the next three pictures you like best. They are of course the same photo. The first one has been converted to black and white.
This one has been sepia toned.
And this one is more or less original.
Don't forget that if you want to get a closer look at any photo, all you have to do is place your cursor over the picture and click on the LEFT button.
Lastly, if you want to learn more about the worthy mission of the Liberty Foundation and learn more about this beautifully restored aircraft (and it really did fly missions during WWII, over 60 of them!,) please follow the web link below.