I first wrote about the B-17 Flying Fortress as a 15-year-old at the tail end of the Carter Administration. Not as a class assignment, but as a plot device to get my commando team from Alsace-Lorraine to Cortina D’Ampezzo in a trio of World War II novels I dashed off during my high school years.
That involved book research in the library and a card catalog with drawers and yellowed cards.
My fascination with the B-17 bomber has endured. Every several years, I get to be around one in a museum setting. Once I got to board one.
Never have I flown in one, though. Until now.
The Liberty Foundation sent out invitations for press flights on the restored B-17G Madras Maiden in advance of the April 21-22 public display and public opportunities for a World War II aerial experience.
I immediately claimed my media seat and dove into Flying Fortress online research.
The B-17 has an enduring mystique unlike that of any other World War II aircraft, at first driven by war correspondents like Walter Cronkite flying aboard bombing missions. The B-17 stayed in the public consciousness through war movies, one as recent as 1990’s Memphis Belle, the name of one B-17 bomber.
The glory years were brief for the B-17 – mainly between 1943 and 1945 as they brought down the Third Reich over the skies of Germany.
Soon thereafter, most of the B-17 fleet was scrapped, already overshadowed by the B-24 and B-29 bombers. But some B-17s lingered in the air for another 40 years, mostly in second lives in civilian hands. Some were used for fighting fires. The Madras Maiden, built in 1944, served as a produce transporter and also did service in spraying missions against fire ants.
Of the 12,732 original B-17s produced from 1935 to 1945, only about 47 remain in complete form, with about 28 in air museums and about a dozen airworthy. Another airworthy Flying Fortress, the Aluminum Overcast, flew over Nampa last May.
Creature comforts are entirely absent in these 1940s aircraft. You basically fly in a tin can with the roar of four engines drowning out any semblance of conversation. The temperature outside is the temperature inside, one reason for the iconic bomber jackets that are still fashionable today.
The B-17 was armed to the teeth with machine gun positions under the pilots’ seats, in the tail, on the roof, at the sides and the ball turret on the bottom. The top turret was removed from the Madras Maiden, leaving open sky above the radio room where I was seated. Good thing there was no rain for our 16 minutes of fly time.
That’s what public passengers can expect April 21-22. They will get 15 minutes in the air for $450, a price driven entirely by the operating cost for the plane, Liberty Foundation chief pilot Ray Fowler said.
Those 15 minutes are plenty of time to get a full experience and tour the aircraft. The tour includes crossing the bomb bay on an eight-inch-wide gang plank to reach the pilots and the prized vantage point: the chin turret, a glassed-in machine gun bubble underneath the pilots’ seats, dishing up the literal bird’s eye view of Boise.
The Liberty Foundation leases the B-17 Madras Maiden, which is owned by the Erickson Aircraft Collection in Madras, Oregon, just north of Bend. The foundation says the Madras Maiden has never before toured or been available to the public for flights.
This Boise visit is part of The Liberty Foundation’s Salute to Veterans tour. The Claremore, Oklahoma foundation recovers and restores World War II aircraft shot down in remote locations. The foundation also tours with the Madras Maiden to educate the public about World War II . Just recently, the media widely reported that the Holocaust has drifted from public awareness, with 45 percent of surveyed U.S. adults and 49 percent of millennials unable to name a Nazi concentration camp or Jewish ghetto.
The B-17 mystique, however, remains as strong as ever – if not stronger now than ever before.
The Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, which houses Howard Hughes’ enormous Spruce Goose, calls the B-17 “one of the most iconic aircraft in history, and one of the stars” in its collection. In Tucson, the Pima Air & Space Museum has a separate building specifically for the B-17.
Even before this Madras Maiden visit to Boise, this year I already lingered around another B-17 in Seattle at the Museum of Flight, positioned in tag-team fashion with the Concorde right at the entrance to the outdoor covered pavilion.
All this led me to reread my teenage fiction featuring the B-17. This flight confirmed that my old school library research from decades ago was spot-on.
To schedule a flight April 21 or 22, contact the Liberty foundation at (918) 340-0243. Free guided ground tours of the B-17 will be conducted at Jackson Jet Center, 3815 Rickenbacker Street at Gowen Field each day after the flights, which will run from 10 a.m. to about 2 or 3 p.m. – depending on how many paying passengers sign up. Flights cost $450 per passenger.
Teya Vitu is a staff writer at the Idaho Business Review who in recent years realized that pronouncing his name “V2 like the German rocket” is increasingly drawing blank stares as we have drifted too far away from World War II.