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World War II Bomber Captures Imaginations In Spokane

Doug Nadvornick

Many of us can only experience World War II through the movies. The classic "Twelve O'Clock High," for example, told the story of airmen who flew the B–17 bomber, also known as the Flying Fortress. It was one of the planes American pilots used to bomb German targets in Europe. Very few of the old relics remain. But one caters to aviation aficionados looking for a new adventure.


The Liberty Belle is not an imposing plane. It's about the size of a commuter jet, maybe a little longer. You have to duck when you walk under its wings. The ladder you climb to board the aircraft is a stepstool. The bomber sports two symbols on its silver shell. There's the iconic blue and white star that appeared on most American war planes. And there's the scantily clad woman under the cockpit, a standard during that era.

Hill: "This particular airplane was manufactured in 1945, specifically May of 1945, and never saw combat."

Bob Hill is one of many pilots who volunteer their time to tour with the Liberty Belle. Of the more than 12,000 B–17s built, he says only about a dozen can still fly. This one is owned by the Liberty Foundation. The Georgia non profit sends the renovated bomber around the country for aviation and history buffs to see.

Two men and a woman prepare to climb in for a quick look. First, they stop to read the signatures left on the door by World War II veterans who have since visited this plane. But if walking through the plane isn't enough, Bob Hill can you take you up for a short flight. The price? A mere $430.

Hill: "I always like to tell people that you experience all five senses with this airplane if you want to. And if you want to taste it, and there is a taste to it, in the atmosphere when the engines are running, you know, with the smoke and everything, that you can experience all five senses and get a little bit of a slice of what it must have been like in World War II."

Inside, the plane is narrow, about six feet wide, and short, about six feet high. The walls are olive green. The B–17 was a workhorse during World War II, both in Europe and the Pacific. Its crews dropped more than a million tons worth of bombs. Nearly 5,000 of the old planes were shot down. It's not clear exactly how many of its occupants died, but the number is probably in the thousands.

As Hill circles the plane 15,000 feet over Spokane, I walk with my camera along a narrow catwalk to the cockpit. Then I crawl down into the Plexiglas nose and snap pictures of the stunning vista.

It's not that it's not a smooth flight, but my belly's doing cartwheels. I feel a strange mix of hot and cold. The chill is drying beads of sweat on my forehead. Hill says the temperatures in the plane can fall as low as 40 below zero. When our time is up, Hill lands the plane and taxis it back to the airfield's terminal.

Outside on the tarmac, fans of the B–17 are all abuzz. Co–pilot John Ferguson thinks the fascination with old planes like this comes from our love of war movies and adventure. Ferguson is a pilot from Los Angeles who, like Bob Hill, volunteers his time to fly the Liberty Belle. He says the old bomber routinely draws big crowds of people.

Ferguson: "They can travel back in time and get a small taste of what it was like to be in the airplanes. Then it makes those books and the movies and the documentaries all tangible."

The Liberty Belle continues its tour of the country. Next stop: points in the Rocky Mountain West.

I'm Doug Nadvornick in Spokane.

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