On August 2, 2014, Northern Indiana Austin Healey Club members Gary Derickson and I, Tim Mahnensmith, drove our Healeys to Fort Wayne International Airport to fulfill a life long dream. We were going to fly the WWII B-17 bomber Memphis Belle. After many years of just talking about it, we weren’t getting any younger and neither was the Belle, so it was time to “Just Do It”!
We parked the Healeys, and while they were being inspected by the crowd at the airport, Gary & I headed off to our pre-flight briefing. We had to buckle up for take off, and then the 9 of us were allowed to roam freely throughout the bomber. The only off limits area was the ball turret, but if you were over 125 lbs. and 20 years old, you wouldn’t fit in there anyway.
As soon as the plane returned from the previous flight, we loaded and strapped in, then it was off to the runway. A quick engine run-up, the brakes were released, and 5000 horse power came to life. WOOHOO! In seconds we were off the ground and climbing. We no more left the runway when the crewman gave us the thumbs up to unbuckle and start exploring.
The first obstacle was the ball turret, so I carefully climbed around it, and stepped into the radio room. I stopped to check out an original photo of the Belle’s crew, as well as all of the antique radio equipment. Forward of the radio room was the bomb bay. To cross the bomb bay you had to walk on an 8″ wide catwalk and SQUEEZE through a v-shaped super structure. A few grunts, some huffing and puffing and squeezing, and I “popped” through the other side into the cockpit.
We were standing behind the pilot & co-pilot in the area designed for the navigator & top turret gunner. Windows on either side allowed us to look out across those huge Curtiss Wright radials. At 1200 HP each, the engines use 1000 gallons of fuel and 10-15 gallons of oil per hour. It was easy to see why so much oil. The oil was oozing out of the front of the engine behind the prop, running back across the cylinders, and on back until it dripped off the rear of the wing. WOW – just like a Healey!
Next, it was into the nose. It began with a climb down 3 steps between and slightly behind the pilots. At the bottom step you have to lean forward on your hands and knees, then a belly crawl under a structural beam, and out into the Plexiglas bubble in the nose, with big machine guns on both sides, and the Norden bomb sight in the center. What an awesome view! For the next 5 – 10 minutes we messed with the guns & bomb sight, took in the excellent view, and snapped lots of photos.
When the next few guys came up front, Gary & I started the return journey. First the belly crawl, then up into the cockpit, back through the bomb bay “squeeze”, over the ball turret, and on into the center fuselage.
The big 50 caliber machine guns were mounted at both side windows, and the top window was removed. We were able to stand up with our head and shoulders out of the top of the plane to take photos of the tail, fuselage, wings, and countryside below. “Be sure to remove that favorite ball cap first, or someone in the next county will own it!”
After what seemed like quite a long ride, it was time to belt up again so that we could land. The pilot did an excellent 3-point landing, a slight chirp of the tires, and we were back on the tarmac to unload and take more pictures. I’ve been a pilot since age 20, flown in many small planes as well as commercial aircraft, but never anything like this! This bird was built to be in the air. It was probably the smoothest flight I’ve ever been on.
The Liberty Foundation guys even left us take photos of the Healeys under the B-17 at the end of the day. This was a HUGE check off my bucket list! Get on your computer and go to Libertyfoundation.org for a complete schedule and all of the details. The Liberty Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping a huge piece of history in the air. All fees and donations are fully tax deductible. Don’t let yourself miss the opportunity when the Memphis Belle flies into an airport near you!