B-17 plane ride awakens connection to past generations
Nevada Appeal News Service
STEAD – Jay Ciccotti never rode in a B-17 bomber until he flew in the vintage aircraft earlier this week over Reno’s hazy blue skies.
Before he climbed on board the Liberty Belle, a newly restored World War II B-17 dubbed the “Flying Fortress,” Ciccotti stood back in awe, letting a moment of silence sweep over him.
“My father-in-law flew in one during the second World War, but he didn’t talk much about it,” Ciccotti said. “The only time he did was when he was drunk.”
Those moments, Ciccotti revealed, didn’t occur often.
Ciccotti said he could understand his father-in law’s reluctance to discuss his flying experiences, especially after reading about the thousands of missions B-17s flew over Germany. The Germans shot down 4,735 B-17s, and many crew members were either killed or parachuted to safety, only to be captured and imprisoned in POW camps.
“The experiences for him were too traumatic,” Ciccotti added.
Ciccotti and about 20 others were invited to fly over Reno on the Liberty Belle, named after the original B-17 that was built near the end of the war but never saw combat.
For 30 minutes, passengers flew aboard one of the workhorse aircraft used during World War II, and afterward reflected on a piece of Americana.
“This is the first time I’ve been around a B-17,” Ciccotti said, as he continued to survey the “Liberty Belle” from nose to tail. “How many opportunities is there to be around something like this.”
Pilot Ray Fowler said the nonprofit Liberty Foundation is flying the airplane to various events such as the Reno air races and air show.
The Liberty Belle has been touring the country and sharing the history of the plane and its missions through discussion and a flying demonstration.
The Liberty Belle will offer flights to the public today and Friday from Jet West Aviation, 1880 Gentry Way in Reno.
“The B-17 is a wonderful airplane. Look at its history with some of the movies,” Fowler said. “Like with the ‘Memphis Belle,’ that was the first B-17 to accomplish 25 missions.”
Boeing built more than 12,000 B-17s during the 1940s. Unlike so many others, the B-17 that the Liberty Foundation acquired had been spared several times from the scrap heap.
Restoration work began on the aircraft in 1990 and was completed 14 years later.
The maiden voyage of the new Liberty Belle took place on Dec. 8, 2004.
Fowler said this is the first time the Liberty Belle has been in Reno. He advised passengers not to expect the same comforts on a modern-day aircraft.
“It’ll be hot and noisy, and you need to watch your head in the aircraft,” he said.
Takeoff was smooth but noisy after the “Liberty Belle” taxied to the runway. The aircraft’s four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone engines popped and backfired, but once the aircraft ascended, the wind sweeping eastward from the Sierra Nevada mountains served as a buffer to the engine noise.
Fowler and co-pilot John Bodie gradually guided the B-17 westward to the foothills and then headed north toward Peavine Mountain. With speeds upward of 150 mph, the Liberty Belle slightly tilted east and flew over the Truckee River and city center, skirting the Lawlor Events Center and Mackay Stadium.
Fowler and Bodie flew the B-17 north and banked the aircraft hard left for its smooth touchdown at Reno/Tahoe International Airport.
“That was super,” Ciccotti said, as he deplaned. “I particularly liked his approach. He came and cranked it for a landing.”
Ciccotti likened the landing to being at sea.
“It was like sailing in a heavy wind,” he said with a grin.
Hank Potter said he was amazed to learn more of the airplane’s World War II history.
“How these guys did this is remarkable, especially when one-third of them knew they weren’t coming back from each mission,” Potter said.
Fowler said he was pleased his passengers enjoyed a flight back in time. The Georgia native, who also flies jets for the Air National Guard and a commercial airline, said he learned how to fly the older military aircraft before he flew jets.
Fowler also marvels how young pilots, many of them in their late teens and 20s, flew the B-17 during World War II.
“They were flying combat with less than 100 hours flying time,” he said.
44th annual National Championship Air Races & Air Show
WHEN: Through Sunday, races begin 8 a.m.
WHERE: Reno Stead Airport field, approximately eight miles North of Reno off HIghway 395
On the Net
Liberty Belle Passenger Flights
WHAT: The “Liberty Belle,” a newly restored World War II B-17, will be available for rides
WHEN: Today and Friday
WHERE: Jet West Aviation, 1880 Gentry Way in Reno.
COST: The 30-minute flights are $395 for Liberty Foundation members and $430 for nonmembers.
RESERVATIONS: Call Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243.
DESIGNERS: Boeing Co.
REQUIRED CREW: 10 – pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, fight engineer (top turret gunner) radio operator, two waist gunners, tall gunner and ball turret gunner
POWER: Four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone Model R-1820-97 engines
ARMAMENT: 13 Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine guns
BOMB LOAD: Maximum load was usually 8,000 pounds
NUMBER BUILT: 12,732. Production peaked at 16 airplanes a day in April 1944
SPEEDS: Maximum 300 mph at 30,000 feet. Cruising speed is 170 mph, and landing speed is 74 mph.
RANGE: 1,855 miles
WING SPAN: 103 feet, 9 inches
LENGTH: 74 feet, 4 inches
HEIGHT: 19 feet, 1 inch
ORIGINAL COST: $250,000