From the outside, it looks large. Standing on the tarmac, looking up at the B-17 World War II-era bomber with a wingspan of 103 feet 9 inches, and length of 74 feet 9 inches.
Climb up the steps to enter the Flying Fortress and it’s like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. The world of bright blue skies over McGhee Tyson Airport becomes an aluminum capsule defined by shadows and olive drab color.
This is “Ye Olde Pub.” On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 14-15, the Liberty Foundation is bringing “Ye Olde Pub” to McGhee Tyson as part of its 2019 “Higher Call” tour. It is also bringing a P-51 Mustang. Both planes will be available for the public for flights.
Once inside and buckled up, the engines start warming up. It’s the first in a series of sensory experiences. There’s the noise of the engines and the props, the smell of the exhaust of burning fuel and oil. Then the taxi to the runway. The clue to take-off comes when the engines that were rough at idle really start to roar, smoothing out as they reach full power.
Co-pilot Melissa Foures says after the flight that, “These things wanna fly.” That they do. Like a thoroughbred horse bred to run, the B-17 was built to soar.
No flight attendants
B-17s weren’t built for comfort. No passengers, all crew: bombardier, navigator, pilot, co-pilot, top turret gunner/engineer, radio operator/gunner, ball turret gunner, right waist gunner, left waist gunner and tail gunner. Duck, hold on and sometimes crawl. Those are the simple requirements for maneuvering through the interior of this war bird.
The jostling, up and down, side to side, is constant. The noise relentless. Those old black-and-white movies where crew members holler at each other during the flight? Forget that. Screaming right into the ear is the only way to be heard.
Windows are few, installed only for the needs of the 10-man crew. Other openings are for firing the 50-caliber machine guns to ward off enemy fighters.
Pilot Bill Clark, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot, has flown many planes over his 50 years in the air. His last commercial command was piloting Boeing 747s. You can tell he likes this better.
“Every kid in the world went out and played army. I just play it with a real airplane. I have a B-17 to go fly. It’s an honor and a privilege,” he says.
He’s a volunteer. None of the pilots who take these planes aloft are paid. They have their own mission to accomplish, one not measured by a paycheck.
“You have a desire to keep a story going and it’s the story of the greatest generation,” Clark says. “There’s a lot of people that don’t understand it. They don’t teach it anymore. There’s people that call it ‘World War Eleven.’ Part of our job is to still remember the people who got in these tin cans and went up and made sure that we had democracy.”
Sport of flying
But even with that higher calling, Clark acknowledges that flying this stick-and-rudder airplane built in 1945 is also about personal satisfaction.
“Flying is a sport. It’s pretty straight forward. It hasn’t changed much. From when Orville and Wilbur took the tail off the front and put it in the back and got rid of the wing warping, airplanes haven’t really changed. They’ve gotten more efficient, but the aerodynamics haven’t changed. There’s laws of physics. They aren’t theories.”
Foures pilots Embrea 175 regional jets for United Airlines. Her reasons for volunteering to fly this Flying Fortress comes from her awareness of what it symbolizes.
“To have a small glimpse of what these guys went through in the war. If these planes could talk, it’s just amazing what they could say,” she says.
They could talk about how the average age of the crew was 22. They could talk about how the U.S. Army Air Corps crews that flew the daylight bombing missions over Europe had a 19% death rate. They could talk about how a crew member had a 1 in 4 chance of surviving 12 to 14 missions.
Clark has a special affinity for the the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) who were crucial to delivering the warplanes.
“The WASPS, the women who first started flying the B-17s, they we’re the unsung heroes. They didn’t fly in combat, but they had a big part to play like everybody else did on the ground.”
That’s part of the history she hopes young people will learn through the B-17 flights she pilots.
“We’ve got to keep the history alive because unfortunately the generations coming up have no idea, not even a glimpse, of what World War II was about and the sacrifices people made and how the country came together.”
As Foures talks, she nods toward the B-17 she just flew as co-pilot.
“Just look at this airplane, as big as this airplane is, just imagine the manpower it took. They had so many people working in the manufacturing that they could build this plane in one hour. That shows you the horsepower that America had in the ’40s, the pride that Americans had to get the flight crews good airplanes to win the war.”
Some of the aluminum that went into building those planes came from just up the road and across Alcoa Highway, where East Tennesseans manufactured aluminum at ALCOA Tennessee Operations.
To take a flight
The “Higher Call” tour is at TAC Air Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport in Alcoa on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 14-15. The B-17 “Ye Olde Pub” will be available for flights. Flights to support the effort cost $475 and last about 25 minutes. A P-51 Mustang with newly painted markings of the 381st Bomb Group also will be flying, with cost starting at $1,195. Flights start around 10 a.m., with the last flight about 2:30 p.m.
For more information go to www.libertyfoundation.org, and to book a flight call the Liberty Foundation tour coordinator at 678-589-7433.