In the cockpit of history: Restored B-17 visits Birmingham

By JENNIFER COHRON
Posted 9/12/18

BIRMINGHAM - The Boeing B-17 was the iconic bomber of World War II. Dubbed the “Flying Fortress,” the plane dropped more bombs during the war than any other U.S. aircraft and endeared itself …

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In the cockpit of history: Restored B-17 visits Birmingham

Posted

BIRMINGHAM - The Boeing B-17 was the iconic bomber of World War II. 

Dubbed the “Flying Fortress,” the plane dropped more bombs during the war than any other U.S. aircraft and endeared itself to servicemen with its ability to withstand heavy combat damage.

On Saturday, history buffs and aviation enthusiasts will have an opportunity to step back in time by taking a flight around Birmingham on the Madras Maiden, one of only 12 B-17s out of more than 12,000 produced that can still take to the skies. 

The Madras Maiden will be taking off every hour beginning at 10 a.m. from Atlantic Aviation East at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Passengers will pay $450 for a flight that will last approximately 30 minutes. While in the air, passengers will be allowed to move around the aircraft and experience the view from all combat crew positions.

The B-17 required a crew of 10 and was armed with 13 .50 caliber machine guns in addition to a maximum normal bomb load of 8,000 pounds. 

“It’s not a comfortable airplane. It was built a single purpose – to be a stable platform for daylight bombing during World War II,” pilot Ray Fowler told reporters prior to a media flight in Birmingham on Monday. 

A typical mission lasted for eight hours. With a range of 1,850 miles, B-17s struck targets deep within enemy territory.

Early in the war, American fighter planes did not have the fuel capacity to escort B-17s to their targets, and two out of three were shot down. More than 4,700 were lost in combat.

“We have people come out every weekend who say they have one more takeoff in a B-17 than they have a landing because they were shot down,” Fowler said.

However, B-17s also developed a reputation for bringing their crews safely back to base in spite of taking heavy damage.

According to the Boeing website, an 88-year-old veteran once wrote to the company that he returned to England after a bombing raid over Germany with 179 flak holes and only two out of the four engines still working.

The Madras Maiden will be open for free ground tours on Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m.  Donations will be accepted.

The plane is operated by the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit flying museum dedicated to honoring veterans, educating the public and preserving aviation history. 

The Liberty Foundation flies to more than 50 cities each year. The Madras Maiden, which was acquired by the foundation in 2016, is making its first stop in Birmingham. 

In every city, some of the few remaining veterans of World War II come out to be reunited with a part of their past.

“They’re in their 90s but they’re 19 again when they get out in a B-17,” Fowler said.

The cost of keeping the historic plane airworthy is approximately $1.5 million annually.

“This thing costs about $3,500 to $4,000 per hour to operate. The gas alone is about $1,200 an hour. Every dime we get goes into the operation of the airplane. Anything we have left over goes into the restoration of another B-17 we’re building in south Georgia,” Fowler said.

The Madras Maiden is painted in the colors of the 381st  Bomb Group of the 8th  Air Force. Based in England, the 381st  participated in nearly 300 missions, dropped 22,000 tons of bombs and destroyed 223 enemy aircraft during the war. 

The plane was built in October 1944 in Burbank, California. Assembly time was one hour from start to finish. It never saw combat, spending its entire military career from 1944 to 1959 as a research and development aircraft.

After being retired from service in 1959, the B-17 was converted into a cargo transport and hauled fresh produce between Florida and the Caribbean. In 1963, it was converted to a fire ant sprayer for the Department of Agriculture.

The Madras Maiden was purchased by three aviation museums between 1979 and 2015, during which time it was slowly restored to its original combat configuration.

Call 678-589-7433 to schedule a flight during Saturday's event.