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The Air Up There: A detailed look at the B-17 (photos)

A rare B-17 aircraft takes flight this weekend in Central New York.

Michael Davis photo

There are only a handful of B-17s that still exist after more than 70 years, which will easily explain why service veterans and plane crazies alike will make a beeline this weekend to Hancock International Airport to witness one of the last surviving models in action.

The Liberty Foundation’s 2017 Salute to Veterans Tour will display the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, nicknamed the “Madras Maiden” for its curvy nose art, at Hancock’s Signature Flight Support FBO runway, 248 Tuskegee Road, on Saturday, Aug. 19, and Sunday, Aug. 20, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Public flights take place in the morning, with ground tours in the afternoon.

The Madras Maiden was built in 1944 but never left stateside for World War II bombing runs. Instead, it was deployed to Wright Field to test the then-new radar technology and ground mapping. Retired military pilot Jim Lawrence will be flying the craft this weekend; “It’s an honor and a privilege to fly one of these things,” he noted.

Lawrence said that 12,735 B-17s were created during the war, with more than 4,000 lost in combat. Co-pilot John Hess divulged an equally sobering number: Whenever a B-17’s crew of 10 went on a mission, there was an 80 percent chance that they weren’t returning — and yet the crew members kept going back for more missions in defiance of those odds. Such were the sacrifices endured by the greatest generation.

“Our tour’s mission is to honor our veterans with the sights, sounds and smells of flight,” Hess said. Indeed, it will be difficult for locals to ignore the aircraft’s noisy attributes as it leisurely cruises at 150 mph with an altitude of 2,000 feet during its half-hour sojourns over the Salt City neighborhoods. In contrast, the B-17s flew 30,000 feet high during World War II, with crew members wearing heated suits to stave off frostbite as temperatures dipped to 30 below.

For a $450 fee, riding aboard this Boeing bucket of bolts might be a dealbreaker for some, although Hess asserted, “Some people believe it’s the best money they ever spent.” Just in terms of gas money, more than 100 gallons of fuel is used per flight. The money goes toward continued maintenance of the aircraft, as well as the restoration of another B-17 in Georgia. The Liberty Foundation spends more than $1.5 million each year to keep the Madras Maiden aloft, instead of being permanently grounded in a landlubber museum.

Ground tours of the B-17 are free, however; “We don’t want to turn anybody away from seeing this really cool plane,” said Hess. People can clamber aboard to witness the snug seating arrangements, the cockpit, the ball turret space (designed to accommodate gunners up to 6-feet-3 in height) and more.

Plenty of visitors’ noggins have also been dented by the plane’s interior design, as Lawrence deadpanned, “We’ve got quite the collection of DNA in there. Remember to duck!”

For more information, contact Liberty Foundation director of flight operations Scott Maher, (918) 340-0243, or visit libertyfoundation.org.

—Bill DeLapp

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