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(Courtesy Photo)

If you see an anomalous metallic bird soaring overhead at low altitudes…fear not.  This is not an invasion of aliens, or Commies, or even the Canadians.  It’s the Madras Maiden, a B-17 Flying Fortress, heavy bomber from World War II.  It has been spied over the skies of Allegheny County, Lake Erie, Buffalo, and dozens of other American cities.

The mighty B-17 Flying Fortress has a mission…to live on and fly another day.  It’s not dropping bombs on Dresden, Schweinfurt or Berlin anymore. Its mission now is to fly around the U.S. and save itself—and aviation history—from extinction.  But there are forces among us which might hasten the demise of the B-17 Flying Fortress.

The first one is time itself.  As these shiny birds age, their flock continues to thin.  Keeping these stately bombers (of an aluminum frame and skin) aloft is expensive…roughly $5,000 an hour of flight time.  On top of that, there are no government grants or philanthropic foundations keeping them airborne.  So the cost lands on the shoulders, and wallet, of one Elton Don Brooks Jr., whose father, Elton Sr., flew in an original B-17, the Liberty Lady.  As a tail gunner during the big war, Brooks Sr. and his crew provided cover for the landing at Normandy on D-Day. To honor his father, Brooks Jr., a self-made businessman from Georgia, created the Liberty Foundation.. 

The second obstacle for the “17” is the FAA.  To the Federal Aviation Administration, these preserved antiques are just a pain in the aft.  The Agency is concerned about air safety…from air carriers to air terrorism.  They’re busy arguing with airlines over seating spaces and leg room.  Keeping tabs on ancient aircraft flying tourists around may leave them wishing that the damn things would just fly away and not return (without taking the tourists, I suppose).  And they may be trying to do just that by over-regulating the skies for these historical airplanes.  There are issues with trying to fit old technology aircraft into new technology aviation.

“Warbirds are a very tiny sub-culture, sub set of aviation,” says captain and pilot John Shuttleworth of Indiana, of this B-17, the Madras Maiden.  “To the commercial side of aviation and to what the FAA is set up to handle, it is an annoyance.  I think they will regulate it to extinction.  It just won’t be practical anymore.”

The non-profit Liberty Foundation, and others like it, fight on for their piece of pie in the sky.  Veterans are at stake here, and the memories of them.  Flying planes like the B-17, made by Boeing in 1937 (the B-24 in 1941, the B-29 in 1944…of which the atomic bomb-dropping Enola Gay was one), keeps the memories of the war and its day-to-day heroes in the public eye.  

The 101-year old B-17 veteran, Michael Pllitari of Erie, took a nostalgic flight with me on the Madras Maidan recently over Lake Erie and its tree-encrusted coastline of Presque Isle Peninsula.  We flew out of Erie International Airport, where Greg Hayes has had his North Coast Flight School based for 15 years. Hayes hosted an event that brought pilots Shuttleworth and James Hammons, and the Madras Maiden (named after its birthplace in Madras, Oregon) to Erie (ERI).  The pilots who fly the B-17s for the foundation, the ground crew, everyone associated with the organization, is a volunteer.  

Pilots Shuttleworth and Hammons fly many of these missions to the likes of Erie, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Indianapolis, and 40-plus U.S. cities every year.  For the B-17, they number only 12 left flying, out of 12,000 manufactured by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed.  They flew over 250 mph and up to 35,000 feet for 2000 miles, carrying (13) .50 caliber machine guns and 17,000 pounds of bombs.

The government put them up for auction after the war as surplus, and one could be had for $5,000.  Today, they are valued at $2 million.  Two years ago, I flew in a replica of the famed Memphis Belle, the accolade laden gem of books, TV and movie lore.  This time, it was the Madras Maiden, which is 99 percent original.  It helps that it never flew in combat.  

I asked both Shuttleworth and Hammons if they felt anything, flying a “17,” you know, the nostalgia of the guys who flew them in the big war.  “Absolutely,” says Hammons, the co-pilot on the Maiden.  “We talk about it every day.  We meet these guys (veterans), they come here in wheelchairs and with walkers.  They want someone to hear their stories that might understand it.  We hear them in the airplane.  I’m honored to be here.  We’re here to celebrate these veterans and honor these people. They gave so much.”

However, obstacles remain.  The cost of doing business for a B-17—this one built in 1944, and never being intended for combat, but as a trainer—costs the foundation somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5-$2.2 million yearly to visit 50 cities, according to Liberty flight director Scott Maher of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the foundation is based.  This organization takes in roughly $1.4-1.8 million annually from the relatively pricey fares it collects from tourist rides…its only income source.  Brooks Jr. foots the rest.  For Maher… “I live and breathe these airplanes seven days a week. ”   

The Liberty Foundation name refers to the Liberty Belle B-17 that crashed in Oswego, IIl. in 2011.  A YouTube video shows the Liberty Bell burning after pilot John Hess landed wheels down in a wet cornfield due to an onboard engine fire three minutes after take-off, with the aircraft actually breaking apart and exploding from leaking fuel.  All seven crew members onboard got out safely…amazingly.  Fire trucks seem to drive by, then return to douse the fire.  At this point, it was a bit too late.  Just more fodder for the FAA and their view of this type of aviation.  

So before the FAA grounds these regal and dignified birds, hitch a ride (as pricey as they are), after one soars over your house or your head.

Nostalgically, this past summer, on a crispy clear night, I drove past the Allegheny County Airport and swung in—very after-hours—to spy the 1944 bomber situated conspicuously next to the 1933 art deco terminal—with its precise, delineated, geometrically checkered, black and white tile floor.  I waited for Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to emerge onto the tarmac but they never showed.  Not enough fog and drama, I guess.

Lee Kann is a filmmaker, media producer and freelance writer for the New Pittsburgh Courier.  Contact: shooting16bl@gmail.com

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