The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress: To modern eyes, the hodgepodge floor and open rivets are daunting, but it was the modern technology of the 1930s and '40s.
A six to seven inch wooden plank and two lines of rope across the bomb bay are the only protection from the bomb doors, which could open to thousands of feet of empty air below.
At liftoff, the body shuddered. It began with a soft murmur of the engine, then rumbled to life with no warning, rattling the exposed rivets loudly against the aircraft frame. The cacophony of the propellers could be felt from the cockpit.
The plane trembled and roared. A tilt up, wind from the open roof flew through the body of the plane and we were airborne.
“The aircraft roars so immensely. It’s not like jet engines, it’s different. The skin is thin on the aircraft and you can hear it, you can smell the exhaust, it’s just so amazing,” said Michael Stirber, an air force veteran and first time “Ye Olde Pub” crew member. “To get a chance to fly in a B-17 is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
When fear of flying overpowered a reporter, pilot Tony Anger told us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone a little younger, who lived long ago and who knew they might never come back from this mission.
“Imagine you’re 17 years old,” Anger said, “and you’re being shipped off to war. And you’re probably not coming back.”
On March 9, the Daily Wildcat was invited to a media flight by the Liberty Foundation on the 1945 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Ye Olde Pub” to gather press for an upcoming public flight event.
Due to increased tour costs “given recent events,” as stated on the Liberty Foundation website, the annual national tour of “Ye Olde Pub” is being cut short. Its last flight of the year will take place on March 15 at the Tucson International Airport.
When you think of World War II planes, you’re likely thinking of the big bombers flying over England and Germany in war movies or lined up in photographs of Pearl Harbor, pre-disaster. The B-17 is exactly that.
“This was modern technology back in the day,” said Tony Anger, a veteran, B-17 pilot and president of Grounded No More Veteran Flight Lift. “Back then, flying was beginning to become safe. The most dangerous thing in this airplane is trying to land in a crosswind.”
According to Liberty Foundation Tour Coordinator Sean O’Brien, out of 12,731 models built between 1935 and 1945, this aircraft is one of eight in the world to still function.“Ye Olde Pub” was built at the end of the B-17’s heyday in 1945 and was built as a “commemoration” to a previous plane of the same name.
“This aircraft did not see any wartime use; it was built too late in the war to see combat and never even left the U.S.,” O’Brien said. “But the aircraft it is representing today has an incredible story behind it.”
According to O’Brien, the original “Ye Olde Pub” was built in 1935. On Dec. 20, 1943, a bombing mission to Germany piloted by 21-year-old Charlie Brown resulted in a dead and damaged crew, a heavy bomber with the nose chopped off and no hope.
David Lyon, a retired pilot and nine-year member of the Liberty Foundation, said “Ye Olde Pub” was “hit by flack, so the number three engine was not working. The horizontal stabilizer was shot off. The whole top of the fuse lodge was riddled and left from flack, waist-gunners were killed, the radio room operator was badly injured.”
German pilot Franz Stigler was tasked with shooting them down, but Stigler saw no chivalry in shooting down a plane already on its deathbed, according to Lyon. Instead he escorted the American pilots over wartime Germany to an unsteady landing in England.
“Luftewaffe pilots were not Nazis,” Lyon said. “They were true Germans, they were not part of the Nazi party. They had that code of conduct, you know the old warrior code that you gotta make it a fair fight.”
The encounter was top secret for years, according to the book that details the story, “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos. According to Lyon, Brown and Stigler became “fast friends” when they met again 40 years after that mission. The two died within months of each other in 2008.
Lyon talked about how “Ye Olde Pub,” even though it never saw combat, it stayed in the military up until 1959 and was used for research for aerodynamics and electronics at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“That generator was special just to power the radar, most of the B-17s did have that,” Lyon said. “So, this airplane spent a lot of time and research developing those radar systems for bombing, which was of course used later in Korea and the Vietnam wars.”
With so few B-17’s left running, the Liberty Foundation began offering public flights on “Ye Olde Pub” in 2005. According to O’Brien, it began as a “passion” of Liberty Foundation founder Don Brooks, whose father was a World War II B-17 pilot.
The Liberty Foundation wants to give current veterans the chance to ride planes “their grandfathers might have flown in,” Stirber said.
But on the rare occasion a World War II veteran steps onto a B-17, something phenomenal happens.
Lyon described veterans throwing aside their walkers to deftly maneuver the jittery aircraft. They know what to hold onto, where to step, where to duck, where to go — like riding a bicycle.
“You get him back out on the ground, and he goes right back to the walker,” Lyon said. “But when he’s in the airplane he’s a kid again. How does that happen?”
Even more, some of these veterans revealed war stories on that plane even their families never knew.
The thought exercise Anger gave the Daily Wildcat while in the plane was to get us to experience what it might have been like for World War II soldiers.
“The average crew member was 17 years old,” Anger said. “Just kids who wanted to save their country and fight for freedom. Most of them I don’t think had any idea what they were getting into. … Just about every single kid that got on this plane knew he probably wasn’t coming back. He was going to die for his country.”
At first, World War II veterans would come out in “troves” to fly the B-17, Lyon said, but their numbers are dwindling. It's difficult to get even one these days because they are around the age of 90. They are still alive and they want to come out, but they are just physically unable to.
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, less than 500,000 World War II veterans are still alive of the more than 16 million American soldiers to serve in the war. Nearly 372 World War II veterans die every day.
Like the still-living B-17, the veterans are becoming a rarity. Some day, there will be a last World War II veteran to fly “Ye Olde Pub,” and it will be in the coming years. Soon, they will not be able to tell their stories.
The goal of these media flights is to "keep the memories alive," according to O’Brien.
He said: “That’s one of the things we’re trying to do, is keep these World War II pieces of history alive and keep these stories going for generations.”
The Liberty Foundation is offering public flight tours on “Ye Olde Pub” this coming weekend, on March 14 and 15 at Atlantic Aviation at the Tucson International Airport. Rides are $475 per passenger. Visit the Liberty Foundation website for more information, or contact Sean O’Brien at email@example.com or phone number (678) 589-7433 to book your flight.