Having the opportunity to go up in a Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” can be considered a true bucket list achievement. Just viewing one of the most famous bombers of World War II was exciting enough, but it didn’t match climbing aboard and having it lift airborne.
It was a truly one-time experience for me. As for co-passenger Gerald “G.K.” Gentis it was just another abbreviated trip into the air. Although, we might add it has been 72 years since his last B-17 ride.
The now 93-year-old Jenks resident was special guest of honor aboard the “Madras Maiden” as the vintage aircraft circled the skies over Tulsa on Memorial Day. Gentis was getting a different view from his past trips. During the war, he served as tail gunner in a B-17 during 30 missions over Germany.
Despite the many years in between flights, the old veteran was still quick to point out different aspects of the craft. It was easy to see his mind was full of countless memories.
The flight was made possible by The Liberty Foundations 2017 Salute to Veterans tour. Public flights will be available Saturday and Sunday, June 3-4, between hours 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Location is the Tulsa International Airport at the Tulsa Air & Space Museum, 3624 North 74th East Avenue. Flights are scheduled for the morning with afternoon ground tours.
Thanks due to Carolyn Ashford and The Progress, I was fortunate to join Gentis, his daughter, and nine other media members on the maiden Tulsa flight.
Prior to the invitation my only experience with B-17s was due to Hollywood. Dating back to 1938’s ‘Test Pilot’ with Clark Gable and up to ‘Fortress’ in 2012, at least 13 movies have starred the famed aircraft. The story of the aircraft “The Memphis Belle” even featured two versions, the first in 1944 and then again in 1990.
The attention is well deserved. Dubbed the “Flying Fortress” as a result of her amount of defensive firepower, the B-17 was a favorite of flight crews. Armed with 13 .50-caliber machine guns and top, ball and tail turrets, the craft could well defend itself while making its bombing raids. The number of bombs in the B-17 depended on the size and weight. For long range targets it was usually eight or nine.
During WWII the B-17 saw service in every theater of operation. The primary home base was with the 8th Air Force in Europe. It is estimated the B-17’s dropped over 640,000 tons of bombs on enemy controlled targets in daylight raids.
Crews realized their plane had the ability to take and withstand heavy combat damage and return safety home.
Still all did not return. There a total of 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and ‘45. Of these 4,735 would be lost in combat. Following WWII the B-17 saw service in three more wars; Israel, Korea and Vietnam.
The 10-member crew was composed of the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer who also served as top turret gunner, radio operator, two waist gunners, tail gunner, and ball turret gunner.
Today fewer than 100 of the B-17 airframes exist and fewer still are in airworthy condition. Produced by the 1,000s, less than 12 of the famous bombers can still take to the sky. The “Madras Maiden” is one of them.
The plane on display at the Tulsa location, did not see combat. It was built and delivered to the USAAF in October 1944. For the next 15 years it served as a radar aircraft, all-weather aircraft and in various testing programs. In May 1959 it was dropped from U.S. inventory as surplus.
Following years of civilian service the plane was sold four years ago to the Erickson Collection, an aviation museum in Madras, Oregon. There it was restored to her combat configuration and painted in the colors of the 381st Bomb Group. The “Madras Maiden” nose art was added at that time.
Last year, the plane, numbered N3701G, was leased to The Liberty Foundation and flies today to honor our country’s veterans. It is also used to educate current and future generations as to the high price of freedom and to preserve our aviation heritage.
Thanks to The Liberty Foundation visitors now have the opportunity to step back in time and gain respect for the men and women who gave so much to protect that freedom.
Tulsa is among 30 cities where the “Madras Maiden” will appear this year. At each stop flight missions are available, allowing the young and old alike to take flights in the historic aircraft. During flight operations there will be a designated secure area for those who would like to watch the takeoff and landing at no charge.
For enthusiasts that choose to take the flight experience they will receive a pre-flight safety briefing containing the historical significane of the aircraft. During the following spectacular scenic air tour passengers can enjoy the unique opportunity of moving about the aircraft.
Stepping across the bomb bay or sighting down the barrel of one of the machine guns, both can be experienced. An open hatch over the passenger area can also be used to take photos by the brave ones willing to stick their head out of the plane.
The B-17 flight experience takes 45 minutes with approximately half hour in flight. Cost is $410 for Liberty Foundation members and $450 for non-members. Passengers can become a Liberty member for $40 and immediately receive the member discount for family and friends.
While the cost is expensive it can be put in perspective when compared to the B-17 operating cost. The Flying Fortress cost is over $5,000 per flight hour. The Liberty Foundation spends over $1,500,000 annually to keep it airworthy and on tour.
The Liberty Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit flying museum.
Editor’s Note: Crew members of the “Madras Maiden” said they will fly over Claremore during at least one of the Saturday flights. When asked if this would be possible due to the day’s Rogers County WWII Veterans Reunion, spokesman Scott Maher said it would be an honor to do so. It is certain the famous silhouette and unique sound of the overhead aircraft will draw a great deal of attention