Geoff Myers was sitting on his porch about a mile from the Raleigh Executive Jetport outside Sanford on Thursday morning when he heard an unusual sound overhead.
“I thought what the hell is that,” Myers said. “A low, deep rumble. You could almost feel it before you could hear it. It doesn’t sound like anything that normally flies out of this airport.”
What Meyers heard was the Madras Maiden, a restored World War II-era B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. It was making its approach to the Jetport where the nonprofit Liberty Foundation will be offering rides and ground tours to the public this weekend.
The Madras Maiden is one of the 12,732 Boeing B-17s produced before the end of the war in 1945. Only about a dozen are still flying. Like the others, the Madras Maiden was built late in the war and never saw combat. Instead, the Air Force used it to test radar and other equipment before declaring it surplus in 1959.
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What followed was a series of owners who used it to carry cargo or spray pesticide on fire ants, before it was acquired by the first of three aviation museums that slowly restored it to its 1944 appearance. One of the museums was based in Madras, Oregon, where the plane acquired its name and the nose-art of a buxom woman reclining on a map of the state.
Now the Oklahoma-based Liberty Foundation takes it around the country as a sort of flying museum. Don Brooks started the foundation with another B-17, Liberty Belle, to honor his father, a B-17 crew member, and other veterans like him.
Pilot John Hess, who brought the Madras Maiden to North Carolina from Baltimore on Thursday, has been doing B-17 flights since 2006, and he’s watched the number of veterans who come out to each stop dwindle over the years. In Buffalo a few weeks ago, three or four were able to make it out, he says.
“They’re all in their 90s now. There are very few who are able to come out,” Hess said. “The main thing we want to do is say thank you one more time.”
Hess lives in Atlanta, where he normally flies 737s for Delta. The foundation’s pilots are all volunteers, with previous flying experience on aircraft other than B-17s. James Hammons, Hess’ friend and co-pilot on Thursday, flew old DC-3s for a cargo company out of Charlotte for a while, and that experience with a “tail-dragging” plane with radial engines helped prepare him for the B-17.
Still, Hammons says, “The first time I ever walked into a B-17 was when I flew it.”
Hess says some of the veterans who come out to see the plane tear up or sob at the memories of hardships during the war and the friends they lost. Others are thrilled to see one again. The sight of the plane often gets them talking, and family and friends hear stories about the war that they’ve never heard before.
It’s not only veterans who have stories. Hammons met a woman who took a train from her home in Montana to Seattle after the war started and went to work in a Boeing plant assembling the center wing sections of B-17s. She had never flown in one.
“I got to take her on her first B-17 flight,” he said. “She said she only waited 74 years for her ride.”
Pilots say the B-17 flies “heavy,” like a car without power steering or brakes; everything takes a little more muscle. Passengers are given earplugs to help muffle the roar of the engines and the rattle of the airframe. Once airborne, passengers can walk around and see the different parts of the plane, including the Plexiglas nose cone where the Norden bombsight helped the bombers hit their targets.
As Hess notes, the inside of the B-17 is smaller than it looks in the movies, and it’s easy to bump your head as the plane bounces in flight. Boeing built redundancies everywhere, from the four engines down to the extra spark plugs and sets of cables that control the flaps, to increase the chances the plane could fly if something was shot up or failed.
“It’s one of the safest airplanes to be in,” Hess said. When you talk to veterans, he said, “They will say this was the airplane they wanted to be in, because it was built so well.”
The Liberty Foundation will offer 30-minute rides in the Madras Maiden at Raleigh Executive Jetport on Saturday and Sunday. The cost is $410 for foundation members and $450 for non-members, with the proceeds going to maintain the plane and restore the Liberty Belle. Both afternoons, the foundation will offer free tours of the plane on the ground after the flights are done for the day.
To schedule a flight, call Scott Maher at 918-340-0243. For information, go to www.libertyfoundation.org.
If you get on the Madras Maiden, look for the black and white photo of a seven-man B-17 crew in front of their plane taped up behind the cockpit. After a day of offering rides to the public, the pilots noticed someone had put it there.
“It’s a good luck charm,” Hammons said. “But nobody knows who it is.”