Saturday, June 10, 2006

"Liberty Belle"

The last time Staff Sgt. John Fox flew in a Boeing B-17G “Flying Fortress” was in September, 1944. It was his first bombing run over Germany…and his last.

Fox’s aircraft, “The Big Gas Bird,” (say that really fast--to yourself!) was shot down over Frankfort, and he spent the remainder of the war in German POW camps. Many other planes made it through the war, and found their way back to the states, used as VIP transports, test-beds for experimental engines, or cut up for use as film sets for TV-series like "12-O'Clock High," and movies like "Memphis Belle."

There has been a welcome resurgence of interest in the stories of WW-2 veterans lately, and The Liberty Foundation, based in Douglas, Georgia, is among those organizations helping to keep alive the memory and the legacy that men like John Fox and the crew of of his plane forged.

The Liberty Foundation is doing this by staging flights of a refurbished B-17G called “Liberty Belle.” This weekend they are in Houston; next weekend, they’ll be in Dallas. This particular aircraft never saw combat duty.

Scott Maher, the media coordinator for The Liberty Foundation, invited me along for the ride Friday. It was stiflingly hot, sitting in the un-airconditioned fuselage that smelled of aviation fuel, grease, and fresh paint. “Liberty Belle” required 14-years of work and $3-million to put her back in flying condition.

None of those details were lost on former Staff Sgt. John Fox, who served as Right Engine Engineer and Top Turret Gunner on his one and only combat mission in 1944.

The “Big Gas Bird” that Fox flew in had survived numerous missions, and many of its crew were about to return home following their run in September, ’44. Sgt. Fox was one of the replacements, and was taking his first flight with what was a seasoned crew.

They were based at Ipswitch, England, and were tasked to bomb a factory in Leipzig, Germany. After dropping their bomb load, they were returning home when their aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft “flak” over Frankfort. Sgt. Fox says he and one other crew member got out of the plane before it crashed, parachuting to an area north of town.

He was captured and taken to the Dulag Luft at Frankfort, and then transferred twice more, to Stalag Luft-4 at Gross Tychow, in Poland, and Stalg Luft-1 in Barth, Germany, on the Baltic. Sgt. Fox remained there until the German surrender in 1945. He says the Germans did not treat him well, and he particularly remembers how bad the food was.

Boeing’s B-17 was an amazing airframe when first flown in 1935. 6,981 B-17s were produced in various models, and another 5,745 were built under a nationwide collaborative effort by Douglas and Lockheed.

It’s still an impressive aircraft today. 14 of the aircraft are still flying, thanks to the efforts of various vintage aircraft enthusiasts around the country.

I mentioned earlier the heat we experienced in "Liberty Belle" as we awaited take off. The B-17 did not have many creature comforts, and when flying at 30,000-feet, the interior of the aircraft could reach –60F! Think of that the next time you’re whizzing along between Houston and Dallas at 30K feet…in a pressurized cabin.

On Friday, John Fox stepped aboard another B-17G for the first time in 62-years. There wasn’t a dry eye on the aircraft as it soared into the sky from Hooks Memorial Airport. Couldn’t tell if it was from the heat inside the plane or the emotion of the moment.

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