WWII Boeing B-17 'Memphis Belle' Flies Again

By  Stina Sieg
March 27, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
This faceless pin-up girl is one of the most famous images on the Memphis Belle.

Few airplanes are as famous as the Boeing B-17. It's known as the “Flying Fortress,” and its bombing campaigns in Europe helped win World War II. Nearly 13,000 were built, but these days, less than 15 are in flying condition.

This weekend in Phoenix, anyone can take a ride on one of them. Recently I did just that.

It’s not just any B-17. It’s the one used in the 1990 movie “Memphis Belle,” which celebrates the first bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the US. At the Deer Valley Airport, it didn’t take long to spot the army-green plane and one of its biggest fans, pilot Ron Gause.

“Well, from the standpoint of the men who flew them in combat, it’s the best aircraft that’s ever been built to take battle damage and bring the men home,” said the 79-year-old Gause.

This B-17 is quite a looker. It’s got all the markings of the original “Memphis Belle,” from the pinup girl painted on its side to the names “Pete” and “Repete” inscribed over its tail guns.

Gause, who is a veteran from the Korean War era, is one of about 15 volunteers who fly this all over the country for the non-profit Liberty Foundation. Tours on the ground are free, but a 30-minute flight costs $450 a person, which goes back into fuel and maintenance. Gause knows that is a pretty penny, but passengers tell him it’s worth it, especially veterans of World War II.

“It’s a joy for us to get to see them and talk with them,” Guase said, “because sometimes they will open up and tell us things that they have never told their families. I’ve had this happen numerous times.”

The plane draws many children of veterans – and grandchildren too, like me and my colleague Andrew Romanov, who came along for the flight. As we climbed into the bomber, we were handed earplugs and ushered toward a few open seats.

It was small inside, but surprisingly open. Machine guns protruded from cut-outs on each side of the bomber. There was a skylight, too, completely open to the heavens above. We buckled in, and the plane started to rev up.

And Andrew explained that his grandfather was actually a co-pilot on a B17. He was in his early 20s at the time, like Andrew is now.

“I can’t imagine being entrusted with something this big, so dangerous, so deadly, at this moment in my life,” he said, as the plane really started to wail.

It was a loud, rough ride that grew faster and faster. Then, we were airborne. The housing developments below grew smaller and smaller until they looked like quilt patterns on the desert.

It felt like we were on a train and in a wind tunnel, at once. But we were still given the go-ahead to walk around, as best we could. We braced ourselves in every station of the plane, including its transparent nose, where there is nothing between you and ground below but a little bit of Plexiglass. It’s the kind of spot you would gladly stay for hours.

But soon, the plane started to descend. So, we returned to our seats. Before long, we hit the ground so smoothly, we can could hardly feel it.  

When we climbed out, Gause was there to greet us.

“How long is it going to take for that smile go away?” Gause asked.

“The whole car ride home,” Andrew said. “The whole car ride home.”

Gause grinned right back.

“Every time you think about it, you’ll be smiling,” Gause said.

The Memphis Belle is flying this Saturday and Sunday from around 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Deer Valley Airport. For advance reservations and more information, visit the Liberty Foundation or call (918) 340-0243.