Richard J. Notebaert piloted 50 combat missions in a B-17 bomber, so it was only fitting that he sat back Monday and enjoyed his 51st ride as a passenger.
The Liberty Foundation’s Memphis Belle is back in Buffalo, and the 93-year-old former Army Air Forces captain from Amherst caught a ride on the historic World War II-era aircraft, which is much like the one he flew on daring raids over Italian cities such as Rome, Naples and Bologna in 1943.
“It was very smooth,” Notebaert said just after descending the cockpit from the 15-minute flight that circled downtown and Lake Erie. “They found a smooth layer up there, and there was no bumps whatsoever. The B-17 worked just beautiful.”
The bomber will be available for public flights from 10 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Prior Aviation, 50 Airport Drive, Cheektowaga, near Buffalo Niagara International Airport, by calling (918) 340-0234. The cost for a 30-minute ride is $450. Free ground tours will be given after 3 p.m. both days. The visit is part of the Liberty Foundation’s Salute to Veterans tour, which strives to teach the public about World War II and honor its veterans.
“He got through the airplane probably just about as well as I did,” Keith Youngblood, a Memphis Belle crew member, said of Notebaert. “Once you get a veteran back on the plane their mobility comes back to them and that muscle memory moving through the plane. He had a great time.”
Indeed, the very utilitarian B-17 was not built for comfort with its low clearances and tight squeezes. The crew hands out ear plugs to buffer from the deafening engine noise, the military-style seat belts take some getting used to, and the smell of burning fuel fills the open-air cabin.
During the war, a B-17’s 10-man crew would fly at altitudes of 25,000 to 30,000 feet in a nonpressurized cabin with only an electric-heated leather suit to keep warm. Notebaert remembered eating K-rations of cheese and “tasteless” bread on missions that could last eight hours or more. Only smoking cigars could help him sleep and muster through the final 15 missions before he was cleared to return home.
“Hopefully this gives people a little bit of appreciation for what the 10 men in the aircraft went through during combat,” Youngblood said.
Of the 12,732 B-17s built between 1935 and 1945, only 13 are still flying today, according to the Liberty Foundation, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit organization that takes its B-17 across the country to air shows. Dubbed the “Flying Fortress,” they were operated mainly by the Eighth Air Force from bases in England.
The original Memphis Belle was the first bomber to complete 25 missions with its crew intact in World War II. Today it is being restored at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
The foundation’s Memphis Belle was built in 1945 by Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif., as the war was ending. It never saw combat but did see Hollywood when it was hired for the 1990 film “Memphis Belle” starring Matthew Modine as its pilot. It was built as a B-17G model but restored to look like a B-17F complete with four propeller engines, twin .50-caliber machine guns with ammunition belts, ball turret, radio room hatch and a plexiglass nose for navigating.
Notebaert said he liked flying the B-17 because of its “Davis wing,” thicker than on the B-24.
“The B-17 was such an easy airplane to fly,” he said. “When this thing stalls, it lets you know.”
A large contingent of Notebaert’s family was there Monday to witness their patriarch’s flight down memory lane, including three of his five children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Notebaert, wearing a pair of khaki pants and button-down shirt with a Veterans of Foreign Wars patch on the left sleeve, American flag on the right and wings pin on the front, posed center as the large family took a portrait with the plane in the background.
“He has a little difficulty in mobility, so this was just a terrific opportunity for him to experience some of the things he had done in stressful situations years ago,” said Notebaert’s son, John.
After flying his combat missions out of North Africa, Notebaert finished his service as an instructor on B-17s for a year in Roswell, N.M.. After the war, his new job as a pilot for National Gypsum brought him from his native Rochester to Buffalo, where he flew a DC-3 airliner and Gulfstream II for 33 years before retiring.
Notebaert’s family wasn’t sure what his reaction would be to flying in the same model of plane he captained 70 years ago.
“This morning we weren’t sure he was going to get on that plane,” said John Notebaert. “But there wasn’t a hesitation when I asked, ‘You sure you want to get on this flight?’ He said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”