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B-17 soars over Niagara Frontier Old WWII bomber ready for passengers

Sitting in the glass nose of a B-17 bomber, with Niagara Falls thundering 3,500 feet below, is a vertigo-producing experience that gives you the frightening view that a World War II bombardier had in this venerable war plane.

But on a beautiful sun-drenched day, Canada posed no more of a threat than usual, there was no need to train the twin 50-caliber machine guns on anything -- they're replicas, they won't fire -- and little to do but sit back and enjoy the view.

The Liberty Belle, a 62-year-old fully restored B-17G, made its maiden voyage to Buffalo on Monday, arriving here for a weekend of flights for the public -- if you have the $430 for a ticket.

It's expensive, but the flights are a fundraiser to keep the Flying Fortress in the air. At a cost of $3.5 million, the Liberty Belle is the newest restored B-17 and, according to its chief pilot, Ray Fowler, the prettiest.

"It's one of the safest airplanes flying," Fowler said before taking a group of reporters and photographers for a shakedown flight over the Falls. "It's overpowered for what we use it for today."

Sitting on the tarmac at Prior Aviation, the freshly painted Liberty Belle looked to be all business.

Huge for its day but dwarfed by today's commercial airliners, the Liberty Belle has four 1,200-horsepower engines driving its three-bladed propellers.

Machine-gun barrels stick out from the nose, or chin, and on both sides of the cockpit, or cheek, and from both sides at midships, the waist, as well as from a ball turret, top turret and turret in the rear for the tail gunner.

The only thing that breaks up the seriousness is a WWII pin-up, the Liberty Belle herself, waving an American flag, leaning on the Liberty Bell, and showing an R-rated amount of cleavage. The original pin-up was a nude.

Inside, it's clear this plane was never built for comfort. Seventy-four-feet long, it's a metal cylinder that never had a single creature comfort for its 10-member crews. Between the radioman's perch and the cockpit, is the bomb bay that held 14, 500-pound bombs.

When Fowler turns over the engines, a burst of smoke jumps out before they roar into life. And roar they do.

As the Liberty Belle cleared the Buffalo Niagara International runway, any conversation could be done only by shouting.

The Liberty Belle never saw combat. Rolling off the assembly line in 1945, it just missed the war and was destined for a scrap yard, which picked it up for $1,000. Pratt & Whitney doubled the offer and used it to develop turbo-prop engines.

Owner Don Brooks picked it up after it spent time in a Connecticut museum, finished the restoration and now sends Fowler and other pilots across the country showing it off.

Brooks' father was a tail gunner aboard a B-17 named Liberty Belle, so Brooks renamed the plane in honor of his father and crew.

Ron Gause, the co-pilot on this flight, said that at every city they come to, there is always a small contingent of former B-17 crewmen, now in their 80s, who come aboard.

"To us, that's the icing on the cake," said Gause. "They're old men when they come out, but by the time the flight's over, they're young men in their 20s again."

B-17s were the workhorses of the American bomber fleet during World War II, with more than 12,000 of them rolling off the assembly lines. More than one in every three were shot down or lost in combat.

Unlike Monday's trip, which ranged between 1,000 and 3,500 feet, the B-17s did most of their work at 17,000 to 20,000 feet.

The planes were not heated, nor were they pressurized, which means that crewmen sat for six to 10 hours in temperatures that sometimes plunged below zero at that altitude.

The bombardier in the nose sat hunched over his targets, barely able to move, Gause said. Veterans who have taken the ride say some of their bombardiers had to be dragged out by other crewmen after the mission, cramped and unable to move from the bitter cold.

"I had one fellow tell me that he came home on leave after flying a B-17," Gause said. "He asked to use the family car, and his father said, no, you're not old enough."

Brooks has set up the Liberty Foundation to pay the operating expenses for the Liberty Belle -- it burns about $800 in fuel every hour -- and raises money by offering these fund-raising flights.

The Liberty Belle will be at Prior Aviation on Saturday and Sunday. To reserve a flight, call (918) 340-0243 or go online at libertyfoundation.org.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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