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'Flying Fortress' returns to WNY skies, bringing memories of WWII

Roy Phillips saw plenty of B-17s, the bombers called Flying Fortresses, during his service with the 457th 
Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.

"I saw these B-17s fly over, thousands of them, when they were bombing the Falaise Gap," said the 92-year-old Purple Heart recipient. "Those planes just flew over for hours and hours."

The bloody campaign from Aug. 12 to Aug. 21, 1944 was the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy, allowing the Allies to move off the beaches they had taken on D-Day, June 6.

But Phillips never dreamed he'd get a chance to ride in a B-17.

Monday, the veteran from Royalton was airborne in the canvas seat of a beautifully restored B-17 named the Madras Maiden, thanks to the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit group that flies vintage World War II planes around the country to honor veterans and show the public the aircraft.

On Saturday and Sunday, the Madras Maiden will make 30-minute flights around the area with seats available to the public for $450. After the morning flights end, the B-17 will be on the ground for free public tours.

WWII Army veteran Roy Phillips, right, makes his way onto a B-17 bomber with help from pilot Jim Lawrence, left. The "Madras Maiden," a restored WWII-era bomber, flew Phillips over Western New York on Aug. 7. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The canvas, webbing and tube seats are built along the inside walls of the aircraft, and are generally used only for takeoff and landing. In flight, passengers are encouraged to move around, taking in the sights from the cockpit, the open hatch of the radio room, the side waist gunner positions, and best of all, the clear bubble in the plane's nose, where the bombardier would have aimed his Norden bombsight.

The Boeing B-17 that would become the Madras Maiden was "born on Oct. 17, 1944," said Ray Fowler, Liberty Foundation chief pilot, who flew local media and Roy Phillips around Monday. The plane was stationed at Wright Field, where it spent its military career as a research and development aircraft.

[Gallery: Aboard the the Madras Maiden, a beautifully restored WWII bomber]

It is the only surviving plane that was equipped with the H2X "Mickey" radar system in place of the ball turret. After 1959, the plane was decommissioned and used to transport cargo, mostly fresh fruit, then used as a fire ant sprayer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1979, it was purchased by Dr. William Hospers of Fort Worth, who began the process of restoring the plane to combat configuration. It changed hands a few more times. Then, in 2013, it was sold to the Erickson Collection, an aviation museum in Madras, Ore. There it was painted in the colors of the 381st Bomb Group and received the Madras Maiden nose art.

The Liberty Foundation, which leases and operates the Madras Maiden at about 60 stops per year, is a flying museum foundation that works to keep the surviving World War II vintage planes out of museums, where, Fowler said, "they would be silenced forever."

On Saturday and Sunday, the B-17 flights take off every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. from Prior Aviation, 50 N. Airport Drive, Cheektowaga. To reserve a seat, call Liberty Foundation Director of Operations Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243. From 3:30 p.m. until dusk, the planes will be open for free tours at that site.

Landing a B-17 with empty fuel tanks after the last bombing mission over Ploesti

The Liberty Foundation said it costs $5,000 per flight hour to operate a B-17, and the foundation spends $1.5 million annually to keep the plane airworthy and out on tour.

During the Madras Maiden's visit, residents of the region will hear the distinctive deep four-propeller rumble of the B-17, which Maher compared to "a group of Harleys on steroids." The B-17's unusual rounded appearance, with red stripes on the curved tail and wing tips, will also stand out in the sky. "It's the classic 1940s air silhouette," said Maher.

A view of Western New York from the "Madras Maiden," a restored WWII B-17 bomber that is visiting Buffalo. Free tours of the B-17 will be offered to the public this weekend. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

More than 13,000 B-17s were built during the war, and the toll was heavy as they ran daylight bombing runs over enemy territory. "A third of them didn't come back," said Fowler, and each one that went down took 10 crew members. The bombers bristled with 13 50-caliber machine guns from the front, side, back and even the top to take out attacking fighters on the ground and in the air, leading to the name "Flying Fortress."

Roy Phillips' war was from the ground, looking up, although he operated the same 50-caliber machine guns whose replicas are posted in ports of the Madras Maiden. He and his unit came under heavy attack March 23, 1945, defending a pontoon bridge the 3rd Army built across Germany's Rhine River. He was struck in the abdomen with shrapnel and barely survived; three soldiers in his 12-man gun crew were killed, three were seriously wounded, and three others were slightly wounded.

"I remember those guys every day of my life," said Phillips, a Buffalo native who moved to Royalton when he married a country girl. "Most of my buddies are gone now."

Remembering the fallen is part of the mission of the Madras Maiden and the Liberty Foundation, said Jim Lawrence, another of the pilots. "We are here to remind people that freedom isn't free and to remind them of the sacrifices that were made," he said.

"I hope you remember us," said Phillips. "We were the Greatest Generation."


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