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'Flying museum' B-17 bomber takes wing over Buffalo

The past and present of military aviation met Monday on a tarmac at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga.

Shortly after landing their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to refuel, a group of aviators from Fort Drum's 10th Mountain Division walked over to check out an aircraft usually seen in black-and-white newsreels from the 1940s – not in living color in 2018.

But a not-for-profit organization has brought a Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" to Buffalo for public flights this weekend, and members of the media had a chance to take a ride in the "Madras Maiden" on Monday. After that flight, the Fort Drum helicopter crews got an up-close look at the World War II-era bomber.

"It's a pretty amazing bird," said Chief Warrant Officer Sean Hansen, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., and member of the 10th Mountain Division's 4th Cavalry, as he took pictures with his phone outside the Madras Maiden.

The nonprofit Liberty Foundation takes historic aircraft around the country to give the public the chance to fly in the planes as a reminder of the sacrifice made by those who flew in them during World War II and later wars.

Pilots Bob Hill, chief pilot, left, and Ray Fowler, director of operations, right, operate the Madras Maiden. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The B-17 saw extensive use in daylight bombing raids during World War II. Boeing produced 12,732 of them between 1935 and 1945, and 4,735 were lost in combat along with thousands of pilots and crew members.

"It is an amazing airplane for what it did for our freedom," said Ray Fowler, a volunteer and the foundation's chief pilot.

The Liberty Foundation started flying the Madras Maiden in 2016. The plane was built in 1944 toward the end of World War II and never saw combat. It's one of only about 10 B-17s remaining that are airworthy.

"It's literally a flying museum," said Bob Hill, a volunteer and pilot with the foundation.

The cramped interior of the Madras Maiden looks much as it did 74 years ago on its maiden flight. The turret gun on top of the plane was removed, allowing for unparalleled windswept views of the landscape below. But large bombs still sit in the bomb bay and an ammunition belt feeds into at least one of the machine guns on the plane, although all of the ordnance is inert.

The Madras Maiden flies far lower than a commercial flight – about 1,300 feet above ground level here. Passengers get a clear view of the landscape while landmarks such as City Hall and the Central Terminal seem close enough to touch.

Fowler said the foundation tries to include World War II veterans on such flights but that's getting harder because the youngest veterans from that war who still survived are in their early or mid 90s now.

"They are 19 again, just for a second, when they get next to that plane," Fowler said.

Fowler said families often bring ashes of deceased veterans to scatter in the wind. Hill recalled a veteran in Eugene, Ore., who wore his original military uniform. He used a walker to get close to the Madras Maiden but, Hill said, he insisted on walking onto the plane unaided.

The public flights help pay for the cost of operating the Madras Maiden, named after the brunette pin-up girl painted onto one side of the plane underneath the cockpit. Hansen, admiring the art before the Black Hawks left on their way to Fort Polk in Louisiana, said the Army doesn't let flight crews paint images like that on their aircraft anymore.

Fowler said the plane costs about $4,500 per hour to fly, with fuel accounting for up to $1,200 of that total.

The Liberty Foundation will offer flights on the Madras Maiden starting at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Flights cost $450 per person.

Ground tours run in the afternoon through 5 p.m. both days. Prior Aviation is at 50 North Airport Drive in Cheektowaga.

For more information, visit www.libertyfoundation.org, call 678-589-7433 or email info@libertyfoundation.org.

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