“Liberty Belle” B-17 Has Miracle Comeback
bY fRANK lOREY iii
For the last several years, a B-17G Flying Fortress bomber from World War II has regularly been flying circuits around the United States. It has even made it to England. The biggest story is that it should never be flying at all based on what happened to it prior to an extensive restoration effort that took many years.
Officially considered B-17G #44-85734, it is one of thirteen or fourteen B-17’s left in flying condition in the world out of over 12,700 produced. “Liberty Belle” is actually two B-17’s that were mated in the middle after two unfortunate accidents. The main portion was built near the end of the war and never saw any combat action—as is the case with all but three B-17’s that still fly.
It was sold for scrap value to a “mining” company in 1947, but the only mining they were doing was for scrap aluminum. Fortunately a few planes out of the many they purchased did survive the scrapping. Pratt & Whitney purchased it in the nick of time to use as an engine test bed—large turboprop engines were mounted on the nose and test flown over the next two decades.
When Pratt & Whitney concluded the program, the plane was donated to the Connecticut Aviation Historical Association for static display at a new museum that eventually became the New England Air Museum. Parked outside, the plane started falling into disrepair, but the deciding factor in its fate was when a tornado roared through the museum grounds in 1979. Many places were totally destroyed, including a SA-16 Albatross seaplane which was picked up and deposited square on the mid and rear section of the B-17.
The forward portion was relatively undamaged, so the remains were dragged to a corner of the museum property and left to languish. In 1987, it was sold to Tom Reilly, and aircraft restoration expert in Florida. It was disassembled and trucked there, but the restoration process did not start until 1992 when the rear portion of another B-17 that had crashed in a wooded area of South Carolina was acquired.
Don Brooks entered the picture in 2000, while the restoration process was still underway. Brooks’ father had flown 36 missions as a tail gunner on the original “Liberty Belle” in World War II, and to honor him this B-17 was purchased and then donated to a new non-profit foundation, the Liberty Foundation. It took another four years to get the plane flying—the first flight was on December 8th, 2004. It took $3.5 million to get to that point.
The Liberty Foundation is currently in the process of getting another B-17 in the air. It was found at the bottom of Dyke Lake near Goose Bay, Canada. With the Liberty Belle alternating West Coast and East Coast tours every other year, the new bomber could take over part of the load. At each weekend stop about 10-16 half-hour flights are offered each day.
At the recent stop in Gillespie Field in El Cajon, CA, most of the B-17 crew were volunteers. Flying were John Ferguson who has been warbird rated for 20 years, the last 2 ½ in the B-17; and Mike Walton, an airline pilot who has been flying the Liberty Belle since December 2005. Ferguson commented “we are totally volunteers, we have full-time jobs elsewhere and try to fly in once weekend a month to do this.” Walton added “they give us bread and water, and of course for that we get to fly a B-17!” Scott Maher is along with the plane pretty much everywhere it goes, as well as a mechanic. Maher coordinates each stop and is the front man for the Liberty Foundation, officially based in Douglas, GA, but running out of Tulsa, OK.
At each stop many World War II veterans turn out to see the plane, and most talk to Maher about their experiences. Some even bring along photos of themselves in their younger days. It is certainly part of the overall experience of coming out to the airport to watch a magnificent old warbird take to the air again.
Check future schedules stops at their website of: http://www.libertyfoundation.org/