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B-17 crash evokes memories

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Air tragedies of any kind are always horrible, but they’re particularly painful, poignant and hit close to home whenever you feel like you have even the slightest connection to either the victims or the situation.

Last week there was a tragic crash of a vintage World War II-era B-17 bomber aircraft at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. Major news outlets covered it thoroughly.

While the accident is still being investigated, it appears the crash occurred just after takeoff and the plane burst into flames, killing seven of the 13 people aboard. The plane carried 10 passengers and three crew members.

The plane was part of a Wings of Freedom Tour that features the B-17 and other aircraft where attendees can purchase various experiences including flights aboard the B-17 that are normally filled by military veterans, history buffs, local dignitaries, elected officials and members of the press.

About 10 years while a reporter with The Wilson Times ,I had the rare opportunity to take a similar demonstration flight aboard another B-17 almost identical to the one that went down last week.

The plane carried the name of Liberty Belle and the flight originated at the Sanford-Lee County Airport between Sanford and Raleigh now known as the Raleigh Executive Jetport. I was one of about 10 passengers that day and we had two pilots.

The Liberty Belle was not a passenger plane, not even close, and I recall having to sit in a cramped seat in the bomb storage area just below the cockpit.

That was fine with me, though, since at least I was aboard.

The pilot told us before takeoff that as soon as the plane got airborne, we were welcome to move around in the plane.

I recall crawling through a tight passageway to reach the nose cone area that I thought would provide me with the best view.

The noise created inside the plane by its engines was beyond deafening, the vibration rattled the bones and teeth and the air smelled like a pile of oily rags burning in the cockpit.

In other words, the experience — at least for me — was simply glorious.

While the flight was probably not a big deal for the crew, as conducting it was part of their job, it was for me an amazing, unforgettable experience.

The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress,” as it was nicknamed, was a four-engine heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for what was then known as the Army Air Corps.

The plane apparently developed a reputation during the war for toughness based on stories and photos of badly damaged B-17s safely returning to base.

The B-17 dropped more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft during World War II.

According to stories released since last week’s crash, only nine B-17s the world are still airworthy.

Since last week, I have thought a lot about both the crash and my B-17 experience and my memories are nothing but positive.

I have also come to the conclusion that if someone were to call me tomorrow asking if I’d be interested in taking another flight in another B-17, I’d probably think about it for about two seconds before asking when or where I needed to go to get in the front of the line.

Keith Barnes is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Email him at