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updated: 10/5/2017 7:40 AM

World War II bomber touches down in Clark County

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SELLERSBURG, Ind. -- When the first Boeing B-17 Bomber lifted off from Seattle in July 1935, it was quickly dubbed the "Flying Fortress," a tank for the air that would become a huge asset for the U.S. Air Force in World War II.

This weekend at the Clark Regional Airport, the public has the opportunity to see firsthand some of what the Allied pilots and crews saw, with free tours and paid flights in one of eight of the planes still flying in the U.S.

The B-17 "Madras Maiden," will be at the Clark County stop on its most recent mission in the U.S, which began in Portland with a national tour of the plane in March as a sort of "flying museum."

It is hosted by the Liberty Foundation, an organization started by Don Brooks, the son of a B-17 tail-gunner in the 390th bomb crew.

"Don wanted to find a method by which to honor his father and honor all the B-17 crews," Bob Hill, volunteer pilot for the tour, said. "He wanted to find a way to keep history alive - to remind people of the sacrifices that our veterans made on our behalf and still make on our behalf. We are grateful for that every day."

The B-17 "Madras Maiden," built at the end of the war, did not see combat but was painted in the colors of the 381st Air Force bomb group, which flew 297 operational missions and dropped 22,000 tons of bombs throughout the war. During battle, they lost 131 B-17s and downed at least 223 enemy aircraft.

The B-17s were known as incredibly well-built airplanes, for their ability to withstand an incredible amount of damage and keep flying, compared to other military aircraft at the time.

"Which led to the expression 'if it's not a Boeing, we're not going,'" Hill said. "It was known for bringing crews home. It was also probably the largest airplane at the time; it was quite amazing for people to see."

But even within the Flying Fortresses, odds were against the crews fighting the battle in the skies, Hill said.

"If you were there in 1943 and 1944, you had a 23 percent chance that you'd survive your mission, 77 percent chance that you would not be coming home," Hill said.

And those odds shifted as the number of required flights went from 25 to 30 to eventually 35.

Touring the plane, visitors can get a unique look at the war from the eyes of a bomber crew. Though the tail-gunner and turret-bombing areas are not accessible, folks can sit in the same seats young crews took as planes such as this headed to war. They can crawl into the navigation area with the 180 degree view at the nose of the plane. They can see the complex control panels in the cockpit.

"It's much more difficult to fly than a modern jet," Hill, with a background as a commercial pilot, said. "It would be, from a pilot's perspective, a very busy cockpit with a lot of things to do and a lot of tasks."

And on the 45-minute paid flights, which will travel around Southern Indiana and Louisville Saturday and Sunday, visitors can get an experience that awakens all five senses.

"It's sight, it's sound - it is history and gives you maybe just a little bit of taste of what it might have been like during that time period," he said.

Monday afternoon, the Liberty Foundation took an early run of the plane with media and several other individuals.

Wilford Voyles, Jr., who was a flier in Vietnam, took his first ride on a B-17 that day.

"It was absolutely a cool experience," he said. "I was up front when they started, right behind (the cockpit). I watched all their switch-pulling and turning to get the engines going. Those big old radios are not easy to start - they're not anything like getting in your car and turning a key."

And Hill said the planes' impressiveness was not lost on the young crews embarking on their initial journeys.

"When they were young and they first got in this airplane before combat, they were excited too; this was the thing to be in," he said. That was before the reality and harshness of battle set in.

"But when you talk to these veterans, as scared as they were in the airplanes in combat, they always said you never wanted to let your other crew members down. They were a team in the airplane."

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Source: (Jeffersonville) News and Tribune, http://bit.ly/2gcI4RU

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Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., http://www.newsandtribune.com

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