Howard McDonald slid his 94-year-old frame into the radioman's seat of the B-17. As the four Wright R-1820-97 turbosupercharged radial engines revved up to flying speed, he tapped out a message, in Morse code, like he did over the jungles and open water of the South Pacific.
“It's a great day,” McDonald tapped in dots and dashes as the big bomber prepared to take off from the Tampa Executive Airport runway.
McDonald, who now lives in Tampa, was a radio operator and gunner in B-25 Mitchells during WWII.
“I never flew a B-17 before,” he said.
But the noise and vibration of the B-17's engines as the plane rumbled down the runway took him back in time.
“I feel like I am in New Guinea,” he said. “It was scary, but we got so busy we didn't have time to be scared.”
McDonald was the guest of honor on a flight promoting “Movie Memphis Belle,” a fully restored Flying Fortress that served as the flying double for the 1990 movie about the first bomber to make it to 25 missions at a time when two out of every three planes never made it back to base. That plane is now being restored and will be preserved at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
The bomber McDonald clambered aboard rolled off the assembly line in April 1945, too late to see combat and already obsolete. But it too served, as a staff transport plane during the Korean War and later, as a water bomber, helping fight fires into the late 1970s.
One of only about a dozen of the more than 12,000 B-17s produced that still fly, the plane was purchased in 1982 by a wartime B-17 pilot named David Tallichet. He died in 2011, but his dream of keeping the old war bird flying has been carried on since then by the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit created in 2004 to maintain another B-17. That plane, named the Liberty Belle, was a composite of two original bombers and was destroyed by a fire after an emergency landing in 2011 near Chicago.
The “Movie Memphis Belle” is not cheap to operate, costing more than $5,500 per flying hour, according to the Liberty Foundation. So it flies around the country, taking passengers willing to pay $450 for a half-hour in the air.
Those who do the flying say sitting in the cockpit is an incomparable experience.
“The B-17 is very heavy, but incredibly stable,” said Ray Fowler, the Liberty Foundation's chief pilot.
A Delta Air Lines pilot by profession, and a major in the Air National Guard, Fowler usually flies MD-88s for the airlines and F-16s for the military.
“The B-17 is so different,” he said. “There are no hydraulics. The flaps are moved by cable. It's incredible to think of how those pilots flew those long bombing missions.”
Fowler flew into Tampa Executive aboard a restored P-51 Mustang, one of the best fighters of its era. The plane, owned by the Commemorative Air Force, is touring with the “Movie Memphis Belle.” The Mustang is also taking passengers, for $1,595 for a 20-minute ride.
Tampa is the last stop on the tour before the plane spends the winter in Georgia for maintenance.
Fowler said all the money raised goes to keeping the “Movie Memphis Belle” flying and toward rebuilding the Liberty Belle.
To McDonald, who ran a canning business in Michigan after the war before retiring to Florida, the short flight above Tampa brought back some visceral memories.
“I remember one time, a guy had his head blown off by anti-aircraft fire,” he said. “No one wanted to fly in that plane afterward. The smell was terrible.”
Enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1939 to escape the ravages of the Depression, McDonald was eventually sent to New Guinea, where he and the other members of the 8th Squadron routinely bombed a main Japanese base at Rabal. The crews also helped perfect a new technique used against Japanese shipping called skip-bombing.
“We would fly very low and they would be shooting at us,” McDonald recalled.
As the “Movie Memphis Belle” landed with a bounce, McDonald smiled.
“Good landing,” he said.
When asked what he was thinking during the flight, McDonald stopped smiling.
“All the men I was with who never made it back,” he said.
The “Movie Memphis Belle” and the P-51 Mustang will be available for touring and rides Nov. 9 and 10 at Tampa Executive Airport, 6582 Eureka Springs Road, Tampa. For more information, call Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243 or go to libertyfoundation.org.