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Legacy of Liberty Belle Still Flying High

Liberty Belle B-17 Bomber at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga
Photo by Joyce Kryszak
Liberty Belle B-17 Bomber at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – A rare piece of World War II history makes a fleeting visit over the skies of Buffalo this weekend. The fully restored, Liberty Belle B-17 bomber is one of the few remaining "flying fortresses" still in the air today. And the public is asked to come out on Saturday to take a flight and help keep the Liberty Belle from being permanently grounded.

Earlier this week, WBFO's Joyce Kryszak had a chance to go up for a special media flight. She brought back this story on the bomber's crucial mission.

The windy day at Prior Aviation later turned stormy. Golfball-sized hail came down all over town. But Liberty Foundation chief pilot Ray Fowler took us up and away from it all.

Not that it would have mattered. B-17s like the Liberty Belle saw much worse than hail during countless missions in World War II - and miraculously weathered it all. Fowler said this Flying Fortress earned its storied reputation, surviving air attacks that left it limping backwith its crew sometimes on one engine. He says the B-17 is one plane where they got "all right."

The Liberty Foundation that restored and maintains the Liberty Belle also got it all right.

Built toward the end of the war, this B-17 never saw combat. But its post war history nearly saw the plane destroyed. It was once sold for scrap, then altered as a turbo prop tester. Fowler said the final attack came in 1979 - from mother nature, when a tornado threw another plane on top of it, smashing its mid-section.

But after a nearly three million dollar, fourteen-year long restoration, the plane is once again soaring high.

That's a precious accomplishment for Don Brooks of the Liberty Foundation. He restored the Liberty Belle and keeps it in the air as a tribute to his father. He was a tail gunner who flew many perilous missions on the original Liberty Belle.

But the foundation's mission is pretty important for all Americans too. The Liberty Belle is one of only 14 B-17 bombers that still fly today. There were nearly 12,732 made for the war. 4,735 were destroyed in combat.

And those planes carried brave airmen, many who also never made it back. Fowler said a flight in the B-17 bomber then was a far different experience than the one the foundation offers today.

But the Liberty Belle continues to fly to keep the sacrifices of those men alive.

Fowler said the paid public flights help the not-for-profit museum offset the astronomical cost of keeping the flying fortress airworthy. It costs more than a million a year in upkeep and insurance alone. Fuel for just one flight runs more than $4,500.

But Fowler said he is reminded with every flight and every veteran they take up that it is worth the price.

For some, he says it is their first "mission" in more than six decades since the war, and probably their last.

Fowler said the foundation's mission is to keep giving veterans that one fleeting thank you. But skyrocketing fuel and insurance costs could permanently ground the Liberty Belle.

He said it will take continued support from the public coming out to buy these trips up in history to keep the plane's legacy soaring.

Public flights on the Liberty Belle B-17 bomber are available in Buffalo on Saturday only from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM at Prior Aviation on North Airport Drive off Wherle near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Veterans, and anyone who is interested, are invited to go up for a ride. The 45 minute flight experience - and contribution to preserving history - costs $430 dollars.

To book a flight you can log onto the web site at CWRU Web server

Click the "listen" icon above to hear Joyce Kryszak's story now or use your podcasting software to download it to your computer or iPod.