The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Latest News

July 15, 2013

Famed WWII-era plane on tour in Erie

ERIE — Poof! Out billows black and gray smoke and building, building, faster and faster the air fills with “wha-wha-wha-wha-wha!” repeated three more times over. The beast is alive and woe be to those inside and below.

It creaks, cracks, squeaks, jiggles and wiggles. Touch its thin metal skin and you feel its heartbeat. It shakes you to the bone.

Slowly, slowly, slowly it begins to lumber. Oil leaks out and its olive drab paint glistens menacingly under the sun.

With a roar and then huge buzz like a giant angry wasp, the 4,800 horsepower of its four small-car-sized engines defy gravity.

This is the moment of no going back. After this, lives will change – good odds it will be yours – in blast, fire, blood.

Don’t have a window seat? No worry. There are holes here and gaps there, but up here in the nose of this World War II-era Flying Fortress, all there is is you and the wild blue yonder, separated by a thin wall of Plexiglas.

Up here in the bombardier’s seat, you get there first, you see it all and stare death in the face.

Up and away over water now, you thank God it would be Canadian, not German, airspace next. Although this B-17 was built to fight in World War II, this is 2013 and we’re flying over Erie.

These days the plane’s mission is education, and it’s in Erie this weekend, hoping to meet you and maybe even take you up in the air. You might even say that a visit is in the national interest.


Well, in an age where an airman with a joystick and computer can remotely pilot a B-17-sized drone to blow up our enemies without leaving the U.S., it’s easy to forget the sacrifices necessary to get to where we are today.

And it’s also easy to forget that war is about blood, bone, brutality and destruction.

Exactly where the loss of this understanding and these memories would leave us is unclear, but what is clear is that the opportunity to experience and preserve them is slipping by quickly. As demographics and the obituary page show, The Greatest Generation is passing away at an ever greater pace, and so are its war machines.

The B-17 visiting Erie, dubbed “Memphis Belle” for her role in the 1990 movie of the same name and for the paint she wears even today, is one of just 12 still flying worldwide.

Many come to see this B-17 to check out the trendy pin-up girl art on its fuselage and to revel in the Hollywood version of the glamour of the air service of World War II. But what is revealed to them, often through veterans who tell their stories for the first time ever, is that this plane is a killing machine or a coffin, depending which end you’re on, and that there is value to taking a step – however small – toward a closer understanding of the men who served aboard them and the situations that made this necessary.

As a four-year volunteer pilot for the B-17, David Lyon has seen it happen time after time at stops across the country.

“Seeing the plane is a bit of a catharsis,” he said. “It releases a lot of memories.” 

A typical scenario starts with a B-17 veteran and his family coming to see the plane. They check it out, talk about how it worked and where it happened. And then stories, stories even the family has never heard, start to flow. They are stories about what war is really like – the terror, the anger, the guilt. They are about bundling up like an Eskimo to endure temperatures of minus-30 and below. Of the B-17’s 13 .50 caliber machine  guns blasting away simultaneously in a desperate attempt to stave off German fighter planes. Of dropping thousands of pounds of bombs while moving at 180 miles per hour. Of the 60-some percent of 10-man

B-17 aircrews who never came home. They are things that only a combat veteran can truly understand and the rest of us, thankfully, can only hope to appreciate.

“This is why we do this,” explained fellow B-17 volunteer Keith Youngblood. “So that people don’t forget what they went through.”

Lyon’s favorite memory came during a blisteringly hot, sunny-day visit to an Arizona airport.

During the part of the visit when the plane was parked for visitors to tour it for free on the ground, he spotted an elderly man lying motionless face up in the shade under the belly of the plane.

“It was really hot and I thought, oh, man, this guy must have heat stroke,” Lyon said, so he rushed over to help.

“Are you OK?” Lyon asked.

“Yes, just fine,” the man replied.

“What are you doing?” Lyon asked.

“This was the last view I had of one of these,” said the man, explaining that he had to bail out in a parachute during a World War II mission. He said he appreciated the opportunity to ponder that – and everything since – in less pressing circumstances.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Latest News
  • Boston doctors can now prescribe you a bike

    The City of Boston this week is rolling out a new program that's whimsically known as "Prescribe-a-Bike." Part medicine, part welfare, the initiative allows doctors at Boston Medical Center to write "prescriptions" for low-income patients to get yearlong memberships to Hubway, the city's bike-share system, for only $5.

    April 16, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Why Facebook is getting into the banking game

    Who would want to use Facebook as a bank? That's the question that immediately arises from news that the social network intends to get into the electronic money business.

    April 16, 2014

  • Classes to resume at Franklin Regional High School

    April 16, 2014

  • 10 things to know for today

    April 16, 2014

  • Search teams will send unmanned sub to look for missing Malaysian airliner

    Teams searching for a missing Malaysian airliner are planning for the first time to send an unmanned submarine into the depths of the Indian Ocean to look for wreckage, an Australian official leading the multi-nation search said Monday.

    April 16, 2014

  • bank1 West End bank robbed

    The West End branch of AmeriServ Financial was robbed Tuesday morning, two days before the branch is scheduled to close.

    April 15, 2014 2 Photos

  • weather_2 Old Man Winter returns to area

    Just when you think we’ve finally escaped the cold temperatures, winter swoops back in to remind us it’s not going away just yet.

    April 15, 2014 2 Photos

  • City seeks support for sewer revamp

    The city is looking for backup from the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority in spreading what they call “true” facts and figures regarding the city’s encompassing sewer revamp.

    April 15, 2014

  • Airport gets lift with $180G grant

    The John Murtha Johnstown–Cambria County Airport needs to replace some basic maintenance equipment: a pickup truck, painting machine, chain saw, weed eater, hand tools and more.
    So, on Tuesday, the airport’s authority agreed to accept Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Bureau of Aviation grant money that already has been tentatively allocated.

    April 15, 2014


Do you think that Jack Williams will get the 270 signatures from city residents needed in order to have a referendum placed on a municipal ballot to have the city's pressure test mandate repealed?

I'm not sure
     View Results
Order Photos

Photo Slideshow

House Ads