The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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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.

Why?

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.

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