If you looked to the skies over Columbia Monday afternoon, you might have caught a glimpse of a mighty military silhouette from battles long ago. The World War II-era Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, The Movie Memphis Belle, took its first flight over the city in historic fashion.
Local media participated in the inaugural flight over Columbia and took a symbolic journey back in time to experience what it was like for WWII veterans to fly in the iconic aircraft. The public will have an opportunity to fly in and tour the bomber at Jim Hamilton-L.B. Owens Airport Saturday and Sunday.
The Columbia stop is one of many planned for the Memphis Belle as it travels around the country during The Liberty Foundations 2013 Salute to Veterans tour. The tour is an ongoing effort of the foundations efforts to preserve the history of the aircraft and to commemorate the men who flew them into battle.
The bomber was among the 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935-45. Of that number, 4,735 were lost in combat.
I dont think the people of today, unless you are into the heritage, understand the history behind these airplanes and what these guys did every day, Jim Lawrence, one of the bombers pilots, said. There was an 80 percent chance of you not coming home when you went on a mission.
The Movie Memphis Belle pitched and yawed freely through the sky Monday as it celebrated the 70th anniversary of its historic final mission.
It was escorted by a restored P-51-D Mustang based in Concord, N.C., nicknamed Swamp Fox. The Mustang was flown by Robert Dickson Jr. of Charlotte and co-piloted by his father, Robert Dickson Sr. of Georgetown. The name was chosen by Lt. Will Foard of Marion, who piloted the Mustang during WWII.
The original Memphis Belle, piloted by Robert Morgan and a crew of 10 other men, flew during the end of the war with the 91st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force and was the only B-17 to complete 25 successful missions during the war, according to the Liberty Foundation. None of its crew was harmed during any of its missions.
Lawrence flew the bomber into Columbia and then passed the yoke to Ray Fowler, who piloted the 20-minute media flight over the city. The Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines pilot also flies fighter jets for the Air National Guard and says he loves flying B-17s, clocking in flight hours in six of the 12 operating bombers in existence today.
Its a sickness. You work during the week and on the weekends you fly even more airplanes, Fowler said. The big tail, the way it sounds and the smoke are just amazing, and people love to see it. Most people that come out and see this airplane, even if they are not involved in aviation, know about the B-17. Its an incredible part of history."
Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8610.