B-17 bomber roars over Victoria, ‘powerful reminder’ for veterans

History appeared on the horizon over Victoria International Airport Monday, landed smoothly and taxied to the tarmac at the Victoria Flying Club.

The piece of the past was a B-17, the legendary “Flying Fortress” that played an important role for the Allies in bombing German targets during the Second World War.

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Fresh from an appearance at the Abbotsford International Airshow, the Commemorative Air Force plane will be at the flying club through Saturday for public tours and flights.

Now more than 70 years old, the four-engine Boeing heavy bomber has been carefully restored by the Arizona wing of the Commemorative Air Force — a Texas-based non-profit dedicated to preserving and showing historic aircraft — and dubbed “Sentimental Journey.” Pictures of actor, dancer and singer Betty Grable in her signature wartime pose grace the front of the aircraft.

Members of the volunteer crew, such as 70-year-old Dennis Fennessey, travel in the plane from its base in Mesa, Arizona. Fennessey said the plane is “a flying memorial” to the crews who flew bombing missions over Europe.

“To understand what it must have been like, how heroic these guys were to have done that sort of thing, I think is really important,” Fennessey said.

“We’re free today because of what these men did.”

Fennessey and pilot Jim Kimmel, a 66-year-old veteran of the United States Air Force, both have a personal connection to the B-17 — their fathers flew it in combat. “I sort of inherited his genes for this sort of thing,” Fennessey said of his father.

A Monday flight for media had passengers belted into low-slung canvas seats with ear plugs firmly in place.

Once the plane was airborne, it was fine to move around, and a bit of a novelty to lean on a machine gun — one of 13 on board — to look out the window at Victoria more than 600 metres below.

The old plane was surprisingly smooth, and banking from the Dallas Road waterfront back to the airport provided a stunning panorama.

Kimmel said piloting a B-17 takes a special approach. “You’ve got to plan ahead — it doesn’t turn on a dime,” he said, noting the plane costs about $3,500 per hour to fly. “It’s not cheap to operate, but she’s a good bird and she’s very reliable and just a thrill to go flying in.”

Also on board the B-17 was a pair of 92-year-old air force veterans. Victoria residents Tom Burdge, who served in the Royal Air Force, and Atholl Sutherland Brown, who served in the RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force, were both Second World War fighter pilots — Burdge flew Mosquitoes and Sutherland Brown flew Beaufighters — but they are well aware of the role of B-17s. The planes were known for their toughness and prolific bomb-dropping.

The veterans had been inside the planes but never flew in them, and were able to experience Monday’s flight from the glassed-in nose of the plane.

Before taking off, Burdge said he was expecting a lot of memories to come back. He was emotional when he stepped out after his flight, during which he and Sutherland Brown took turns in the navigator’s and bombardier’s seats.

“It made me have more respect for the crews that I saw,” Burdge said.

He said prior to the flight that having a B-17 touring around can have a big impact on how the public perceives the Second World War.

“It makes a great difference, I think, especially for the young people — and these are the people that we need to make aware of what happened to we old fogies.”

Sutherland Brown said the roar of the engines and the smell of oil aboard Sentimental Journey took him back to the wartime era.

Fennessey said it’s common for veterans, especially those who had experience in a B-17, to struggle with their emotions during a flight. “Incidentally, though, there are a lot who don’t want to get in it,” he said. “It’s a very powerful memorial for these guys.”

After flying in B-17s and being shot at during the war, he said, they just figure they’ve had enough.

Sentimental Journey is one of about 65,000 B-17s that were made, but it was completed in late 1944 toward the end of the war and never saw combat. Its post-war years included time as a forest-fire-fighting aircraft, dropping water and fire retardant.

Flights in the aircraft will be offered at $850 US ($1,110 Cdn) to ride in the nose and $425 US ($555 Cdn) in the radio room. The flight experience includes about 45 minutes in the plane, including about 25 minutes in the air.

The public can tour the aircraft for a donation of $5.

All proceeds go to the upkeep of the plane

Flights can be arranged by visiting the Commemorative Air Force trailer at the Victoria Flying Club at #101-1852 Canso Rd, adjacent to the airport.

Flights can also be booked by calling 1-587-338-8817.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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