Freeze column: A magical day flying on the Memphis Belle
Since the Memphis Belle arrived at the Rowan County Airport for some repairs, I have been fortunate to get to know the airport staff, Thad Howell, Tanya Logan and Saundra Nance.
For three weeks we have discussed their ideas on how best to promote awareness of the airport. Thad had kept tabs on when the Memphis Belle would leave, based on the end of repairs and pilot availability.
Friday was set as departure day, but the high winds kept the big B-17 on the ground even though a large crowd was already on hand. Pushing the Belleís departure back to Saturday was the result, thus Santa would arrive in the morning and the Belle would leave in the afternoon, making for a very special day.
When I first heard Ray Fowler, the Belleís pilot, talk about returning to the Atlanta area following repairs, I had a goal. I wanted to be on that airplane when it left. For the first couple of weeks, I didnít make much headway. Saturday morning was jammed full for me, so a very early run put me in place to see two falling stars. My wish following the first one was, ďLord, if it be your will, help me get on that plane.Ē Thad got me the cell number of Fowler, so I made the call. He graciously allowed me a seat to ride to Canton, Ga., the end of the flight.
If you missed it, Santaís arrival was thrilling. The kids cheered when Santa landed. I got my interviews and submitted the stories on Santa and the impending Belle departure with the footnote that I would be on the plane. My excitement was hard to contain. My backpack contained underwear, a toothbrush, water and power bars because I didnít know just how to get home. It didnít matter because I was going for the ride of my life!
Back at the airport, the crowd was building again. Fowler and co-pilot Robert Dickson of Concord, were readying the plane. They took some of the airport staff, Carolina Avionics staff who did the repairs, and Landis war hero Floyd Daugherty on a short flight around the airport.
Next we loaded up and belted in for the ride to Georgia. As the Memphis Belle taxied down the runway preparing for takeoff, my heart was pumping. Fowler told us that after we got up in the air, we could walk around the plane. But first we had to get airborne, and the power of the big engines and the huge propellers was very evident as we slowly lifted off. I realized that Floyd Daugherty was right when he told me that the inside of the plane was cold, windy, vibrating and very loud. It didnít matter because I was flying on the same 68-year-old plane that was featured in the 1990 movie ďMemphis Belle.Ē
The movie honors the first plane to complete 25 successful bombing missions in WW II.
First, I looked around the mid-plane area where the waist gunners worked during combat. The big 50 caliber guns are on the plane with plenty of ammunition, but the window ports are closed. The radio desk is there too, along with the belly turret, and all these areas are featured in the movie.
I walked across an 8 inch plate of steel that is suspended over the bomb bay doors. Thankfully the doors werenít open. I was now just behind the cockpit where the pilots were flying the plane. Directly underneath the cockpit was the area where the navigator and bombardier work. The bomb site and two more 50 caliber guns are there, as well as all the controls to arm and release the bombs. The plane is actually flown by the bombardier just prior to releasing the bombs. These areas too are featured in the movie.
I stayed in the bombardier area for about two-thirds of the flight. It was warm, and there was much to see because of the large windows. The receptacles for the heated suits were visible, as well as the oxygen bottles. Both were required for the high altitude and sub-20 degree temperatures that the crew worked in. The propellers were just outside my window on both sides. The engines used 200 gallons of fuel per hour and we flew at an altitude of about 3,000 feet at a speed of 150 knots.
Total time of the flight was almost two hours, and I was able to watch from the cockpit as the plane approached the landing. The scenery was spectacular along the way and I hated to see the flight end. The plane had been a big part of my life for almost three weeks.
Concord resident and Belle co-pilot Robert Dickson graciously flew me back to the Concord airport, where I got a ride back to the Rowan airport, thus ending one of the most thrilling events of my life. Plans are for the Memphis Belle, one of only 12 air-worthy B-17ís, to return again to Salisbury next summer. In the meantime, you can watch the movie on YouTube. I already have, and being familiar with the plane made the movie even better the second time around.
Iím convinced that the prayer on the early falling star sealed the deal on a very memorable adventure that Iíll never forget.