B-17 'Flying Fortress' takes wing this weekend in Concord

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 11, 2012

By Mark Wineka
CONCORD – When Tom “Pinky” Funderburk and the rest of his 10-man B-17 crew returned from their bombing missions to France or Germany, the rewards for getting back in one piece were simple.
A shot of Scotch.
A cup of coffee.
A doughnut.
Then he was sent to a debriefing.
Funderburk, whose nickname referred to his bright red hair, was a 19-year-old pilot in World War II. He laughed Monday afternoon, thinking back to those debriefings, because he usually had two shots of Scotch under his belt by then.
One of the guys in his crew didn’t drink, and he would let Funderburk have his Scotch allocation.
Many of Funderburk’s missions – there were 17 of them over several months in 1944-45 – came back to him Monday when he was invited to fly once again in a B-17 sponsored by the Liberty Foundation, a non-profit flying museum.
This weekend at Concord Regional Airport, the foundation will be offering flights in the B-17 “Memphis Belle,” the flying star of the 1989 movie of the same name. (See the accompanying box for details.)
This particular “Flying Fortress” is one of only 13 B-17s that are still flying today.
Funderburk was on one of the two 30-minute flights Liberty Foundation provided for the media Monday.
Of Funderburk’s 17 missions, six were food drops over Holland, where regions had been starved by the Germans. Funderburk said his B-17 and scores of others piloted by the British and Americans would drop thousands of pounds of food into fields marked off by white cloth.
Another memorable, non-bombing mission for Funderburk involved the flying of freed French prisoners of war from Austria to Paris.
On the bombing missions themselves, Funderburk and his crew returned OK, never being forced to bail out, never running out of fuel, which was always a concern on the return trips after dropping a payload.
On one trip, Funderburk’s B-17 collected some 200 holes in it from all the German anti-aircraft flak.
Another time, with two engines out and his landing gear kaput, Funderburk had to make a belly landing in Belgium.
“That worked out OK,” he said, matter-of-factly.
Several times, but not always, Funderburk was pilot of a B-17 dubbed the “Hun Bumper” – at least that’s one of the names he remembers.
On many bombing missions near the war’s end, Funderburk’s B-17 was part of hoards of bombers in the air – “as far as the eye could see,” heading toward German targets.
Funderburk liked the way a B-17 handled, but when his plane was in those big formations, it took generous working of the controls and throttles just to stay close and in line.
But overall, Funderburk called the B-17 “a beautiful airplane, fun to fly.”
The “Flying Fortress” was not built for comfort. The gross crew weight was supposed to be 1,200 pounds, Liberty Foundation pilot Ron Gause noted, so theoretically you should have had guys weighing a maximum of 120 pounds each.
Funderburk remembers that he was probably a nimble 140 pounds in the war, with an agility needed to maneuver through the tight compartments of the B-17.
It’s also not built for tall people. Ray Fowler, another Liberty Foundation pilot, said he bumped his head again Monday morning.
“It loves to collect your DNA,” he complained.
A B-17’s payload depended on its target. It might carry 14 500-pound bombs, 18 100-pound frag bombs, 38 100-pound incendiary bombs, two 2,000-pounders or one 4,000-pounder.
Gause said the B-17 was actually flown or auto-pilot by the bombardier, sitting in the nose of the plane, from the initial approach path to the target until the bombs were released.
The bombardier took three factors into consideration in bringing a target into the cross-hairs of a Norden bombsight – the speed (150 mph), the altitude and the wind draft.
“It’s very heavy on the controls – the cables and pulleys,” Fowler says of piloting the B-17. “It’s a workout.”
The Liberty Foundation has six sets of crews who provide flights of the vintage B-17 10 months out of the year.
This particular “fake” Memphis Belle was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Force April 3, 1945, so it never saw any war action. It was sold as surplus in 1959 for $2,687 and over its civilian flying career was a water bomber and tanker.
Military Aircraft Restoration Corp., owned by private collector and former B-17 pilot David Tallichet, bought this B-17 in 1982, and he converted it from a B-17G to a version of the B-17F. The restoration reinstalled power turrets, an early tail gunners compartment, an early Sperry dorsal turret and added a 94th Bomber Group paint scheme.”This plane was his favorite,” Fowler said of the late Tallichet.
In 1989, the plane was repainted to play the Memphis Belle for the movie and flown to England. The real Memphis Belle, which still exists but faces a major restoration, was famous for being the first B-17 to complete 25 missions.
Gause noted that early in the war, six out of 10 B-17s didn’t make it back to the air bases in England.
Funderburk, a lieutenant during the war, came back to North Carolina and served in the reserves, logging 20 years and retiring as a major.
He continued to fly and have a keen interest in aviation in civilian life as he built a Charlotte sales career in mechanical specialty items, such as instruments for pumps.
Retired, the 87-year-old Funderburk now lives in Rock Hill. He already had completed a year at The Citadel when he entered flight training school in Arizona as an 18-year-old. Within 14 months, he had earned his wings and was shipped off to Europe.
“The silver wings – that’s the most coveted thing I can think of,” Funderburk said Monday, standing on the runway within shouting distance of the B-17.
“At least it was for me.”Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

The Liberty Foundation’s 2012 Salute to Veterans Tour will be offering flights on the B-17 “Memphis Belle,” the same bomber used in the 1989 movie of the same name.
—- When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
—- Where: Concord Regional Airport, 9000 Aviation Blvd., Concord
—- Cost: $410 for Liberty Foundation members; $450 for non-members.
—- Length of flight: roughly 30 minutes, with the whole experience taking about 45 minutes.
—- Pre-registration: Walk-ins without an appointment on the days of the flights are welcome. You also can choose a time for the flight by calling 918-340-0243, or emailing Scott Maher at smaher@libertyfoundation.org.
—- The flights will take place generally from 10 a.m.-3 p.m., but the plane will be open for free on-the-ground tours, inside and out, for the rest of the day, as long as people keep coming.
—- More information: www.libertyfoundation.org