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Posted on Saturday, September 30, 2017 at 9:00 am

Riding in B-17 a life-changing experience

Elena Cawley


When I learned about the chance to fly aboard the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Madras Maiden, I knew I wanted to do it; however my fear almost overwhelmed my excitement.

I was thrilled because I wanted to experience a piece of World War II history. With the plane built in 1944, it had begun its career during the war, and I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of the world-famous bomber aircraft.

The chance to fly on one of the famous bombers came through the Liberty Foundation, which is displaying the Madras Maiden at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport this weekend.

Opportunities for media flights were earlier in the week.

As one of the volunteers with the Liberty Foundation described it, the best way to get a sense of what World War II soldiers went through is to touch the guns, smell the metal, feel the air rushing through the crevices and creases, and see the aerial view while onboard the aircraft.

I was looking forward to seeing the B-17 and listening to the stories about sacrifices and glory told by the volunteers operating the Madras Maiden because I knew these history enthusiasts are passionate about what they do and have a knack for storytelling.

One of the best stories I had previously heard came from such an aviation enthusiast.

A couple of years ago, I visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. I didn’t expect it to be very interesting because I lack a true understanding of aviation history, but then I started following one of the tour guides.

The tour group following this guide became larger and larger because of his apparent love for the planes and knowledge of each aircraft’s background. These planes were not merely military or transportation tools for him. They were living beings that had lived through moments of glory, pride, shame or devastation; and he was there to tell their stories.

I remember the tour guide pointing to the intimidating Lockheed SR-71, with a proud sparkle in his eye, making it obvious that this was the crown jewel of the museum’s collection. This aircraft, dubbed Blackbird for the special black paint that covered it, with its long, smooth and clean-line shape, stood out among the rest of the airplanes with its unique appearance.

Being the fastest jet-propelled aircraft, the SR-71 had operated in the most hostile airspace during the Cold War. Built in 1964, this supersonic airplane would reach 2,200 mph at 85,000 feet above earth. To put that in perspective, it would fly from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in one hour. Because of the height, the crew had to wear pressure suits similar to those worn by astronauts.

An interesting aspect of the Blackbird, the guide told us, is that it is almost entirely made of titanium which came from the Soviet Union. With the U.S. lacking a source of that metal, U.S. secret agents had gone undercover and created a fake firm to purchase titanium from the Soviet Union. Ironically, this titanium was used for constructing an aircraft to spy on the very country from which it originated.

Elena Cawley on board the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, the Madras Maiden.
–Photo by Ashley Brannom

Remembering this story, I was happy for the opportunity to fly on the B-17. But at the same time, I was frightened. I have always had a numbing fear of heights and flying airplanes, specifically. Totally unfounded, I usually can’t fight this panic, and when on an airplane, I’m overwhelmed by the terrifying feeling.

Numerous times on the way to the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, I considered just seeing the Flying Fortress on the ground and passing the opportunity to go to the skies.

However, once the volunteers operating the Madras Maiden began telling media members what the crew during World War II had to endure during flights, my fear seemed really ridiculous, and even shameful.

At 30,000 feet, the aviators flying B-17s were exposed to negative-30 to negative-60-degree temperatures for hours. Additionally, since this was a non-pressurized airplane, they had to carry oxygen, while at the same time being the target of much faster airplanes spraying lead at them or dodging flak as they approached their target. The B-17’s maximum speed is 300 mph.

Hearing about the struggles of the World War II soldiers, and the fact that with its four engines, the Madras Maiden is one of the safest airplanes one could fly, my anxiety disappeared.

The people operating the aircraft during the war had no choice but to fly the plane and hope to survive. I had a choice to go aboard and learn about their sacrifice, and I did that with no fear, thanks to the aviation enthusiasts’ passion about telling the story of the Flying Fortress.

Liberty Foundation is offering trips on Madras Maiden at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport through 3 p.m. today. The News staff was invited to participate in the media flights earlier this week.