By Karl Klooster • Staff Writer • 

Wings of war

There’s a certain morbid fascination surrounding the imagery of war, particularly what could be considered the only major war of our time where good and evil could be conclusively defined. And there is perhaps no more noteworthy symbol of that conflict than the B-17 bomber.

So, when the opportunity arose to get up close and personal with, not to mention fly in, one of the iconic war machines, I simply had to take advantage.

The occasion was a prelude to the appearance of the Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress that mounted 25 combat missions over Europe with the 91st Bomb Group during World War II.

On Monday, April 29, members of the media were treated to what the Liberty Foundation dubbed the “B-17 Flight Experience.” The invitation included a 15-minute flight in the sturdy warbird.

The Liberty Foundation, headquartered in Oklahoma, uses the flights to honor Americans who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. To that end, it had the Belle totally refurbished in Dayton, Ohio.

I just went along for the ride. Photographer Marcus Larson took full advantage of some amazing photo ops, inside and outside the plane, on the ground and in the air.

I spoke with Army Air Corps veteran Charles “Chuck” Gallagher, a tech sergeant living in Beaverton. During the war, he underwent 13 weeks of training in the repair of B-17s, be they on the ground or in flight.

At 91, Gallagher’s recollections of his days as an engineer with the 95th Bomb Group, stationed in Horham, England, were clear and no nonsense.

“I flew 35 missions,” he said, pointing to the 35 bomb silhouettes adorning the right front of his leather flight jacket. “Every time we went up, the odds were against our coming back.”

Gallagher beat the odds, but in the time he was flying out of Horham, the 95th lost a dozen of its 32 planes and many of its crewmen.

Although in a wheelchair today, he said he wasn’t about to miss the chance to go up again. After being assisted on board, he gamely made his way to a sling seat installed mid-plane.

On Saturday and Sunday, May 4 and 5, the foundation will fly off into the wild blue yonder several times, with up to nine fortunate folks on board each time.

During their half-hour flights, passengers will be able to watch the pilots at work in the cockpit and gaze out through the Plexiglas bubble that forms the craft’s nose. They will be able to peer down into the gaping hollow of the bomb bay, sit at the radioman’s station or take up gunner positions at strategic points along the fuselage,

The fee runs $450 per person. For those not going up, group tours on the ground will be offered at the end of each day’s flights. 

The fee revenue goes entirely toward covering the overhead the nonprofit foundation incurs. It is substantial, as the operating cost of the Memphis Belle approaches $4,500 an hour.

Flights and tours are being scheduled around the country. Memphis Belle’s last stopover was Mather Field in Sacramento; its next will be Felts Field in Spokane.

Simply saying “B-17” or “Flying Fortress” evokes thoughts of the skies over Europe filled with American bombers about to rain death and destruction down upon targets deep in the heart of Germany.

Actually seeing one of these mighty machines parked on the tarmac at Hillsboro Airport, facing directly forward, bristling with gun ports, proved mesmerizing. 

Stately in silence, dour in olive drab, the four-engine plane morphed into a hornet’s nest of activity as the pilot fired up each of its supercharged 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone radials, one by one.

A total of 12,761 B-17s were manufactured by Boeing, with the help of sub-contractors Douglas and Lockheed, between 1935 and 1945. And 4,735 of them, 37.2 percent, succumbed to enemy fire.

During those years, 15 different models emerged from the factories. They looked essentially the same, but featured numerous improvements over time, making the latest models truly formidable fortresses.

The Memphis Belle is one of 3,405 of the B-17F version. It was the main model used in 1943, when U.S. sorties met the stiffest resistance from the German Luftwaffe.

According to the foundation, fewer than 100 B-17 airframes remain in existence, and only 15 are still airworthy. That makes getting to go aloft in one of them all the more special.

Just remember to wear a warm coat, and to prepare yourself for the starkly utilitarian environment. The crew will provide earplugs, needed to offset the drone of 4,800 horsepower propelling 65,000 pounds of metal through the air at 287 miles an hour.

And that’s what I found out while UP and AWAY — having a high time, World War II style,

Karl Klooster can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 503-687-1227.

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