In the shadow of the B-17’s wing, Robert Lowry stood with his 4-year-old son and marveled at how easy it would have been to have died in this plane dubbed the Flying Fortress.
Through the craft’s small belly, he had walked, stooped, tapping its thin aluminum skin.
“To think about how frail you could be,” Lowry said. “To be shooting at someone and have someone shooting back and you couldn’t get away.”
In combat, there was no place to hide on a B-17.
Thousands of the planes flew bombing missions during World War II. But 52 years after war’s end, only 12 of the 11,000-plane fleet still are flying.
One of them, the Nine-0-Nine, is on display at Spokane Airways on the east side of Spokane International Airport. Also open to the public is its even rarer counterpart, a B-24 Liberator.
Owned by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass., the airplanes are on a 150-city tour. Tour money helps pay the bills for restoring the planes - $1.3 million for the Liberator alone.
The planes are flown around the states by volunteers, said Stuart Smith, who flies 747s for Northwest Airlines when he’s not behind the controls of the B-17.
“One of the biggest perks is the people who come to see these planes,” Smith said.
Old pilots, gunners and bombardiers visit the war birds and crawl into memory’s cockpit.
On Monday, Ryan and Christopher Foster, ages 8 and 11, toured the B-17 with their grandfather, who didn’t want anyone calling him a hero and so wouldn’t give his name.
But near the end of WWII, he flew B-17s from Italy. He was 24 at the time and was called “Dad” by his crew, who ranged in age from 17 to 20.
Christopher and Ryan just called him “Grandpa” and questioned him over and over about the black control panels and olive-drab compartments.
He told about frost forming on the walls of the plane at 30,000 feet, about wearing electrically warmed flight suits that would short out in the seat.
He told about having to get more pilots and crew for a mission after terrible losses the day before.
The B-17 on display is not the original Nine-0-Nine, only its namesake. The original plane was cut into scrap at Kingman, Ariz., after having flown 140 missions without losing a crew member.
During the war, Nine-0-Nine had 21 engine changes and 15 main gas tanks replaced. When it came back to the states, its skin had been pierced by shrapnel and bullets 600 times.
The Nine-0-Nine double on display was actually built too late for combat, but led an equally interesting life. After working as part of the 1st Air-Sea Rescue Squadron and in the Military Air Transport Service, the plane was exposed to three nuclear blasts in 1952.
For 13 years it cooled from its radioactive encounter and was then sold as part of an 800-ton scrap pile. The plane was restored and used for 20 years as a forest fire bomber in the western U.S.
In 1986, the Collings Foundation bought the plane and restored it to a military configuration.
But for Rick Neet, the wonder of this Flying Fortress wasn’t in the history of its restoration so much as the fact that his uncle, Jess Thompson, flew one in WWII.
“I don’t think younger generations realize what the men who flew these planes went through,” Neet said. “They sacrificed for all of us.”
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