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‘Memphis Belle’ on display at Felts Field

Tue., May 7, 2013, midnight

Spectators gather at Felts Field to get a look at the B-17 named “Memphis Belle” on Monday. (Kathy Plonka)
Spectators gather at Felts Field to get a look at the B-17 named “Memphis Belle” on Monday. (Kathy Plonka)

A restored Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is making Felts Field in east Spokane its base of operations this weekend for free viewing and paid flights.

The aircraft is named “Memphis Belle” after being used in a 1990 movie about the original Memphis Belle, a legendary World War II bomber that was the first Flying Fortress to complete 25 combat missions.

The aircraft flown to Spokane is a different plane but carries the original bomber’s configuration, complete with the pinup girl art outside the cockpit.

The plane arrived at Felts Field on Monday with its crew of six. It will be on display all week with $450 tour flights arranged for Saturday and Sunday.

Pilot Lou Radwanick said the plane’s current mission is to call attention to the history and bravery of the crew members who flew thousands of Flying Fortresses into battle during the war.

Just one look at the gunner’s turret in the belly and the machine gun emplacements in the nose, tail and top are enough to convince viewers of the tremendous courage it took to climb aboard one of these 17-ton bombers, which are surprisingly small aircraft compared with today’s jetliners.

“We’ve got to keep history alive,” Radwanick said.

Crew members “saved Western civilization from some pretty evil stuff,” he said of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies.

Boeing produced 12,732 of the bombers from 1935 to 1945. Of those, 4,735 were lost in combat, according to the plane’s crew.

The Flying Fortress brought to Spokane was built in 1944 and sold to a metals company after the war. It was converted to a water bomber for fire suppression in 1960. In 1982, it was purchased by the Military Aircraft Restoration Co., which was started by Dave Tallichet, a former B-17 war pilot.

His B-17G was converted to match the original Memphis Belle, a B-17F model. The Memphis Belle movie was filmed in England in 1989.

Radwanick described flying the aircraft this way: “Have you ever driven a dump truck without power steering?”

Retired airline pilot Larry Tobin, of Spokane, said crew members during the war flew at high altitude with oxygen masks and sheepskin suits to keep warm on missions that could take 14 to 16 hours. It flies at 300 mph at 30,000 feet.

“The guys froze, no doubt about it,” he said.

Its name comes from its 50-caliber machine gun armor.

Today, the aircraft is being leased by the Liberty Foundation, which said that its plane is one of only 13 Flying Fortresses that still operate today. The foundation, a nonprofit corporation, said it spends $1.5 million annually to maintain and operate the plane.

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