Those who thought they spotted a World War II-era bomber over the skies of Savannah early Monday afternoon weren’t imagining things.
“The Movie” Memphis Belle, one of only 13 B-17 Flying Fortresses still flying, took wing over the Coastal Empire on Monday, giving area media a preview of what’s set to take place this weekend in Savannah when flights will be available to the public.
Though it’s not inexpensive to take a ride in the bomber, organizers from The Liberty Foundation say the $450-per-person price tag for a 30-minute flight is a bargain considering both the historic value and cost to keep the B-17 in the air — $4,500 per flight hour and more than $1.5 million a year.
Besides, once the B-17 is airborne, passengers are allowed to explore its various combat crew positions to get an up-close look at what it was like to be in a World War II bomber while it’s in the air.
“It’s a slice of history you just don’t get anywhere else,” said Dave Lyon, one of two Liberty Foundation pilots who will fly the B-17 in Savannah. “There are only 12 (others) of these still flying, and only three fly on a regular basis.”
In its heyday, the B-17 was possibly the most famous bomber in existence.
There were 12,732 B-17s built between 1935 and 1945 and the aircraft saw action in every theater of the war, though the Liberty Foundation notes most were flown in Europe by pilots with Savannah’s Mighty Eighth Air Force.
It wasn’t for the faint of heart. Of the more than 12,000 B-17s built, 4,735 were lost in combat.
The original Memphis Belle no longer flies — it was retired to sell war bonds after it and its crew were first to log 25 missions and is now in the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Museum.
Its namesake in Savannah this weekend is still going strong despite rolling off the assembly line on April 2, 1945.
“This plane stayed in military service until 1959,” Lyon said. “It saw combat in Korea, it was used as both a crew and cargo transport and at one point a general used it as a personal transport in Japan.”
Other B-17s saw action in Israel in 1948 and some were used in Vietnam.
After its military service, the Liberty Foundation’s B-17, was sold for $2,687 to an Arizona company, which sold it in turn to California-based Fast Way Air.
The plane spent time as a water tanker until the late 1970s, and then in 1982 was sold to the Military Aircraft Restoration Company, a company founded by David Tallichet, a wartime B-17 pilot.
After the plane was restored to wartime configuration, in 1989 it was hired for use in the movie “Memphis Belle.” Though the film took some Hollywood liberties with reality it “is still a good representation of what these guys saw in combat,” according to Liberty Foundation chief pilot Ray Fowler.
He noted the cost of the ride isn’t something everyone can afford, but those who want to tour the plane can do so for free — though donations are always welcome.
And public interest is paramount to keeping the “Movie” Memphis Belle going.
“As soon as this is not newsworthy, we’re going to have to park this plane in a museum.” Fowler told reporters Monday.
By keeping the plane flying and allowing the public to experience World War II history in a personal way, The Liberty Foundation is able to help keep the memory of the generation who fought it from fading into obscurity.
“The main thrust of what we do is take this around the country as a living memorial, especially for those veterans who fought for our freedoms in World War II,” Lyon said, adding it’s not only a living history lesson for those whose grandfathers may have flown in a bomber in World War II, but also “a kind of catharsis for a lot of veterans.
“They were known as the silent generation because they didn’t talk a lot about what they did, but this brings out a lot of memories for them.”
Among the veterans who flew with reporters Monday was Ron Lauretti, a Marine who served in the Korean War and who now writes about veterans for the Skidaway Island-based magazine, “The Skinnie.”
He said the B-17 recalls a different era in the country’s history.
“It represents when the United States was at its very best. It represents World War II when everybody was united for the cause,” he said. “It’s also belated recognition because there aren’t many of the (B-17 crewmembers) left.”
As the plane took off from the runway and gained altitude, Lauretti smiled.
“It means nostalgia,” he said. “It means history. It’s also an opportunity for young people who don’t know anything to get a little taste of what war was like for these men.”
And it’s apparently also a novel experience for the former Marine.
“I was infantry,” he said. “I was always in a hole in the ground. This is going to be interesting.”