It’s a stuffy summer’s day at the Elkhart Municipal Airport. The only shade available is under the wing of a massive Boeing B-17 that’s just landed on the tarmac. John Shuttleworth is a volunteer pilot with the Liberty Foundation in Oklahoma, which flies the plane around the country, giving access to hundreds of aircraft aficionados, or anyone interested in any way with the Second World War. The multi-engine B-17 is part of the Foundation’s 2018 Salute to Veterans Tour.
Shuttleworth says the plane usually makes stops in larger cities, but the Elkhart Municipal Airport is perfect for their weekend event.
“It was made in a different time when there weren’t all these engineering compromises to try to shave every little ounce of the airplane,” he said, “So the airplane’s built like a tank.
The mission of the Liberty Foundation is to keep historic planes in the air, a mission Shuttleworth believes in.
“When they go into museums and they stop flying and they don’t make the noise and they don’t rumble, and people can’t see them fly, we really do lose a piece of our history,” he said.
But keeping these planes in the air isn’t cheap. According to Shuttleworth it costs up to five thousand dollars an hour to keep a B-17 in the air. To create revenue, they offer rides to the public. Rides on this particular aircraft, named The Madras Maiden, after Madras, Oregon, where it’s kept, run close to 500 dollars per person. For some, that’s a small price to pay for a firsthand look at history.
The B-17, known as the “Flying Fortress”, was popular during World War II, because of its defense systems, including machine guns on the nose and sides. Shuttleworth says the plane was also relatively safe, because of corrugated steel under the planes exterior. He says this acted like an exoskeleton of sorts, so the plane could take some serious damage.
B-17s carried massive payloads as well, mostly bombs deep into enemy territory. The Madras Maiden wasn’t used to run wartime missions, but it’s served many roles; from being used for radar mapping to spraying fire ants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A few residents showed up at the airport to get a look at the plane, and to snap photos. David Slack and his 15-year-old, Brady, from White Pigeon, Michigan, were at work when they heard a distinct airplane engine. Brady says they dropped everything at once and ran to the airport.
“It’s something special for me, because it’s my first B-17 that I’ve seen,” Brady said.
Brady’s dad, David, says they’ve seen the B-17 at the Air Force Museum in Ohio, but it’s been a while since he’s seen one fly. He likes these planes because they feel personal.
“This was blood and sweat and tears, it took ten men to fly this plane and do all the assignments that they had. If one gets shut down, there’s ten people that are gone,” David said.
David says whenever he sees a B-17, he can’t help but think of all the risks and sacrifices the men who flew the planes had to take.
Shuttleworth says there’s only a few Flying Fortresses in any condition to fly, let alone, tour. The Madras Maiden will fly until the second week of October, visiting different cities around the country.
The Liberty Foundation will be offering both public flights and ground tours of the historic plane this Saturday and Sunday, July 7 and 8, at the Elkhart Airport. For more information, regarding times and cost, please visit www.libertyfoundation.org.