WSB photojournalist Christopher Boffoli took an amazing flight today and is sharing that video as well as photos and a story – he says you might have heard the rumbling since the plane was flying over this area too:
Photos and story by Christopher Boffoli
The large vintage plane you might see over the skies of West Seattle this weekend is a newly restored World War II era B-17 “Flying Fortress” named the Liberty Belle. The bomber will be making flights through the weekend from Boeing Field and can be seen up close behind the Museum of Flight.
These Boeing-designed planes were best known for their bombing runs from England to Germany throughout the War and were famous for their ability to withstand damage from both enemy fighters and from flak guns on the ground and yet continue to fly. Still, the bombing runs were incredibly dangerous. Of the 12,731 B-17s built, exactly 8,007 were lost in combat and almost 25,000 airmen died.
Casualty figures were extremely high during the first few years of the War, until the Allies eventually were able to design longer-range fighter escorts to protect the planes from the Luftwaffe. By studying B-17s that crash-landed, the Germans were able to learn how to exploit the weaknesses of the aircraft. But the sheer number of successful bombing missions by Flying Fortresses had a devastating effect on the German war machine.
The crews of the B-17s were able to defend themselves with .50 caliber machine guns mounted at several positions on the aircraft, including a tail gunner and a man in a turret on the belly of the fuselage. The planes were not pressurized and the long flights could be very loud and cold. The airmen wore electric flight suits to keep warm in temperature that could reach 50 below. Some crew members were killed when their oxygen tanks froze at high elevation. The name Flying Fortress was apparently coined by a Seattle Times reporter in the early 40’s. The moniker caught on and Boeing eventually copyrighted it.
The B-17 in town this weekend, the Liberty Belle, was built in 1945 in Burbank, California under contract by the Vega Aircraft Corporation, a part of Lockheed. Because it was completed at the end of the War, this B-17 never saw combat. It was initially sold for scrap but was rescued by a collector who then sold it to engine maker Pratt & Whitney which used it for many years to test engines. It was eventually sold to private collectors, changing hands a number of times over the years. While on display at an air museum in the 1970’s it was damaged by a tornado. The current owner spent more than $5 million meticulously restoring the B-17 to flight condition. Fewer than a dozen B-17s are still airworthy.
Much of the aircraft is in original condition, through some modern avionics and navigation equipment has been added. The Liberty Belle was actually flown to England last year, following the same route and landing at the airfields used by the B-17’s during the War.
The story of Christopher’s flight, ahead:
My flight was the first of the day, scheduled for 9:45 am. I checked in at Boeing Field at around 9:15 am for a pre-flight briefing and to complete a stack of paperwork (including liability waivers from the B-17’s owners, Boeing Field and the Museum of Flight). We boarded the plane around 10 am through a small door in the tail section.
As you enter the plane, there is a small passage to your immediate left which leads back to the tail gunner compartment. But that area is closed off to passengers as it is tight back there and you would tend to get bumped around a good bit in the tail when the plane is aloft. Climbing forward from the doorway there is a fairly large cabin with bench seats along either side of the fuselage. Large windows on both sides of the aircraft with gun mounts provided a wide field of view for gunners to defend attacks to the sides. .50 caliber machine guns fired ribbons of large bullets. Apparently the ammunition belts came in 9 yard (27 foot) lengths and is the source of the expression “the whole nine yards.” As you continue to walk forward you have to walk around the hatch for the ball turret in the floor. A belly gunner would climb into this turret which would had a wide field of articulation and could defend the bomber from attacks from below.
The next cabin was where the radio operator would work. It also had a few forward facing seats. From there a bulkhead wall separated the radio operator from the bomb bay where the plane’s bomb payload would be stored. The entire lower portion of this area would swing open when it was time to release the bombs. Demilitarized ordnance is mounted in the Liberty Belle to represent how the bomb bay would have looked during wartime. A narrow gantry (about seven inches wide) provides a footpath through the bomb bay, from the radio operator’s cabin up front to the cockpit.
The cockpit is quite spacious. The pilot and first officer sit way up high on a forward platform. A step below them are two rear-facing jumpseats. Above those jumpseats is another gun turret with forward- mounted machine guns providing an excellent view forward over the front of the aircraft. Much of the control panel is vintage, though it is obvious that a few instruments have been updated and dual Garmin GPS units exist in place of an old central radio navigation panel.
Directly below the flight deck a small passageway leads down to the navigator and bombardier’s compartment. A large plexiglass nose cone provides an excellent field of view with optical and ranging equipment mounted at the very front. In wartime, as the B-17 approached its target the bombardier would take his seat in this position under the flight deck and the actual control of the aircraft would be diverted to his sighting so that he could direct the aircraft to the target in the last few minutes of the bombing run. He would look through the optical sights and would use sliderules on his instruments, taking into account speed and wind direction, to calculate the precise drop point.
(that’s Bellevue in the sights)
Once we were strapped in to our seats the pilots fired up the big Pratt & Whitney engines. The whole plane shook and vibrated. We put in our earplugs. As our flight was the first of the day we had to wait a while as the pilots gingerly cycled the four engines to warm them up. Then we taxied to the northern end of the runway at Boeing Field and took off to the south. The takeoff was among the smoothest I have ever experienced in any plane. In fact, as there was no window beside my jumpseat in the cockpit, I didn’t even know we were aloft until our crew chief gave us the thumbs up to unbuckle and get out of our seats. The Liberty Belle felt rock solid. We were in a gentle climb for several thousand feet before banking to the east, just north of the Renton airport at the southern end of Lake Washington. Once we were aloft, the eight passengers on my flight were free to roam around inside the aircraft and poke around.
Unlike modern airliners that are pressurized for the comfort of passengers, the Liberty Belle was not. That made for a very drafty cabin. Cabin pressurization was in its infancy in the early 1940‘s and all of the B-17’s open gun turrets would have made it nearly impossible to seal the aircraft from the outside. Besides, enemy bullets and shrapnel from flak guns could have pierced the fuselage and depressurized the plane anyway. A lack of pressurization meant that our flight around Seattle was well-below 10,000 feet with a temperature and oxygen level that was comfortable. But air crews during the War routinely flew at very high altitudes enduring dangerously thin air and extreme cold.
As we looped back around to the north, I shimmied down the passageway to the navigator’s compartment. We were just passing over the suburbs of Bellevue when I climbed into the bombardier’s seat and looked through the optical sights. I watched rows of houses pass under the crosshairs on the gun sights and imagined what it must have looked like to see the railroads and factories of Dresden, Kiel, and Hamburg through that scope, followed by the motors of the bomb bay doors opening and the whistling of 300 pound ordinance as it fell on the targets below.
We flew up over the University District, and turned out to the west and then to the South over Ballard, Queen Anne and Elliott Bay. As the city passed to our port side I looked out over the starboard engines and saw Seacrest and West Seattle below. Then we lined up with the approach pattern of Boeing Field and began our descent. A bell rang to warn everyone to get back to their seats for landing. We all scurried to our seats and strapped in. Moments later the B-17 glided gently onto the end of the runway almost as gracefully as she had lifted off. We all clambered out of the Liberty Belle and stepped out onto the tarmac with lingering regret. I could feel myself smiling and I was filled with a sense of wonder as I saw the plane again from the outside. Our grandparents really knew how to build great airplanes.