World War II bomber will take to the skies over Washington County this weekend
It's been more than 70 years since Don Anderson last flew over the European countryside, tucked into a small seat in the back of a Boeing B-17 bomber, his hands clasped around a large machine gun.
But standing on the tarmac of the Hillsboro Airport Tuesday afternoon, Anderson, now 91, looked up at the giant silver behemoth in front of him and said it seemed like yesterday.
"You can really feel the turbulence in the back where I was stationed," said Anderson, pointing to the tail end of the heavy bomber as it idled its engines on the runway. "But we had hundreds and hundreds of hours in the plane, so we all were pretty much used to it."
Anderson flew 22 missions over Europe, including the bombing of Berlin, Germany, on Feb. 3, 1945.
"There were hundreds and hundreds of bombers in the air that day," Anderson recalled.
For Anderson, Tuesday was a chance to remember some of the missions he undertook — but this weekend the Hillsboro Airport will be turned into a living history museum of sorts.
The Liberty Foundation, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit, will be offering flights in the B-17 bomber to the public. The plane will be on display at Aero Air, 2050 N.E. 25th Ave., with flights between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. March 4 and 5.
Hillsboro is the first stop in the organization's "Salute to Veterans" tour. On Tuesday, Anderson made the drive to Hillsboro from his home in King City, joined by a half-dozen other World War II veterans for a special flight inside the bomber — dubbed the "Madras Maiden" — to thank veterans for their service.
"Now you have to have seatbelts, but we didn't when we were flying," said veteran Jim Ludmeyer, examining the plane. "When I was 18, I could run back and forth from one end of the plane to the other. Times have changed."
Since it launched in 2004, the Liberty Foundation has worked to take passengers up in the air in historic World War II-era heavy bombers in order to spread the message of the role B-17s and American airmen played in winning the war.
"It brings back a lot of memories, this old airplane," WWII veteran and B-17 tail gunner Phil Azure said. "We flew over Germany, flew over there 35 times and we flew in formations. We shot at a few German airplanes and we got shot up several times."
Azure once crash landed in Belgium, but he still made it home.
"That was a very dependable airplane," he said.
Ultimate history lesson
The Boeing B-17 is one of the most iconic planes to fly during the Second World War. Known as the Flying Fortress, the planes flew bombing raids and other missions for decades, serving in World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The Hillsboro Airport is a regular stop on Liberty Foundation's national tours. The organization last held flights in the area in 2014.
Liberty Foundation spokesman Scott Maher calls this weekend's flights "the ultimate history lesson."
"(It's) a living museum," he said. "Our heritage not in mothballs or the pages of a dusty book, but real life, three dimensions, here and now."
That sentiment was shared by Ludmeyer, who flew as a flight engineer for B-24 bombers during WWII.
"Seeing it brings back so many memories of what happened 70 years ago," he said. "It's amazing to see these planes still flying. I don't think we're going to be seeing any more of them in the air in the next few years."
More than 12,000 B-17s were built between 1935 and 1945, according to the foundation, but today only a dozen are still able to fly.
Likewise, the number of living WWII veterans is dwindling. "There's not many of us left," Anderson said.
A 45-minute flight will cost passengers $410 for Liberty Foundation members, and $450 for non-members.
Maher said that although the price tag is high, it's necessary to keep the plane in the air and spread the history lesson to as many people as possible.
"While the cost to take a flight sounds expensive, it must be put into perspective when compared to the B-17's operating cost — more than $5,000 per flight hour," he said.
Maher said it costs about $1.5 million a year to the keep the flying fortress in the air.
"We don't keep it flying, it's the people who keep it flying," said Liberty Foundation pilot Ray Fowler. "As soon people stop coming, we'll have to park these airplanes ... We do everything we can to keep this flying and keep it out of the museums."
Maher said that the flights offer visitors the chance to take a step back in time.
"Seventy-two years ago these aircraft flew from bases far from home in an attempt to bring freedom to oppressed people," Maher said. "Our B-17's mission for today is to educate the people of America about the courageous WWII veterans and remember those brave aircrew who never made it home."
As a veteran, Anderson said people often thank him for his service to the country. He said he'd like that expression of thanks to resonate with Americans, who are divided in a stark political climate.
"In the world today there is so much hate," Anderson said. "But we can still see this love, too. People are so appreciative. We're just grateful that we lived and got through it."
Get on board
What: WWII B-17 bomber flights
Where: Aero Air, 2050 N.E. 25th Ave., Hillsboro
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, March 4 and Sunday, March 5
How much: $410 to $450 for a 45-minute flight
By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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The Tribune's news partner KOIN 6 News contributed to this report