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An inside look at the Liberty Foundation’s restored “Madras Maiden”

HUNTSVILLE — The Liberty Foundation’s restored World War II-era B-17 bomber airplane, the “Madras Maiden,” touched down in Huntsville Sept. 16 for its first-ever visit to the Rocket City.

The Madras Maiden’s stop at the Huntsville International Airport’s Signature Flight Support was part of the Liberty Foundation’s 2018 Salute to Veterans tour, which included visits to other notable Alabama cities such as Birmingham and Montgomery.

Ray Fowler, director of flight operations at the Liberty Foundation, served as pilot, and Melisa Foures accompanied him as co-pilot.

The Madras Maiden is one of only 12 Boeing B-17’s to fly today. The Liberty Foundation restores military airplanes like the B-17 to honor veterans and provide the public with the “ultimate history lesson,” according to Scott Maher, public relations officer for the Liberty Foundation. This includes tours and flights over hosting cities that are open to the public. Ground tours are free, but a flight will cost passengers about $450.

“The main purpose is obviously to honor veterans, but our number one goal is to keep the B-17 flying,” Fowler said. “We only do that with the people that take the flights or make donations to the Liberty Foundation.”

Without the public’s support, Maher said the B-17 would likely be permanently silenced to sit in a museum.

The entire flight experience lasts about 45 minutes, with half an hour dedicated to the aircraft being in flight. Before boarding the small airplane, passengers receive a safety briefing and a quick history lesson on the B-17 and its wartime use.

With 13 .50 caliber machine guns and a  The Boeing B-17 bomber aircraft was dubbed the “Flying Fortress” for its defensive firepower. It entered production during the mid-1930s and was mostly used in Europe by the United States’ Eighth Air Force. Fowler said the Liberty Foundation’s public flights and tours draw many veterans who enjoy seeing a piece of their military memories.

“They’re reunited with the airplane, and they’re 19 again just for a few seconds, which is pretty amazing to be part of that—to get them reunited with their airplane,” Fowler said.

A small airplane, the B-17 had an equally small crew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer, ball turret gunner, tail gunner and two waist gunners. The ball turret was statistically the safest part of the plane. In contrast, Fowler said the tail gunner was the worst position to be in, as it was the most vulnerable. The father of Liberty Foundation Founder Don Brooks was a tail gunner in a B-17, which Fowler said is the reason the foundation focuses heavily on the B-17.

In addition to machine guns, the B-17 often carried a bomb load of about 4,000 pounds for long missions, but it could carry up to 8,000 pounds for shorter missions at lower heights, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Several of these planes would fly together in formation.

Of the 12,732 B-17’s produced between 1935-1945, 4,735 were lost in combat. The Memphis Belle, a World War II B-17 featured in a 1990 movie of the same name, was the first of its kind to complete 25 missions, an amazing feat early in the war.

According to Fowler, two out of three bombers would be shot down on any given mission at that time. Oftentimes the B-17s could not reach their target, so they easily became vulnerable to the German warfighters.

“Every time one of these airplanes went down, there was a crew of 10 on board, so it’s pretty staggering to think about,” Fowler said.

With four engines, however, the B-17 could withstand a few hits before failing. This also makes the B-17 an “incredibly safe” plane to fly in today.

Fowler said the B-17 is an unpressurized airplane, and though today’s public flights stay much closer to the ground, warfighters would often be flying at 30,000 feet and higher, under freezing temperatures, needing extra oxygen to breathe well.

“It’s amazing what they did for our freedom,” Fowler remarked.

The Liberty Foundation’s Madras Maiden was built toward the end of the war and “never saw any combat.” It was built under contract in Burbank, California, by Lockheed-Vega on October 17, 1944. From the time it was built until the end of its military career in 1959, it was used as a research and development aircraft. Since then, it has passed through the hands of various companies for different purposes and been purchased by three different aviation museums before being restored to its original combat configuration.

The Madras Maiden was painted in the colors of the 381st bomb group of the Eighth Air Force. According to a press release from the Liberty Foundation, this bomb group dropped about 22,000 pounds of bombs over the course of 297 missions during the war. During this time they also shot down 223 enemy aircrafts, well over their total loss of 131 B-17s.

In addition to the Madras Maiden, Fowler said the Liberty Foundation is currently working to restore two more B-17s in south Georgia that they hope to begin flying in the next three to five years. Other planes that have been around the country on tours for the Liberty Foundation include the B-17 “Liberty Belle” and the P-40 “Warhawk.” Next year, they will be adding a P-51 Mustang fighter plane to the tour, as well as taking a C-47 jump airplane overseas for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“Whether they’re involved in aviation or not, people love the B-17 and what it did for us and our freedom,” Fowler said. “Just to come out and get involved with our foundation and to take a flight—it’s an amazing experience. It’s kind of one of those bucket list things. If you’ve never done it, you’ve got to come fly in a B-17.”

Fowler said the 2018 tour will wrap up in November, and the Liberty Foundation takes time during the winter months to maintain the aircraft. The next tour will begin around March.

For more information on the Liberty Foundation and its mission, visit libertyfoundation.org.

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