One of last remaining B-17 bombers lands in Columbia - WNEM TV 5

One of last remaining B-17 bombers lands in Columbia

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Seventy years ago in the throws of World War II, hundreds of B-17 bombers could be seen in the skies over Europe.

They were a big reason why the allies won the war, but these days, few can be found intact. On Monday, the only one of its kind touched down in Columbia.

As impressive as she is unique, the Memphis Belle is a flying museum.

"We want to keep it available so people can get a real appreciation for what our World War II airmen went through," said Keith Youngblood, one of the plane's handlers.

Leather jumpsuits protected the 10-man crews from -30 degree temperatures and a thin metal skin from the bullets and bombs exploding outside. Dubbed the Flying Fortress, its massive frame belies the space inside.

You really have to get onboard to see how small and cramped it is, just one factor of what was a very dangerous job. Especially in the war's early years, the planes were shot down in droves. The slow-moving bombers made easy targets.

"It wasn't uncommon for a squadron to go up of 12 planes, and maybe one or three come back," said Youngblood.

It's why Youngblood and the Liberty Foundation spend $3,000 an hour to keep the Belle in the air, flying alongside another aviator with the same mission.

"It's absolutely worth it," said Robert Dickson, the owner of a P-51 Mustang called the Swamp Fox. "Absolutely."

Dickson and his son fly and maintain the Swamp Fox. During the war, Mustangs kept smaller planes from attacking the B-17's, who couldn't let anything knock them off their bombing runs.

"They didn't falter, they didn't waver at all they just kept going," said Dickson.

And many didn't come back. The planes were known for being able to take a beating, but direct hits could send them tumbling out of control, carrying the crew with them.

"Centrifugal force basically pins you up inside the aircraft and so many of these guys just rode the plane down, which is pretty heartbreaking," said Youngblood.

Few B-17 crewmen remain to tell us their stories, but as long as the donations continue, planes like the Memphis Belle will keep flying, and keep teaching.

"Hopefully kids will get a chance to come out and see it, and get a better appreciation for what granddad or now great-granddad did, and hopefully they won't be forgotten," said Youngblood.

The Memphis Belle will be on display at Hamilton-Owens Airport beginning at noon on Saturday. Flights are available, but expensive, at $450 per person.

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