B-17 And Former Airman Fly Again

B-17 Flying Fortress

Bob Heller knows his bombers.

On 59 missions during World War II, Heller took and delivered fire over Italy, France, and Germany as a radio gunner on a B-26, the twin-engine planes that hit precision targets across the continent.

But he doesn't know the B-17 Flying Fortress.

"That's a beautiful ship," he said, staring at the B-17 across the runway at Northeast Philadelphia Airport for the first time Monday.

"That's a beautiful ship," he repeated as he drew closer.

Heller circled Philadelphia in the B-17 bomber made famous and used in the 1990 film Memphis Belle as part of a preview of public flights to be offered this weekend. Flights last 30 minutes and are $450 a ride, but ground tours are free.

The B-17 on display, which was built at the end of World War II and did not see combat, is one of 13 B-17s still flying. The original Memphis Belle is being restored at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

With 13 .50-caliber machine guns and able to carry a 9,600-pound bomb load, the original Memphis Belle was the first B-17 to fly 25 combat missions without losing any of its 10 crew members.

Heller had never flown in a B-17, but he still knew a lot about the imposing aircraft with a 103-foot, 10-inch wingspan.

"I've seen it in the air. I've seen the damage it's done," he said before takeoff.

Some of the Northeast Philadelphia resident's family rearranged their work schedules to watch him take to the skies once again. He doesn't like to talk much about his service, but he wanted them to be there.

It did not take long after takeoff for the 90-year-old Heller to leap out of his seat and explore the iconic bomber like a giddy child, paying no mind to the roar in the aircraft and pervasive smell of fuel.

Soon after the wrench and rumble of four 1,200-horsepower engines were blown away by loud crosswinds, the veteran made his move. Crawling through the tight corridor beneath the cockpit, Heller emerged in the bomber's nose and took a seat in the front-gunner position.

Philadelphia, his city, sat in front of him. In his World War II veteran cap and a shirt that reads "Freedom is not free," Heller took in the skyline.

Then it was back through the bomb bay to the radio room, where his wife of 65 years, Jean, a onetime cadet nurse he met on a blind date after the war, sat locked securely into her seat belt. Armed with a disposable camera, she stared at a fading black-and-white photo of the crew in front of the original Memphis Belle.

Her husband is not one of those men in the photo, but this flight -- Jean's first in a heavy bomber -- is the closest she'll ever come to appreciating her husband's wartime service, she said.

As Heller entered the plane's waist, the 32,000-pound warbird dipped a wing to turn. Standing passengers grasped for balance as the turn and winds jerked them toward the craft's unpadded metal sides.

Heller is fine. He's at home, manning the .50-caliber guns just like he did over enemy terrain more than 60 years ago.

His clutch on the gun was firm as he steadily swiveled it back-and-forth across the hatch.

He's in his position. He smiles.

"It brought back memories from when he was flying in the war," his wife said.

Exhausted, the veteran moved gingerly to his seat. The trip over, the relic landed calmly but with a thud, just like any modern jetliner would, and Liberty Foundation crew helped empty it to create room for a second group of passengers.

Heller stayed in his seat. He was going again.

Contact Theodore Schleifer at 215-854-5607, tschleifer@philly.com, or follow @teddyschleifer on Twitter.

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