I had the BOK Center dead in my sights. My sweaty palms grasped the glazed wooden handles of a Ten Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun. All I could do was stare in amazement.
It was my incredible privilege to ride through the Tulsa skies in a World War II legend, a Boeing B-17 bomber known as the Memphis Belle.
A group called the Liberty Foundation brought it to the Tulsa International Airport this week in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Memphis Belle’s final mission.
They’re offering a 45-minute flight in the famous warplane for $450 on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetorium.
This is far more than a buzz around town; it’s history at its finest. It’s a chance for your imagination to meet reality.
Kim Jones is the deputy director and curator at the museum, where he has been working with these planes for 18 years. He has found that it doesn't take much to get people excited about history when it flies into town.
“People love this kind of history,” Jones said. “They just flock to these aircraft because they're fascinating.”
The bomber on display this weekend is the last flying aircraft of its kind, and one of 13 in existence. It's truly a real-life thrill on the wings of history.
The inside of this magnificent aircraft is as fascinating as the bullet-battered exterior. This model was designed to hold up to 8,000 pounds of ammunition and carried a 10-member crew: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, top turret gunner, two waist gunners, tail gunner, ball turret gunner and the radio operator.
During a mission, these planes were heavily armed and weighed about 65,500 lbs., earning the nickname the “Flying Fortress.”
But despite its impressive physical features, the most fascinating stories are those of the men who flew these planes.
Roger Goodson was a radio operator on the Memphis Belle in the mid-1940s. He spoke clearly and smiled as he recollected a completely different world.
“I graduated from high school in June of 1943,” Goodson said. “By the end of the summer, everybody I knew had gone into some branch of the military. Me, I was headed to the Air Force to be a pilot.”
Goodson didn't see a lot of combat, he joined the effort overseas sometime around 1944, and by that time his base in England wasn't buzzing too much.
“We were a replacement crew, they sent us in after another group had all been killed or sent home,” Goodson said. “I count it as a blessing. Even though I wasn't able to be a pilot, I'm still here now.”
Goodson stood on the runway with his wife by his side, cane in hand, admiring the plane that carried him through one of the most challenging times in American history. He and about a dozen other veterans made the trip Monday to see the plane fly and maybe take a ride if they felt able.
They were just boys during the war, yet what they accomplished has stood in the face of tyrants and evil governments for more than half a century, and it will continue to stand because of the troops who continue to sacrifice.
“Back then, the pilot was 20 or 21 years old. They called them the old men,” Jones, the curator, said. “Young folks always step up to the challenge; that's what makes America so great.”
The original Memphis Belle, after which the plane in Tulsa was fashioned, was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions. Those missions were successfully carried out by the 91st Bomb Group of the mighty 8th U. S. Army Air Corps, based in Bassingbourn, England, during the war.
The 91st participated in 340 operational missions and dropped 22,000 tons of bombs. All told, 1,010 combat crewmen were lost and 960 were held as prisoners of war.
Today, like the few remaining veterans who once filled its cabins, the Liberty Foundation’s Memphis Belle is all that remains of the once great fleets that patrolled foreign skies and defended freedom.
Although it has been long outpaced by more modern aviation and the advancements of war, the sight of this plane in the skies is as much a measure of freedom today as it was during its most dangerous missions.
Don’t miss the chance to see the Memphis Belle in all its former glory. Reservations can be made through the Liberty Foundation at www.libertyfoundation.org, or by calling (918) 340-0243.