Madras Maiden finally returns
For the last stretch of the Madras Maiden's voyage around the country, from Reno, Nevada, to Madras on Sunday afternoon, the pilot and crew braced for below freezing temperatures in the cockpit of the B-17 bomber.
"It was about 30 (degrees) inside today," said Scott Maher, director of operations for the Liberty Foundation, based in Claremore, Oklahoma, the nonprofit which conducted the tour. "We had to go up to 9,500 feet to get over terrain."
The Madras Maiden had been on tour with the Liberty Foundation since February, and was scheduled to return to Madras Monday morning, Nov. 13, but had to make the flight a day earlier, due to the windy conditions forecast for Monday.
Since there is no pressurization in the cabin, and no heat, pilots keep the aircraft below 10,000 feet in altitude.
The pilot and crew prepared for the flight by dressing warmly. "We layer up, with ear muffs and blankets," said Maher, adding that flying the drafty plane is "like flying a pop can with engines."
"During summer and the rest of the year, we're flying in shorts and golf shirts," he said.
The pilot for the flight, Jim Lawrence, spent 39 years in the military flying single-seat fighters for the Marines, Navy and Air Force, in four wars — Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and is a retired Delta pilot.
He and John Hess, a current Delta pilot, were among the pilots who flew the aircraft for the Liberty Foundation's 2017 Salute to Veterans Tour, which took in at least 42 cities, including those up and down the East Coast. The aircraft was on loan from the Erickson Aircraft Collection in Madras.
"John and I flew to Cleveland, Ohio, San Antonio, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona," said Lawrence, mentioning a few of the most recent stops.
Maher, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, said that every weekend since the tour began, he and the volunteers gave about 150 people rides on the plane. The rides cost $450 for nonmembers and $410 for foundation members. On Mondays, they would fly the Madras Maiden to the next city and leave it there, return to their homes, and fly back to the city for the next weekend's rides.
"This airplane costs about $5,000 an hour to fly," said Maher, noting that a crew of six or seven ensures that tires, brakes, and engine reserves are ready for the flights.
The tour has given people around the country an opportunity to see one of the nine operational B-17s in the country, reminding visitors of the aircraft's history during World War II, as the most prolific bomber used by U.S. forces. The "Flying Fortress," as the aircraft was dubbed in 1935, by a writer from the Seattle Times, was also legendary for its durability, which enabled the aircraft to withstand significant damage, and still make it back to the base.
From 1935 through the end of the war in 1945, a total of 12,731 B-17 bombers were built — most by Boeing, which had designed and built the four-engine bomber, but toward the end of the war, in partnership with Douglas and Lockheed-Vega. The Madras Maiden was built by Lockheed-Vega, and turned over to the U.S. Air Force on Oct. 17, 1944.
Along with eight other airworthy B-17s, the Madras Maiden never saw combat. It was used for weather research and test programs until it was surplussed and sold in 1959. Over the next 54 years, the aircraft changed hands several times, and was used for transporting cargo, spraying for fire ants, and then flying in air shows.
In 2013, Jack Erickson purchased the plane for the Erickson Aircraft Collection.
"Restored to her combat configuration and painted in the colors of the 381st Bomb Group, and sporting the Madras Maiden nose-art, N3701G flies today to honor our veterans, educate current and future generations as to the high price of freedom and to preserve our aviation heritage," the Liberty Foundation's website noted.
"For most people, it's our hands-on history," said Maher. "It's our heritage — not in moth balls or the pages of a dusty book. People walk away from the airplane with a lot more respect for what these guys did."