Historic B-17 lands in Pittsburgh

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After waking at 3 a.m., Stanley Lantz and other members of the 452nd Bomb Group in England would clamber into the back of a B-17 called “Lady Be Good” and wait to hear about their next mission, hoping for somewhere other than Berlin.

Snow or sleet, in 1944 this was their daily routine.

On Monday, as rain pounded the tarmac at the Allegheny County Airport, World War II veteran Mr. Lantz, 89, huddled under the wing of an airplane similar to the one he got to know as a green 18-year-old and reminisced about his time across the pond.

To honor the service of men such as Mr. Lantz and ensure WWII is not forgotten, the Liberty Foundation is taking a B-17 used in the 1990 movie “Memphis Belle” across the country, visiting 47 cities this year as part of a “Salute to Veterans” tour.

The plane will be at the airport this weekend, offering 30-minute flights to the public at $450 per person. And free ground tours of the airplane will begin at 3 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday afternoon.

History and mystique surround the “Memphis Belle” — famous for being the first bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe. The model plane is one of only 10 B-17s still flying, as most were scrapped after the war.

The original is housed in the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, but the one visiting Pittsburgh never saw combat. It was built near the end of the war and used to transport staff, then in aerial firefighting before being renovated for use in the film.

Volunteer crew member Keith Youngblood said the B-17 was “incredibly tough,” and brought home a lot of men when other planes failed. Built like a tank and dubbed the “Flying Fortress,” the plane drew strength from its mid-wing design, he said. The plane’s four radial engines, delivering 1,200 horsepower apiece, give it a unique rumble, and its silhouette often draws curious onlookers, Mr. Youngblood said.

Lou Radwanick, a volunteer pilot from Virginia Beach, Va., said that although flying a B-17 is spectacular, the real pleasure comes from meeting WWII veterans.

“They saved Western civilization,” he said. “That’s not a stretch.”

As a staff sergeant in the Army Air Forces, Mr. Lantz, who lives in Butler, said he saw less gore than infantrymen. Still, he recalled watching men trapped in ball turrets drop to their deaths like bombs, awake as they fell 30,000 feet through blazing skies.

“This weather is nothing,” Mr. Lantz said as he peered out a window of the B-17 at a drizzling sky. “There were times you couldn’t see anything.”

At the end of one particularly harrowing mission, he recalled, his crew was searching for its landing field through thick haze, flying low, when three B-24 planes appeared out of nowhere, directly in their line of flight. The B-17 shot up, shaking as it started to stall, just narrowly avoiding the three oncoming planes.

Through that night and others, the B-17 stuck it out, sturdy and resilient: “Any other plane probably would have come apart, but this little baby took it.”

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. On Twitter: @mcfeeters.

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