In a world of illuminated seat-belt signs, narrow seats and packed cabins on commercial jetliners, flying in a restored World War II B-17 bomber allows passengers to stick their heads out of the top of a plane and realize the wonder of flight.
In the air, riders can peer out of the open top hatch, look through gun sights and climb down into the see-through nose of the plane.
"It's living history," said David Lyon, a pilot of the B-17 for the nonprofit Liberty Foundation, which brought a restored B-17 to Pittsburgh this week. "We're trying to keep the history alive of what people call the greatest generation."
The B-17 was the workhorse of the Allied effort to destroy German military targets during World War II. More than 12,000 were produced between 1935 and 1945. There are now only a dozen that are still airworthy.
The one visiting Pittsburgh was built at the end of the war in 1945 and never saw combat. After a career dropping water on forest fires in the '60s and '70s, the plane was restored and used in the production of the film "Memphis Belle" in 1989.
It still bears the paint scheme of the original "Memphis Belle," which was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions and keep its entire crew alive. The original is now undergoing restoration by the Air Force.
The plane went up for a quick circle on Monday, and several local residents, struck by a World War II bomber passing overhead, drove to the Allegheny County Airport to check it out.
Joe Patrick, 45, who lives just past the end of the runway in West Mifflin, said he was sitting in his living room with his son Joey when he heard its distinctive rumble.
"I think it's just the best-looking plane," Mr. Patrick said. "There's nothing like seeing them take off and land."
George Cahill, 86, of Mt. Lebanon, who was a bombardier on a B-17 during the war, climbed into his old post in the nose of the plane after the flight Monday.
"I figured I might never be in the nose of a B-17 again," he said.
He particularly remembers the flight back from one mission where one of the four engines failed leaving the target, another failed over the coast of France, one failed over the white cliffs of Dover and the last one failed on approach to the base in Wales.
"It was scary," he said. "But being scared was not an unusual occurrence on those things at that time."
Mr. Lyon says flying the B-17 is not entirely different from his other job flying Boeing 777s for Delta Air Lines.
"The controls operate the same way they do on any aircraft," he said. But because the controls are not aided by hydraulics as they are on modern planes, he said, "it takes a lot of muscle to fly it."
Half-hour flights on the B-17 will be available Saturday and Sunday beginning at 10 a.m. at Allegheny County Airport. They cost $450 per person. Free ground tours will be available in the afternoons until 5 p.m.
The Liberty Foundation says that while the cost is high, the cost of flying the plane is even higher. The plane burns 200 gallons of gas per hour, which costs about $1,400.
A P-40 fighter plane is under maintenance but might be available this weekend as well.
Travelers looking out the windows of commercial airports are accustomed to planes speeding down the runway and being specks in the distance in a matter of seconds. But the B-17 lumbers more than soars. It takes 37 minutes to climb to 20,000 feet and cruises at 170 mph.
The B-17 was known as the "Flying Fortress" because of its many machine guns, but this version now has model bombs and guns.
"The ATF really frowns on having live 50-caliber machine guns," Mr. Lyon said. "But we can open up the bomb bay and scare some people on the ground."
'We're trying to keep the history alive of what people call the greatest generation'
Peter Sullivan: email@example.com or 412-263-1939. First Published July 3, 2012 4:00 AM