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'Flying Fortress' comes to Utah

An important piece of World War II history is in Salt Lake City. UPR’s Stephen Tanner tells us how you can be a part of it.

At the South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan, the buzz of small planes can be heard all around. But the roar of a different plane’s engines is making people around the Salt Lake Valley look up toward the sky.

This week the World War II era B-17 bomber named “Memphis Belle” is stopping in Salt Lake City. The non-profit Liberty Foundation helped restore the plane and is flying it around the country in its Salute to Veterans tour.  

This iconic plane helped play an important role in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during WWII. Airmen dubbed the B-17 as the “Flying Fortress."  During the war, the 65,000-pound plane could withstand multiple gunshots to its body.   

The Liberty Foundation is offering public flights aboard the B-17 this weekend. It costs $450 per person for about a half-hour ride.  The price helps cover operating the plane, which costs $1.5 million a year.  This helps the plane remain a living museum in the air, rather than a stationary one on the ground.

When you board the Flying Fortress you can hear how solid and sturdy the plane is. Once aboard, a crew member shows how to fasten safely into your seat with the original straps, loops and buckles the crew used.

After takeoff, you can get up and explore.  Machine guns are on all sides of the plane with some parts of the plane completely open to the outside. To get to the cockpit, you walk across a narrow catwalk between two models of the bombs the plane would drop. In the nose of the plane, you can sit where the bombardier sat and look straight down to the valley below.

All of the weapons helped make the B-17 one of the toughest planes in the War. No one knows the strength of the plane better than Layton resident and World War II veteran Paul Sersland.

“I flew 35 bombing raids over Germany during World War Two," he said. "And I flew two positions on the B-17, one was the waist position and the other the tail."

Sersland served as an aerial gunner on a B-17 like the “Memphis Belle." On Monday, he got to fly with the crew around the Salt Lake Valley. It was the first time in almost 70 years since he last flew in one. After landing, Sersland kissed the ground.  He says flying on the plane brought back a flood of memories.

“It was extremely scary to start with," he said. "When you see aircraft with your buddies in it go down, then you think about, is it your turn next.  So we had to put our faith in the Lord to keep our minds clear and be able to do it."

It’s these kind of memories that the Liberty Foundation is trying to help veterans recall.  

“It’s one of these airplanes that when the veterans do see it, it brings back a lot of their memories and they’re able to share with us and tell us a lot of the things they did with them. They had huge sacrifices so that we have our freedom now. Without the B-17s and the veterans, we could not have won the war."

That’s John Hess, the volunteer pilot of the Memphis Belle.  He says many of the men who flew during the war would want to fly in a B-17 bomber.  

“I think the veterans regard this as one of the best airplanes you could be in as far as getting you back after battle damage," said Hess.

The B-17 Flying Fortress will be at the South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan on Saturday and Sunday May 18 and 19. Flights are in the mornings, but the aircraft will be on the ground for tours in the afternoons. There’s no set admission charge for the tours, but donations are encouraged.

Memphis Belle crew member Larry Hansen says it is important to learn about this plane.  

“It just keeps alive the history of what our airmen did in World War II and is just something that should never be forgotten," he said.

For Utah Public Radio in West Jordan, I’m Stephen Tanner