BENNER TOWNSHIP, Pa. (MCT) — Gaining speed, louder by the second, a gleaming survivor took to the air.
Four giant engines rattled the interior of “Sentimental Journey,” a restored B-17G Flying Fortress bomber, Monday as she rolled down a University Park Airport runway for a short flight over Centre County.
Fifty-caliber waist turret guns vibrated. Flight control cables jiggled. Finally, the World War II behemoth, one of only 10 of its kind still flying, lifted into the sunshine.
Fielder Newton had the best seat in the plane.
Newton, 90, sat in the nose in the bombardier’s station, all of State College and the surrounding countryside spread beyond the Plexiglas before him.
The State College resident flew 17 missions over Europe with the Eighth Air Force as a navigator on a B-24 Liberator, another mainstay in the air war against Nazi Germany and Japan.
Monday brought his first flight on a B-17 since his gunnery school days in Florida.
Sentimental Journey’s crew made Newton the guest of honor after arriving on the latest leg of a months-long tour.
“All I can say was it was great,” he said. “I could never see as much from the front of an airplane as I could see from the bombardier’s seat.”
During missions on his B-24 in the 389th Bomb Group, Newton stood behind the pilot and co-pilot, his back to them.
“It was a great ride,” he said after his B-17 spin. “I enjoyed every minute of it. At my age, I was a little cramped up there. Moving around in that small space was a little tough. I made it.”
Sentimental Journey, owned by the Arizona Airbase branch of the Commemorative Air Force and based in Mesa, Ariz., will be on display at the airport daily until Monday morning.
From 9 a.m to 6 p.m., warbird buffs and other visitors can inspect the silver 70-year-old bomber with the Betty Grable pin-up nose art up close, or poke their heads inside the fuselage. The CAF requests a $5 donation for individuals over the age of 5, and $10 for families.
Flights can be reserved for $450 for seats in the radio room and near the waist gunner positions, and $825 for seats in the nose.
Russ Gilmore has been flying Sentimental Journey for about 20 years. A former C-46 cargo plane pilot, he brought the B-17 over from a stay in Schenectady, N.Y.
“It’s an honor, absolutely an honor,” Gilmore said. “This is a national treasure.”
Gilmore flew in for more than another chance to educate the public about the B-17. He greeted his brother, Don Gilmore, and Gilmore’s family. Adding to the reunion, the Gilmores’ brother and father are coming into town Saturday.
But standing next to one of Sentimental Journey’s massive wings, Russ Gilmore’s thoughts turned to the B-17 crews who went up against German fighters and flak at 30,000 feet while withstanding minus 50 degree conditions inside their unpressurized cabins.
More than 200,000 American airmen were lost in Europe and the Pacific, more casualties than any other branch of the armed forces suffered, he said.
“It was tough duty, and those guys knew it was tough duty, and they never turned back,” Gilmore said. “They always showed up and did their job, so talk about brave guys. In our book, they’re real heroes, and I’m sure in everybody’s book, too.”
Dave Gross, Sentimental Journey’s loadmaster and the coordinator for the State College visit, said the bomber is a “tool” the CAF uses to teach about the sacrifices made by World War II airmen and to preserve their history.
“It’s very rewarding to do,” he said. “That’s why we do it for free.”
Built in 1944 and accepted by the U.S. Army Air Force in March 1945 — too late for action in Europe — Sentimental Journey served in the Pacific theater until the war ended.
Afterward, she was taken from storage in Japan and assigned as a photo-mapping plane in Asia for three years before her conversion into an air-sea rescue craft.
During the 1950s, she became a mother ship towing research drones in nuclear weapon tests. Decommissioned in 1959, she subsequently fought forest fires, flying thousands of sorties.
In 1978, the CAF acquired her and completed a full restoration, scavenging parts from junkyards or static displays, sometimes manufacturing them. Today, she’s one of about 50 intact Flying Fortresses known to remain.
Maintaining her isn’t cheap, Gross said. For instance, a flight costs about $3,500 an hour in fuel and insurance — illustrating why donations are important.
“Your money keeps us flying,” he said.
It also helped Sue Fox Moyer, of State College, cruise over State College at about 1,000 feet.
She normally abhors flying. But she made an exception Monday. This week, she’s maintaining one of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society memorabilia tables at the airport in honor of her father.
Edward Kenneth Fox was a B-17 top turret gunner who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and almost lost his right leg to flak during the infamous 1943 attack on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factory. Known as “Black Thursday,” the raid cost 60 bombers out of about 300.
Moyer, who belongs to the society and the Second Schweinfurt Memorial Association, couldn’t pass up an opportunity to feel something of what her father experienced.
“I had a big smile the whole time,” she said.
So did Andy Rupert, the marketing director for the Central Pennsylvania Convention and Visitors Bureau, a sponsor of the bomber’s visit.
He flew in the nose near Newton.
“It was just fun,” Rupert said. “You get to experience it with a World War II veteran himself, that adds something to it.
“He just sat back and appreciated it. He was on cloud nine throughout the flight. He asked me if I wanted to switch. I said, ‘No, you stay up there.’ ”
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