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'Memphis Belle' visits El Paso, flights available this weekend

World War II history fans and aviation buffs will get a rare chance this weekend to fly in a B-17 bomber, nicknamed the Flying Fortress.

The nonprofit Liberty Foundation has brought its 2014 Salute to Veterans Tour to El Paso. This weekend, El Pasoans will be able to get a ride in the Boeing B-17 "Memphis Belle" or a North American P-51 "Mustang" fighter plane — if they can afford the price tag.

The foundation's Memphis Belle was named after the original plane of the same name which saw countless missions during World War II. This plane never saw action during the war but was used for the movie "Memphis Belle." The price to ride in it is $450 per person for about a 25- to 30-minute flight.

That may sound expensive, but the fee is used to defray operating and maintenance costs, said Keith Youngblood, a volunteer with the Liberty Foundation. Youngblood led a media event Monday at Atlantic Aviation at the El Paso International Airport.

"It's a flying museum," Youngblood said.

The purpose of the event is to give the public a realistic glimpse into what a B-17 crew must have gone through during the war. There are only about a dozen B-17s that are capable of flying anymore and only about half of those actively fly, Youngblood said.

The plane costs more than $5,000 a hour to fly and burns about 200 gallons of fuel per hour, said volunteer pilot Cullen Underwood.

Without the public coming out to fly in the planes, they would eventually end up in a museum, Underwood added.

The Memphis Belle has received some modifications to allow for passenger flights, but it is about 85 percent authentic, Youngblood said.

"The experience will be 100 percent just like in World War II, except you won't freeze, need oxygen and no one will be shooting at you," Youngblood said.

During combat, B-17s flew at an altitude of about 20,000 to 35,000 feet. This weekend, the plane will fly at about 1,500 feet.

The fee to ride the P-51 fighter "Mustang" starts at $1,595.

The Liberty Foundation will tour more than 40 cities this year, Youngblood said.

Flights will be available from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Atlantic Aviation, 1751 Shuttle Columbia Dr. Ground tours will be held starting at 3 p.m. and will last as long as there is a crowd. A donation is requested for ground tours. The money is used to keep the planes operational.

Advance reservations are strongly suggested if you want to fly in one of the planes.

Reservations: 918-340-0243. Information: libertyfoundation.org.

David Burge may be reached at 546-6126.

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