For the first time in a decade, the B-17 Flying Fortress will cast its fearsome shadow over Brownsville.
"Texas Raiders," a 67-year-old, four-engine heavy bomber flown and maintained by the Commemorative Air Force's Gulf Coast Wing in Houston, will be the biggest star at this weekend's Air Fiesta 2013, which celebrates 50 years of CAF air shows in the Rio Grande Valley.
In honor of the half-century mark, the air show will focus heavily on World War II-era aircraft. David Hughston, Air Fiesta chairman, said the Flying Fortress was a vital U.S. asset during WWII and that 10 years have passed since Air Fiesta has been lucky enough to have one.
"The B-17, because of its capacity, speed and everything about it made it a very effective weapon of war during World War II," Hughston said. "Without it we might not have won the war."
Texas Raiders, a B-17G delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in July 1945, will take part in simulated bombing runs during Air Fiesta. The aircraft is one of only 11 B-17s still flying -- nine of them are in the United States -- out of more than 12,000 built between 1936 and 1945.
The aircraft, manufactured by Douglas Aircraft Co. under contract to Boeing, underwent its last restoration between 2002 and 2009 at a cost of $700,000. The then-Mercedes-based CAF acquired the plane in 1967 for $50,000 and added it to its "Ghost Squadron" fleet of WWII aircraft. It was dubbed "Texas Raiders" in 1970. The CAF moved its headquarters to Harlingen in 1968, and in 1991 to Midland where it remains today.
Although Flying Fortresses saw action in every theater of WWII, they were used primarily for daylight, precision bombing raids against German military and industrial targets. Texas Raiders never saw combat, though it was used for satellite tracking and serial mapping after the war until the CAF bought it in the 1960s.
Walt Thompson, a former airline pilot based in Dallas who joined the Gulf Coast Wing in the 1980s, has logged about 700 hours piloting Texas Raiders for air shows and other appearances. Unlike modern aircraft, which use hydraulics and other systems to help maneuver the plane, the B-17's flight controls are totally manual, Thompson said.
"There are no powered flight controls," he said. "Everything is muscle power."
That said, Boeing's brilliant engineers at the time designed a "servo tab" aerodynamic assistance system -- still in use today -- that made the plane easier to fly, Thompson said. Designed as a high-altitude bombing platform, the B-17 is known for being exceptionally stable aloft, he noted.
"Whatever it's doing at any particular moment, it wants to keep on doing that," Thompson said. "If you've got it in a turn, it wants to keep on doing that until you make it stop."
Since the Flying Fortress is a "taildragger," however, taking off, landing and taxiing can be tricky -- especially in a stiff crosswind. The pilot's legs get a workout on the rudder pedals at such times, Thompson said.
"It's a pleasant airplane to fly but just totally different compared to modern airplanes," he said.
The B-17's four 1,820-cubic-inch radial engines develop 1,200 horsepower each. In normal flight the bomber guzzles approximately 225 gallons of gasoline an hour. The Flying Fortress costs about $3,000 an hour to operate, including not just oil and gas but maintenance reserves for the engines and other components, Thompson said.
Texas Raiders' volunteer crew members each donate $3,500 to help keep the plane in the air. Those like Thompson who actually fly the plane are expected to kick in extra from time to time when necessary. Appearance fees at air shows, sponsorships, sales of merchandise, tours and rides -- yes, B-17 rides will be available at Air Fiesta -- also help keep it flying.
"Being able to sell flights on these airplanes is relatively new," Thompson said. "It's a major source of income. We do it under a special exemption from the FAA."
Why go to all this trouble and expense to keep a WWII relic in the air? Thompson doesn't hesitate in answering that one.
"It's important because it's a living piece of American history," he said. "Virtually everyone who's ever read about World War II knows that the bombing campaign in Europe was huge. The campaign for Fortress Europe -- it was a key part of that."
Besides its historical importance, the Flying Fortress is among the most familiar icons of WWII. It's majestic rumbling overhead and a nice looking airplane sitting on the ground. It's also a crowd magnet, Thompson said. People want to see it up close and crawl around inside it, he said.
Then there are the veterans -- old men who served on B-17s as young men. What they feel upon seeing a surviving, airworthy Flying Fortress -- much less riding in one -- is knowable only to fellow B-17 veterans.
"It's such a joy to be around that airplane that's so important to so many people," Thompson said. "It rubs off on you."
The B-17 earned an almost mythic reputation for toughness -- returning its crews safely to base time and again after missions despite being shot to pieces.
"The ruggedness of the B-17 I think is the thing it's best known for," Thompson said. "The pictures that have been taken of these airplanes that have made it back with huge damage: You think, my God, how did that thing stay in the air?"
IF YOU GO
Air Fiesta 2013
--When: March 9-10
--Where: Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport
--Tickets: $15 in advance, $20 at the gate. Children younger than 12 are free
Tickets available online. Also available at Cameron County Stripes stores, Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau and CAF Rio Grande Valley Wing Museum