Sanford, N.C. — A restored World War II bomber will be up in the skies this weekend, and passengers can ride along. The Liberty Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress, will offer rides Aug. 15 and 16 from the Sanford-Lee County Airport.
"This is the one that got the glory. This is the iconic symbol of World War II aviation,” WWII veteran Clay Wilson said of the B-17.
Wilson flew a dozen missions over France during World War II. During his last flight, his plane was shot down and he escaped by parachute.
“I looked down at me and saw I had blood all over me. I didn’t know I was hit,” Wilson said.
His pilot took a bullet in the forehead.
"He fell over the controls, and I was right behind him,” Wilson said.
Seven of Wilson's crew members were killed. He recalled the experience Monday while onboard the Liberty Belle as it flew over Lee County.
“Up there, the cold is your enemy and oxygen too. You run out of oxygen, you don't last but a half a minute,” he said.
The B17 is still flown as it was during wartime, only it now uses modern radios. It operates on four original Studebaker Wright Cyclone Engines, the pilot said.
"I tell people that on a jet engine, you don't start a jet engine, you turn it on. These engines, you have to have a certain intuitiveness besides the necessary training on them,” pilot John Ferguson said.
The Liberty Belle was never in combat and is flown these days by volunteer pilots, like Ferguson. He said taking a trip in the B-17 is a tangible link to history.
“Now when you go back to that book or that documentary, and you see what the airplane is doing, or you hear a description from a pilot, you have a better understanding of it," Ferguson said.
The tours for the public will be available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Sanford-Lee County Airport.
The cost to ride is $430 per seat. So far, about 60 people have signed up. You can make a reservation by calling the Liberty Foundation at 918-340-0243.