Flying history: WWII planes in Florida this weekend
LEESBURG – Alfred Colbath sat calmly at the desk in the radio room.
Engines roared as the B-17 Flying Fortress steadily lifted off the runway. When he got the go-ahead, the 94-year-old walked through the narrow walkway in the bomb bay to get to the cockpit. Colbath then crawled into the nose for an unrivaled view of Lake County.
“It brought back memories,” Colbath said.
Colbath and Wally Lambert were clearly comfortable on the war bomber, and it’s no wonder. They’re both World War II veterans.
They were treated to a flight Monday by the Liberty Foundation ahead of its weekend event at Leesburg International Airport.
The nonprofit is hosting flights on Chuckie Saturday and Sunday. Rides start at 10 a.m. and cost $475 per person. Flights on a P-51 are $1,195 for 10 minutes and $1,995 for 20 minutes. And if flights aren’t your things, the planes will be open in the afternoon for free ground tours both days starting at about 2:30 p.m.
“Hopefully we have veterans come out and share their stories,” said volunteer pilot John Hess. “Our main goal is to honor these veterans. We’ve heard from their families that they would never talk about World War II unless they were with their friends. But on the B-17, they just open up. There’s nothing like hearing it from the person who did it.”
Chuckie, a flying museum, is in Leesburg for the Liberty Foundation’s 2020 "Salute to Veterans" tour. Passenger flights cover the plane’s maintenance and upkeep costs and support the nonprofit’s mission of sharing the stories WWII veterans and the B-17 bomber.
“Otherwise, they’ll end up in the museum and a lot fewer people will get to see them that way,” Hess said. “And you sure don’t get to experience the excitement and sites and sounds and smells of a real airplane, a real B-17 flight.“
After the war, Chuckie spent some time at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It was also used as a cargo airplane and ant sprayer in Dothan, Alabama.
“Otherwise, like many of the old war birds, it got scrapped,” Hess said. “They turned most of these airplanes into scrap metal because there were so few uses for B-17s after the war that very few of them survived. So we’re proud to have one of the few flying ones here.“
The plane was recently repainted to look like the famous “Ye Olde Pub.” After a bomb run on Bremen on Dec. 20, 1943, U.S. pilot Charlie Brown’s B-17 was severely damaged by the Germans. Instead of shooting down the bomber, Luftwaffe pilot Franz Stigler escorted him to safety.
Fifty years later, the two met up and were friends until their deaths in 2008. The story is chronicled in a book titled, “A Higher Call.”
Colbath and Lambert had their own stories to tell, too.
Colbath was in the United States Naval Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees. On the flight Monday, he proudly wore a jacket with the patch on it and a hat that said “Iwo Jima Survivor.”
Lambert, 95, was also in the Navy. He was a Higgins boat driver in the amphibious forces and wore a patch on his jacket with an alligator on it from the Naval Amphibious Base - Little Creek in Virginia Beach. He, too, wore a hat denoting his service. His said “World War II Veteran.”
After the flight, the two men were all smiles.
“I see why they call it Lake County,” Lambert said.
“It was a great view and a great ride,” Colbath added.
This story originally published to dailycommercial.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.
Liberty Foundation’s 2020 "Salute to Veterans" Tour
When: Starting at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Leesburg International Airport
Cost: 30-minute flights on the B-17 cost $475 per person. Flights on a P-51 are $1,195 for 10 minutes and $1,995 for 20 minutes.
Reservations: Call 678-589-7433
For more information: libertyfoundation.org