The Madras Maiden is all gleaming metal with red markings when it pulls up onto the tarmac at Meacham Airport in Fort Worth. Up near the cockpit, a painted pinup girl in short shorts salutes from the side of the plane.
This is one of only a handful of working World War II-era bombers left of the more than 12,000 B-17s.
'We flew it all over'
The 73-year-old B-17 bomber parked at Meacham has hulking machine guns that poke out from all sides. These defensive capabilities earned the model of plane the moniker the “flying fortress.” Four powerful engines carried a 10-man crew and tons of bombs into the fight during the war.
It was on a tarmac like this one in 1979 that Chuckie Hospers first saw this plane. Her husband, an orthopedic surgeon everybody called “Doc,” had taken her to the airport for a surprise. He’d bought the plane for her, he told her.
“I didn’t know whether to divorce him, to commit him, I thought he’d lost his mind. What are we going to do with a B-17? How are we going to keep it? How are we going to maintain it?” she recalled. “It totally changed our lives for the better.”
Doc had painted this B-17 with yellow details, and scrawled his wife’s name in cursive on the side. Chuckie is what the plane would be called for three decades.
“We flew it all over the country. We would have engine failures; we’d be flying on three engines,” she said. “Everything that happened to them except being shot at in World War II happened to us, mechanically.”
Losing an engine was like a death in the family, she said, because the parts for the plane were expensive and rare.
A tough decision
The U.S. Army Air Force – the precursor to today’s Air Force — ordered about 12,000 B-17s, and they fought in all theaters of World War II. They’re said to have dropped more tons of bombs in Europe than any other U.S. bomber, though this particular B-17 never dropped a single bomb. It was converted into a radar and research plane after it rolled out of the Lockheed Vega factory in Burbank, Calif., in October 1944.
By the time Doc Hospers bought it in 1979, it had long been decommissioned. It was spraying for fire ants in Alabama for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It took the Hospers years working with a team of volunteers to restore it.
The Hospers founded the Vintage Flying Museum about a decade after buying the B-17. The museum is a few hangars down at Meacham, and it has a lot more old war planes. Hospers had to sell off the B-17 after her husband died in 2010. It was a tough decision she said, but maintaining it grew too expensive. It’s now in the care of the Liberty Foundation, which takes the plane around the country to keep World War II history alive.
Memories flood back
Now, after several years apart, Hospers was going for a ride in the plane that bore her name. She climbs into an aft hatch with practiced ease, and buckled herself into the nylon drop seats. As the first of the four massive engines came to life, she says it takes a while to get the engines ready to go.
“We’d spin them, we’d count about nine rotations, or 12, and then we would engage the starter,” she says, laughing as the first engine roars to life. “We’d say ‘C’mon baby, c’mon baby,’ and then it’d start.”
She grins as the Madras Maiden begins lifting off the tarmac and heading into the bright blue sky above Fort Worth.
Riding in a B-17 isn’t exactly a comfortable experience, but it’s one that nearly overwhelms all five senses. The noise is deafening. The burning fuel imparts a lingering smoky, chemical taste in the mouth and smell in the nostrils. The plane shifts and jostles and vibrates fiercely. At high altitudes, it would be frigid, since there’s no cabin pressure.
As it continues to climb, the pilots send a thumbs-up back from the cockpit, signaling that it’s OK to unstrap and walk around.
Making the way from the back of the plane to the front plane involves a lot of bending, squeezing and crawling. One must carefully walk around the ball turret on the plane’s underside, cross a narrow gangplank over the bomb bay doors. Past an open hatch on the top of the plane, which affords impressive views of the shrinking city at the end of the planes’ tale, is the cockpit. The two pilots monitor gauges and toggle switches. It’s a busy plane, one says, that requires lots of concentration.
Getting to the nose means crawling on hands and knees through a narrow opening between the pilots. It’s a squeeze but it opens up a panoramic view from the nose gunner’s perch of Lake Worth and downtown Fort Worth behind it.
The flight lasts only 15 minutes before the captain rings a bell to say it’s time to buckle in for landing. It’s incredibly expensive to fly the plane; the Liberty Foundation estimates it costs about $4,500 per hour to fly it.
Keeping history alive
Back on the ground, Hospers says the trip brought back memories.
“The smell of [aviation] gas, hydraulic fluid, all those smells come back,” she says wistfully. “All your senses are just reawakened. It was great.”
But, Hospers says, it’s important to remember that for airmen serving in World War II, riding in a B-17 was cold, uncomfortable and often deadly.
Out on the tarmac, Bob Hill, the volunteer pilot who brought the plane from Nashville, says the casualty statistics were stark.
“Particularly by late war, we’d put a thousand bombers in the air on a mission, but 300 of them were shot down,” Hill said. “So 10 men on an airplane; it’s staggering.”
It took a while for those statistics to come out. But Hill says he’s talked to a lot of World War II veterans over the years and they had other ways to gauge the danger.
“You got to the barracks and there’d be the empty bunks there, and nobody was coming home. And someone was collecting their personal items,” Hall said. “Or you’d see the plane go down and you’d be counting parachutes. ‘Did they get out?’ ‘How many got out?’”
Hill says maintaining old planes like this is important because it helps keep alive the sacrifices made by the greatest generation.
The plane will be available for tours and flights this weekend at Meacham Airport. Tickets to fly are pricey -- $450 per person, but it's free to walk through the plane when it's on the ground in the afternoons. It’ll also be on hand for the Vintage Flying Museum’s annual Big Band Hangar Dance on Saturday night.