After 63 years, World War II veteran George Cahill met up with a war buddy yesterday.
There, on the tarmac at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, he was reunited with a B-17, the iconic World War II plane in which the now 83-year-old man flew 28 bombing missions over Europe, 27 as a bombardier and one as a tail gunner.
“It’s beautiful. Of course, the ones I flew in weren’t quite as sparkly as this one,” a winking Mr. Cahill said of the “Liberty Belle,” the product of a $3.5 million restoration and one of only 14 B-17s still flying.
Owned by the Oklahoma-based, nonprofit Liberty Foundation, the Liberty Belle is in town as part of a public education tour with Pittsburgh as one of the last stops before it travels to Europe next month.
Built toward the end of the war, the plane on display never saw combat but is painted in the original Liberty Belle’s colors and nose art — a fetching redhead waving a U.S. flag and leaning onto the Liberty Bell. Foundation founder Don Brooks chose the name because his father flew 36 missions as a tail gunner on the original Liberty Belle.
For a fee — $395 per person for foundation members and $430 for non-members — the public can take a half-hour flight on the plane from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. More information is available by calling 918-340-0243 or by visiting www.libertyfoundation.org.
As for Mr. Cahill, it was 1945 and he was but 20 years old when he last was so close to a B-17. Memories easily returned for the spry Bethel Park resident. With encyclopedic recall, he rattled off the aircraft’s stats — the “Flying Fortress” carried a crew of 10 with the smallest man assigned as the ball-turret gunner; there were more than 12,000 B-17s produced during the war; a third of them were lost in combat.
He recalled how close he came to being a statistic himself when his plane was badly shot up and had to drop out of formation. The crew couldn’t make it to its base in England and had to land at a naval base in Wales with only one of its four engines still running. And, then, as the plane coasted, the final engine cut out.
“That’s the bad side,” he said, smiling. “The good side was the Navy lived well and we got stateside beer, real steak, eggs. We ate and lived well for a week while they fixed the plane and then we had to go back to work.”
Accompanied by local media, Mr. Cahill stepped back in time and took his first flight on a B-17 since the war ended.
“I’m delighted,” he said. “It’s an honor, a privilege and a pleasure.”
Inside the cramped aircraft, about half as wide as a commercial airliner, Mr. Cahill showed he still knew his way around despite the passage of years, moving gracefully past the two 50-caliber machine guns mounted on either side in the plane’s “waist.” He walked along a narrow metal beam between replica bombs and above the bomb bays, and he settled into a seat behind the cockpit and near the crawl space leading to the Plexiglas nose where two more machine guns are mounted.
With a puff of smoke, the four propellers spun into motion. After taxiing, the engines were revved and the craft rattled and shook, making clear why earplugs are handed out before flight. And then, with about 25 curious people looking on, it took to the sky, flying 2,500 feet over the city and suburbs.
Along the aircraft’s ceiling, about a dozen cables moved back and forth as pilot John Shuttleworth operated the rudder and controls with Mr. Cahill standing behind him, intently looking on.
Beneath the cockpit, inside the nose, the environment was almost otherworldly. The engines roared from behind, the wind rushed by and a spectacular view was laid out ahead, above and below.
Suddenly, a passenger couldn’t help but realize this was where nose gunners and bombardiers were stationed on dangerous bombing runs — a stark reminder that Mr. Cahill never took a pleasure flight aboard a B-17 until yesterday.
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/uncategorized/63-years-later-man-meets-war-buddy-397773/#ixzz1zm7mzoBm