Most famous 'Flying Fortress' arrives in Tampa

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The sound of history filled the skies over Hillsborough County on Monday.  The distinctive four-engine roar of a B-17 bomber heralded the arrival of the famed 'Memphis Belle,' which is in town for tours and rides this weekend.

The B-17, known as the Flying Fortress, was one of the most iconic aircraft of the war.  And the Memphis Belle may be the best-known of the bunch, thanks to the 1990 movie of the same name.

The original Memphis Belle crew was the first B-17 bomber to complete its 25-mission tour with its entire crew alive.  From November 1942 to May 1943, the plane flew dangerous round-trip missions from England to targets in Germany, France, and Belgium.

The actual aircraft is currently being restored at the U.S. Air Force Museum, but the movie version -- which was built too late to see action in World War II -- served as a transport during the Korean War and then as an firefighting water-bomber in civilian life.  It was purchased by a collector in 1982 and fixed up in time to appear in the movie. 

Pilot Ray Fowler was among those who flew the restored plane to England for filming.  Monday, he recalled the trip back across the Atlantic.

"We did the original route that they did," he said.  "It took us about 24 hours to get over there, which was pretty amazing."

Over 12,000 B-17's were built in WWII, but the replica Belle is one of only a dozen or so that are still flying.  It's now owned by the Liberty Foundation, an Oklahoma-based group that restores and maintains historic aircraft. 

They use the planes as flying classrooms and often give rides to WWII veterans in an effort to keep history alive.

"The youngest ones are in their early 90s now," Fowler continued.  "There's getting to be fewer and fewer of them to come out and share their stories."

One of those veterans was on Monday's flight.  Howard McDonald, who turns 95 next month, said he'd never been aboard a B-17, but he'd flown B-25s and other planes during the war and still pilots his own homebuilt plane several times a month.

"It was a great flight and there were some great pilots flying her.  They really know how to handle the airplane.  I certainly enjoyed it," he said after two quick jaunts over the Bay Area.

You can tour the Memphis Belle or even catch a ride this weekend at Tampa Executive Airport, formerly known as Vandenberg Airport.  Flights are available Saturday and Sunday morning for $450.  Afternoon tours of the plane on the ground will be offered in exchange for a donation.