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Belle of the Eight-Ball

Gary Parsons looks back at the highlight of the 2008 Flying Legends event, held over 12-13 July at Duxford. Pictures by the author, Jack Parsons and Mike Kerr

Flying Legends 2008 was set to be controversial - arranged for the same weekend as the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford, many enthusiasts were left with a dilemma, either to try and do both shows in the weekend or give Legends a miss. Would it dent the Duxford crowd? In the end, 2008's dire weather solved the problem with RIAT being cancelled, so Duxford saw its biggest single-day crowd on Sunday as the exodus from Gloucestershire moved east.

Spitfires!
Mustangs!
Flying Fortresses!
Balbo!
On the ground

Flying Legends' biggest draw this year was the appearance of USA-based Liberty Foundation's B-17G 44-85734 'Liberty Belle', making an epic overseas tour to revisit some of the Eighth Air Force bases in Suffolk, especially Framlingham, once home to the 390th Bomb Group and the original 'Liberty Belle'. On 9 September 1944 the 390th BG attacked a target in Dusseldorf, suffering its second largest single-mission loss of the war. Over the target just prior to bomb release, one of the low squadron B-17s was hit in the bomb bay by flak, the bombs instantly exploding with nine of the twelve aircraft in the squadron destroyed or knocked out of formation. Six of the nine went down over the target, one flew two hours on a single engine and landed at Paris, another landed in Belgium and the other struggled back to its home base and landed long after the Group's other thirty-nine B-17s had returned from the mission. This was 42-97849 'Liberty Belle', which went on to complete sixty-four combat missions before being scrapped on 18 February 1945.

Veteran returns
Also on board 'Liberty Belle' was 86-year-old former B-17 pilot Ken Hoddinott Jnr. Ken was based at Lavenham during the war, and took the opportunity to visit his old haunt during the week. The control tower still stands at Lavenham, and Ken stood once more in the briefing room where his 487th Bomb Group's mission books are now kept. It was an emotional return for Ken, who recalled his time with clarity - "We just did what we had to do", he said.

Don Brooks' father, Elton Brooks, was a tail gunner in 'Liberty Belle', flying some thirty-four missions before returning to his home town of Douglas. Don's ambition has always been to fly a B-17 back to the UK in memory of not just his father but all those who served in the US Army Air Corps' Eighth Air Force, often referred to as 'the Mighty Eighth'.

Don Brook's fascination for the Second World War and the activity of the Mighty Eighth grew from the stories his father shared with him. Initially these stories were focused on the lighter moments - the practical jokes emerging amongst crew members and the off duty trips to Ipswich and London. As his father offered more, the insights shared turned to the dangers of air combat and the camaraderie of the closely knit aircrew of ten men. After the war Elton Brooks returned to his car parts business, Don continuing its success to this day. Success enabled Don to pursue his desire to obtain and fly a Flying Fortress as a tribute to his father, and all Mighty Eighth veterans. This dream was realised when Don purchased 'Liberty Belle' from Tom Reilly in 1992, a renowned restorer then based in central Florida.

Before 1992, Don's motivation led him in joining the Greenland Expedition Society to find a B-17 from the 'Lost Squadron', a group of six Lockheed P-38 fighters and two Boeing B-17s that crash-landed on the Greenland ice cap in 1942. When they did find a B-17, they discovered that it had suffered too much damage from the build up of snow and ice over the years. A P-38 Lightning was successfully recovered and took to the air again in 2002, named 'Glacier Girl'.

In 1992 Don founded the Liberty Foundation to undertake the restoration of his new purchase. B-17G 44-85734 has an interesting post-war history; it did not see combat and was sold on 25 June 1947 as scrap to Esperado Mining Co. of Altus, OK, it was sold again later that year to Pratt & Whitney for $2,700, who operated the B-17 from 19 November 1947 to 1967 as a heavily-modified test bed for their P&W T-34 and T-64 turboprop engines. It became a 'five-engine aircraft', having the powerful prototype engines mounted on the nose - the aircraft was flown single-engine with all four radial engines feathered during test flights.

Returning Spitfire
Making a welcome return to the airshow scene was Spitfire 1a AR213/G-AIST, fresh from an in-depth rebuild over the last five years. One of the last production Mark Is, AR213 was built by Westland at Yeovil and delivered to 12 Maintenance Unit (MU) on 24 July 1941. Immediately relegated to a trainer role with 57 and 53 Operational Training Units, it was the personal aircraft of ace Flt Lt James Harry 'Ginger' Lacey when he was Commander of 'E' Flight with the OTU.

After the end of the war it was struck off charge and sold to Gp Capt Allen Wheeler on 10 March 1947, who intended racing AR213, but this never happened. Registered G-AIST, AR213 spent many years in storage at Old Warden before being restored to flying condition for filming of the 'Battle of Britain' movie in 1967. 'Ginger' Lacey was a consultant to the film, and was heard to remark "AR213, my old Spitfire" on set, but nobody made the link until years later. On collection for the film, AR213 was deemed a "shabby looking Spit", with an empty pneumatic reservoir. After some pneumatic pressure had been applied the pilot took off, but the pressure started to drop as the engine-driven pump was not working, the cylinder head temperature moving towards the redline. He decided to land on the grass at Duxford for better braking but found that the grass was being cut - landing on the hard runway with the temperature needle in the red, he came to a standstill at the far end. After shutdown one of the mechanics pointed out that the seat harness was so old it tore apart with a firm pull!

In subsequent years AR213 was flown by Allen Wheeler out of Wycombe Air Park before being sold to The Hon Patrick Lindsay in 1978. Following Lindsay's death on 9 January 1986, AR213 was sold to Victor Gauntlett in April 1989. Gauntlett died in 2003 and AR213 underwent a major overhaul and reconstruction at Tony Bianchi's Personal Plane Services at Booker under the guidance of new owners Sheringham Aviation (a Peter Livanos company).

It was decided to completely rebuild AR213 to as close to its original build as possible. The first post-restoration flight was on 12 November 2007 with Jonathan 'Flapjack' Whaley at the controls, still in its primer. It has now been repainted in its authentic 57 OTU colours when it was the personal aircraft of 'Ginger' Lacey.

Following this life as a test platform, 44-85734 was donated to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Association in East Hartford. Unfortunately it was heavily damaged on 3 October 1979 in a tornado when another aircraft was thrown onto the B-17's mid-section. The wreck was stored in the New England Air Museum from 1981 until 1987.

Restoration by Don began with parts from another damaged B-17 (44-85813) at the Flying Tigers Museum (aka 'Bomber Town USA') located at Kissimmee Gateway field in Florida. It returned to the air on 8 December 2004 and since has toured throughout the USA, offering rides to veterans and enthusiasts. Experience gained on these trips gave Don and his team the confidence to think about heading for England, the goal being to return to Framlingham sixty five years to the month after the 390th Bomb Group first occupied the airfield in rural Suffolk, flying the same route that 'Glacier Girl' and the B-17s took in 1942. Thanks to the work of the local farmer and volunteer friends, Framlingham's control tower now serves as a museum commemorating the courage of those young Americans and the local community that they became an integral part of.

The challenge was a major one - 'Liberty Belle', based in Douglas, Georgia, would fly the traditional Second World War delivery route of North East Canada, Greenland, Iceland and then finally into the UK by Scotland, the total distance there and back again being 7,800 miles. Don last flew this route in 1994 in his DC-3 Dakota, bringing US veterans back to the D-Day beaches, dropping them over Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where the 101st Airborne Division spearheaded the Normandy landings. 'Liberty Belle' departed on its historic journey at 10:00 EST on 30 June from Bangor, Maine, the first stop being Presque Isle, Maine, the airport that the original 390th BG departed from on 4 July 1943. After a short stop it flew to Goose Bay, Canada for the first overnight stop, a total distance of some six hundred nautical miles. Here the crew met up with the Red Arrows, who were also on their way back to the UK after their North American tour. The B-17 then tailed the Reds for the rest of the journey to Scotland, until a divergence of route finally at Stornoway.

Early on 1 July saw departure to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, and after a short fuel stop, flew direct over the 'Lost Squadron' location on the Greenland Icecap towards Reykjavik, Iceland. The following day saw landfall at Prestwick in Scotland where the team was met by a flurry of press and public - "It was a warm welcome after a long and very cold trip", said Don. 'Liberty Belle' makes some local flights on 3 July, in readiness for the trip south to Cambridgeshire.

4 July, Independence Day - the Yanks are back! 'Liberty Belle' makes a grand arrival at Duxford. In the days leading up to Flying Legends, Don fulfils his dream, flying over Framlingham and other Eighth Air Force bases such as Debach and landing at nearby Bentwaters, for so long an outpost of the USA in Suffolk until 1993, on 10 July. At Bentwaters the team met with the local guardians of the Control Tower at Framlingham and a number of other enthusiasts who helped make the completion of the mission possible, before flying a second sortie over Framlingham escorted by Little Friends P-51D 'Janie' and Carolyn Grace in her Spitfire T9.

At Duxford, the sight of three B-17s lined up on the apron was the first time for many and also the first time three had appeared at the same airshow since the heady days of 1989 and the filming of 'Memphis Belle'. Of course, 'Sally B' couldn't fly due to the engine woes, but 'Liberty Belle' and 'Pink Lady' flew in close formation both days, poignant as it could be the last time we see both of them in the UK.

Elsewhere Legends was its usual throng of piston-engined prowess, with the Balbo finale as spectacular as ever. Stephen Grey and TFC certainly had the luck this year; we'll not know if RIAT would have dented the crowd until the next potential clash in 2012.

 

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