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Flying High

Memphis Belle replica will provide public flight tours.

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The Memphis Belle was one of the first B-17 World War II bombers to complete 25 missions and safely return all of its crew members. When I boarded her replica on Monday afternoon, I was just hoping I'd have the same fate.

My flight came courtesy of the Salute to Veterans national tour, presented by the Liberty Foundation, which began in March.

They're offering public flights on Saturday and Sunday, October 20th and 21st from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Olive Branch Airport.

The original Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17 aircraft that was displayed in the Bluff City until 2005, is being restored at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. So her replica, the one used in the 1990 film Memphis Belle, is being flown for the tour.

I and other members of local media got a sneak peek into what the public may experience on the Salute to Veterans tour. Before climbing nearly 2,000 feet, we were given safety tips and a brief history of the Memphis Belle.

As I stepped onto the plane, I admired its structure. It's equipped with 10 seats, 13 50-caliber machine guns and bombs, and a glass nose, from which passengers can gaze down onto the city.

We were provided with ear plugs to drown out the engines' noise. When the aircraft started, the engines released smoke inside the plane, catching everyone off-guard. I said a brief prayer before we took off into the sky.

At first, the flight was relatively shaky and loud, but things mellowed out as the plane steadied in the air. Our scenic tour of the city lasted about 15 minutes.

During the ride, we were able to move about the aircraft to the different combat crew positions, giving us the same vantage point as the WWII heroes decades earlier.

When the Memphis Belle landed, I wanted an encore. Before boarding the plane, I was unsure if I would enjoy the tour, but it turned out to be a fascinating experience — one that I will never forget.

"[We want] to let local veterans know that, not only do we appreciate the sacrifices in World War II, but we wouldn't be sharing this history today without them," said Scott Maher, director of operations for the Liberty Foundation. "We want children to come out and experience this plane in its natural habitat, which is in the air."

The cost of operating the airplane is about $5,000 an hour. On a typical ride weekend, the Belle replica may burn $15,000 worth of fuel.

"It's not that economical, but it's something that we want our veterans and younger folks to be able to see, without being parked in the museum," Maher said.

Due to the high price of operating the plane, the cost for a half-hour flight is $450 per person. Liberty Foundation members pay $410.

Those who'd rather not take to the skies can tour the Memphis Belle on the ground. At the event this weekend, Memphians will also have the chance to talk with local war veterans and Linda Morgan, the widow of Memphis Belle pilot Robert Morgan.

Maher said there are only nine Boeing B-17 aircraft currently flying worldwide, although there were more than 12,000 built.

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