‘These were planes that were used to defend freedom’: Vintage WWII bombers to visit Southern Utah

ST. GEORGE — On Thursday, with the summer sun promising to shine bright and temperatures in the 90s, residents of St. George may notice the iconic silhouettes of two warbirds from a bygone era shimmering in the morning sky.

Get outside from the shelter of your home around 10 a.m., and you will feel the unmistakable rumble of two vintage bombers that flew when brave young men fought in deadly aerial combat, dicing through the skies of Europe and Japan during World War II.

Historic relics of that era – a B-25 “Mitchell” bomber and a B-17 “Flying Fortress” heavy bomber – are scheduled to land at the Western Aviation Warbird Museum at the St. George Regional Airport for a three-day stopover during the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force 2020 Flying Legends of Victory Tour.

“One of our main missions is education and getting these airplanes in the air and seen by as many people as possible,” said Mike Mueller, a volunteer and member of the operations wing with the Commemorative Air Force.

“These planes represent a good past. This is the history of the ‘Greatest Generation.’ These were planes that were used to defend freedom, and being up close and personal to them is a very positive experience, especially for young people who don’t know the history,” Mueller added.

Between July 2 and Sept. 27, one or both plans will visit 18 towns for multiple days and offer flights to the public, with an extended flight scheduled for July 4th over Southern Utah. Aircraft tours are available for $15 per person and $25 per family. Rides may be booked in advance at online or by calling 480-462-2992.

For more information on the St. George visit, click here.

The Commemorative Air Force is an all-volunteer, not for profit tax-exempt organization dedicated to the preservation of the WWII aircraft inclusive of the years from 1939-45.

All fees, donations or revenue collected support the tour, maintenance and overhead costs incurred by operating the aircraft and associated cost of touring the aircraft.

B-17G — Sentimental Journey

This undated file photo shows the B-17 Flying Fortress Sentimental Journey. The Boeing B-17 was most famous for daytime precision bombing operations in Europe but was used in every theater of war from 1941-45. B-17s were legendary for their ability to return home after major damage from enemy fighters and ground guns. Photo date and location not specified | Photo courtesy Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, St. George News

On July 28, 1935, the first four-engine heavy bomber took off from the Boeing Field in south Seattle designated as Model 299.

The bomber that would go on to be an iconic symbol of World War II known as the “Flying Fortress” went from design to flight tests in less than 12 months.

While they lacked the fighter cover from attacks by Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Bf 109s, they became legendary for their ability to survive brutal pounding from the fighters that harried them while on missions conducted over Europe.

In total, 12,731 B-17s were produced by Boeing, Vega and Douglas. The platform dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets during the war.

Sentimental Journey is one of five B-17s still flying today.

Built during the late 1944s, Sentimental Journey was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Force in early 1945 and assigned to the Pacific Theater for the remainder of the war.

Although it did not see combat, Sentimental Journey was reconfigured following the war  as a photo-mapping aerial platform at Clark field in the Philippines, then as an air-sea rescue craft before taking on one of its most important missions in 1951 during “Operation Greenhouse.”

The mission was the fourth postwar atmospheric nuclear weapon test to date.

In the role of “Mother Ship,” Sentimental Journey directed unmanned, radio-controlled B-17 drone aircraft to measure the blast and thermal effect of the 225 kiloton bomb.

In 1959 the aircraft was transferred to storage before becoming acquired by civilian ownership and flying 18 years as a forest fire fighter suppression platform. In 1978, the newly formed Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force took ownership of the Sentimental Journey.

With a max takeoff weight of 65,500 pounds and a crew of 10, the B-17’s four Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone Turbo-Supercharged radial engines produced 1,200 horsepower each. On typical models, it fielded 13 .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns and carried between 4,500-9,600 pounds of ordnance.

Although Sentimental Journey was not involved in the attack, one of the worst days of World War II and the B-17 in general came on Oct. 14, 1943, during the second bombing raid on a Schweinfurt, Germany, ball-bearing production plant.

Known as “Black Thursday,” the raid involved more than 290 Flying Fortress bombers and other aircraft and resulted in more than 70 planes lost, 121 damaged, 590 aircrews killed and 65 prisoners of war taken captive.

Although the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories were badly damaged, the mission failed to achieve any lasting effect. Following the raid, production was halted for six weeks as Germany relied on its stockpile of the vital mechanical component before production resumed.

B-25 — Maid in the Shade

The B-25 proved to be one of the best weapons and was possibly the most versatile aircraft of WWII. The B-25J in this photo, Maid in the Shade, served her wartime duty with the 319th Bomb Group, 437th Squadron at Serragia Airbase, Corsica. There it was assigned Battle Number 18. The plane flew 15 combat missions over Italy and Yugoslavia between Nov. 4 and Dec. 31, 1944. Photo date and location not specified | Photo courtesy Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, St. George News

Named after Gen. Billy Mitchell, the Army Air Corps’ most famous figure of the 1920s and 1930s, the North American B-25 proved to be one of the best American weapons of World War II.

The Mitchell has a ceiling of 25,000 feet and a maximum cruising speed of 320 mph from its two Wright R-2600 “Cyclone” radial engines, with 1,850 horsepower each at takeoff.

It was used for high- and low-level bombing, strafing, photoreconnaissance, submarine patrol and as a fighter. Its primary armament was a dozen .50 caliber machine guns and a carrying capacity of 6,000 pounds of bombs.

The Mitchell was distinguished as the aircraft that completed the historic raid over Tokyo in April 1942. At the time it was the heaviest airplane to lift off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Commanded by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, 16 Mitchells took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet for an 800-mile flight to Japan, where the B-25s attacked their targets.

The B-25 would have first had to fend off Messerschmitt 109s and Focke Wulf 190s before running the gauntlet of flack guns seeking the million-dollar shot to bring the bomber down.

Although the airplane was originally intended for level bombing from medium altitudes, it was used extensively in the Pacific area for bombing Japanese airfields from treetop level and for strafing and skip bombing enemy shipping. The B-25 saw duty in every combat area being flown by the Dutch, British, Chinese, Russians and Australians in addition to U.S. forces.

Former pilots have described the B-25 as “an amazing aircraft, an absolute rabbit.”

The Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force calls the B-17 a Cadillac, and the B-25 flies more like a Corvette.

Former CAF Pilot Matt Conrad said he loves flying the Corvette of bombers.

“It’s pretty amazing. It’s such a great airplane to fly around,” he said.

The airplanes back then are much different than now. You really have to get used to a lot of manual things, but once you get used to it, it’s pretty easy to fly. Still, there is a lot going on. There are a lot of levers in there. There’s a lot of buttons. Although it’s easy to fly, it’s a pretty heavy yoke, especially during take off and landing.

The importance of these planes, Conrad said, is to keep the memory alive of World War II – all of the men who flew and fought during the war and “not to lose sight of the fact that our independence, liberty and freedom” is dedicated to all of the individuals who gave the last full measure of devotion.

“We fly to keep everyone informed on the sacrifices made,” he said.

B25J, Maid in the Shade, photo location and date not specified |  Photo courtesy Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, St. George New

On average 6,600 American servicemen died each month in the combined theaters of operation during World War II – about 220 per day.

By the end of the war, more than 40,000 airmen were killed in combat theaters and another 18,000 wounded.

Some 12,000 missing men were declared dead following war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945. For a list of missing aircrew visit the U.S. National Archives.

“These airplanes were such a huge part of the war,” Conrad said. “They remind us of the sacrifice of the lives lost for our freedom. To keep telling this story is so important. Some of the youth today don’t understand what this plane represented, and it’s part of our mission.”

The National World War II Museum, Boeing Aerospace Co., U.S. National Archives, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force contributed to this article.

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