The "Memphis Belle" sits on the runway at the Salt Lake South Valley Regional Airport. Flights will be offered to the public this weekend.
In 1954 SSgt. Paul Sersland was traveling from Los Angeles, Calif. to Birmingham, Ala. to make repairs on a B-25 bomber. Over the Grand Canyon the plane began to experience problems and Sersland talked with the Lord and told him he didn't need to fly anymore if he got him through the ordeal.
That was the last time Sersland flew in an airplane until Monday, when he had an opportunity to fly in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Sersland, who now lives in Layton, is a World War II veteran and was a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber. He was a member of the 303rd Bomb Group and the 360th Bomb Squadron stationed at RAF Molesworth. The 303rd was better know as the Hell's Angels. The Hell's Angels was one of the first B-17 units in England. They were the first group to complete 25 combat missions in June, 1943, going on to complete 364 total combat missions, more than any other group.
Sersland himself completed a total of 35 combat missions during his time as a waist gunner.
Sersland enlisted in the Army Air Core as a cadet when he was 18 years old. He volunteered to serve as a crew member on a B-17. When he got to the barracks he noticed many of the bunks were empty. He asked why. The airman who gave him the tour replied "they finished their mission but it depends on what you call home". This made him nervous, seven out of the 12 planes that were assigned to Sersland's unit went down during the war.
Sersland said the B-17 was the best plane during the war. It could take punishment, carry a large payload and bring its crew back alive. When asked what his scariest experience was Sersland told of the time when his crew was flying a combat mission and their number one engine got hit and was vibrating violently. The crew tried to feather the prop, but they were unsuccessful. The right aileron was blown off and gas was coming out of the right wing. The oil pressure on the plane continued to drop and the plane had to fall out of formation. When a plane dropped out of formation it was vulnerable to enemy attack. Somehow, the pilot was able to land the plane and the crew was able to survive.
Today Sersland and another crew member are the only living survivors of the B-17 crew that he served with during the war.
On Monday, Sersland and his son-in-law, Jerry Cottrell got to go on a B-17 flight in West Jordan together. They sat in the radio control area. Sersland said on some missions he had to man both waist guns.
The flight lasted approximately 30 minutes. Passengers were able to walk through the aircraft and take a look at all of the crew positions. This short flight gave only a sample of what it was like to fly on a B-17 during the war. After the flight Sersland kissed the ground.
The flight was made possible by the Liberty Foundation. The Liberty Foundation's B-17 "Memphis Belle" is one of only 13 B-17's that still fly today. The B-17 dubbed the "Flying Fortress" as a result of her defensive fire power and stout construction, saw action in every theater of operation during World War II. The majority of all B-17s were operated by the 8th Airforce in Europe and participated in countless missions from bases in England deep into enemy territory.
There were 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and 1945, of these 4,735 were lost in combat. Following the war, B-17s saw combat in three more wars; Korea, Israel used them in the war of 1948, and they were even used during Vietnam.
The "Memphis Belle" was built toward the end of the war and never saw any combat. It is painted in the colors and nose art of the original historic "Memphis Belle" B-17 that flew countless missions with the 91st bomb group of the 8th Airforce, and was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions.
The Liberty Foundation's B-17 has an interesting postwar history. Sold surplus to National Metals Co. of Phoenix, Ariz. for the sum of $2,687 and then sold to Fast Way Air of Long Beach, Calif. In 1960 she was converted to a water bomber and operated as Tanker 78 until the late 1970s. The plane was then purchased by the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation (MARC) in 1982. MARC, was started by David Tallichet, a wartime B-17 pilot with the 100th bomb group. He and his staff restored the B-17G to resemble a B-17F model. The restoration included reinstallation of power turrets, early tail gunners compartment, early Sperry dorsal turret recovered from a south Pacific wreck and adding a 91st BG paint scheme
In 1989, N3703G was hired for use in the filming of the Memphis Belle movie in England. In July 1989 she crossed the Atlantic with another B-17 to participate in the filming of the movie. Since returning to the U.S. the plane has continued in the paint scheme of the "Memphis Belle."
The Liberty Foundation's B-17 provides visitors the opportunity to take a step back in time and gain respect for the men and women who gave so much to protect freedom. At each stop, flight "missions" are available in the Memphis Belle, which allow people to take flights in this historic aircraft. During flight operations, there is a designated, secure area for those who would like to watch the aircraft flights at no charge.
For enthusiasts that choose to take a flight experience on the aircraft, these participants receive a pre-flight safety briefing containing the historical significance of the aircraft and a spectacular scenic air tour around the Salt Lake Valley. During the flight, passengers enjoy the unique opportunity of moving about the aircraft to the different combat crew positions to see the viewpoint that thousands of airmen saw in combat over 60 years ago.
The B-17 flight experience takes 45 minutes with approximately half hour in flight. B-17 Flights are $410 for Liberty Foundation members and $450 for non-members. Passengers can become a Liberty Foundation Member for $40 and receive the member discount for family and friends.
While the cost to take a flight sounds expensive, it must be put into perspective when compared to the B-17's operating cost which is $4500 per flight hour. The Liberty Foundation spends over $1.5 million annually to keep the B-17 airworthy and out on tour.
The Liberty Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit flying museum and funds generated merely help offset these high costs. Only the public's interest and other generous donations keep this historic aircraft flying and from being silenced permanently in a museum for years to come.
Public flights and tours will be May 18-19 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the South Valley Regional Airport, Leading Edge Aviation, 7365 South 4450 West, West Jordan.
Interested parties can call Scott Maher at (918) 340-0243 to schedule a flight or get information about the public tours.