'Flying Fortress' B-17 flies into Philadelphia

Posted: August 28, 2013

"OLD JOE" sat in his wheelchair just off the tarmac at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport yesterday, awe-struck by a beautiful lady he'd known as a young man but was now afraid to take out for a ride - a B-17 World War II bomber.

"I'm 94. I have a pacemaker. I'm afraid my adrenaline would get too much," Joseph Blinebury said. "I'd be so thrilled that I'm liable to have a heart attack."

As the Port Richmond man watched from the sidelines and shared stories of his days as a ball-turret gunner on other B-17s in the war, members of the media took a ride in the aircraft, one of only a dozen airworthy B-17s left.

The flight occurred in advance of public tours and flights this weekend of the B-17, which is operated by the Liberty Foundation and is named the "Movie Memphis Belle."

The plane is not the original Memphis Belle, which is housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, but it did play the part of the original in the 1990 movie "Memphis Belle."

The B-17 visiting Philadelphia this week was made in 1945 and never saw combat. It was used as a water bomber to fight fires and was eventually leased to the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit that uses it as an interactive museum to the "Flying Fortress" of aircrafts and those who served on them.

Blinebury volunteered for the service in 1943 at age 24.

"As a young kid, I saw too many movies about World War I and everybody's slogging through mud," Blinebury said. "I always said to myself, 'If there is a war, I'm going to fly.' "

He did - on 30 missions with the 303rd Bomb Group, the "Hells Angels" of the 8th Air Force based in Molesworth, England.

"When we were in the air, the B-17s were all over the sky," he said. "When the bombardier would say 'bombs away,' I could see all those bombs go with the momentum of the plane, and then they just seemed to stop and drop out of sight."

On Blinebury's 27th mission, the B-17 he was in crashed upon takeoff. Blinebury and two other men were able to rescue a crew member trapped inside before the plane burst in to flames. Blinebury was awarded the Soldiers' Medal for the rescue.

"There were 10 of us up on a mission, and those 10 men would give their lives for each other," he said. "But come down and play cards at night, and they'd kill you for a dime."

But it's not the ones who were saved who resonate with Blinebury. It's those who weren't.

"Sometimes I can't believe it. Nights I dream about it," he said, crying. "My every thought of England is of those crew members I lost. I hope the good Lord is good to them."

Those who seize the opportunity to fly in the B-17 this weekend won't be facing the conditions Blinebury did. Back then, the temperature in the plane could drop to 60 degrees below zero, requiring the crew to wear heated suits.

Now, the plane is windy but comfortable, because the crew doesn't take it nearly as high as in the war. It's also most likely the safest aircraft you'll ever fly on, said crew member Keith Youngblood.

"747s weren't designed to have holes shot in the wings and still fly," Youngblood said. "This was."

Those who take a flight - for $450 a person - will get to move around the plane from its nose to the open waist guns, and to the radio room, where passengers can stick their heads out of the top of the plane like teens in a limo on the way to prom.

Flights and tours will be available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Aspiring fliers should contact Scott Maher at 918-340-0243 or smaher@libertyfoundation.org for reservations. Tours on the ground are free.

As for Blinebury, he was happy admiring his old girl from afar yesterday.

"I love that baby," he said.

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