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It’s not every day that a World War II-era bomber flies over Louisville, but a nonprofit is inviting customers along to do just that. I got the chance to climb aboard the plane to find out more.

Michelle Hanks | wfpl.org

Reporter Kyeland Jackson sits aboard the Madras Maiden.

The “Madras Maiden” is a huge B-17 bomber, and her silver paint gleamed as she sat on the runway Monday afternoon. A nonprofit called the Liberty Foundation owns the plane and offers fundraising rides.

Chris Whiting is a ground crew member with Liberty Foundation. He said the rides give people a sense of what it was like for soldiers back then.

“It kind of gives you the feel of the smell and the vibration and the noise and everything that’s going on,” Whiting said. “It just gives you a tiny glimpse of what these guys would’ve gone through.”

Michelle Hanks | wfpl.org

The nose of the plane looks over the city of Louisville.

James Hutchinson was one of those guys. A native of Bedford, Indiana, he served in 20 missions on a different B-17 bomber before he was 20 years old. Hutchinson said his job as the radio operator earned him the nickname “Sparky.” He’s 93 now, but still remembers a lot about his time on that bomber.

“The flak guns, the cannons the Germans had, they could shoot that right straight up in the air and it would explode and shoot down planes,” Hutchinson said. “Or it’d just riddle us with – it was just like a big shotgun shell. So you had the sky full of flak, worse than a buckshot, and we were the rabbits.”

Michelle Hanks | wfpl.org

James Lee Hutchinson sits at the radio operator station of the WWII B-17. He said he flew 20 missions before he was twenty-years-old. This is his sixth time on a B-17 since his retirement from the Air Force.

Hutchinson has written five books about his and others’ experiences in the military. He said the tours are important for people to learn what it was like for him and for others.

“The purpose is to educate people,” he said. “It’s a flying laboratory, and it’s forgotten.”

The Madras Maiden is one of about a dozen B-17 bombers still flying.

Michelle Hanks | wfpl.org

John Hess flies the B-17 over Louisville. The tours will take passengers about 1,500 feet above the ground.

Ground tours of the plane are free, but it will cost $450 to fly the plane if you’re not a Liberty Foundation member. Whiting said the experience is well worth the price.

“Out of all the flights I’ve done, I’ve never had a person say ‘Oh, that wasn’t worth it,’” Whiting said. “It kind of gives you the feel of the smell, and the vibration, and the noise and everything that’s going on. It gives you a tiny glimpse of what these guys would’ve gone through.”

Kyeland Jackson | wfpl.org

The Madras Maiden flies over Louisville.

More information about the Liberty Foundation and the Madras Maiden can be found here.

Kyeland Jackson is an Associate Producer for WFPL News.