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WWII-era B-17 bomber makes stop in Phoenix

  A historic Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a centerpiece of U.S. air power during World War II, flew into Phoenix Deer Valley Airport on Monday.

  Phoenix was one of the last stops for the aircraft, nicknamed Madras Maiden, as part of a 50-stop tour across the United States sponsored by the the Oklahoma-based Liberty Foundation.

  Chief pilot Ray Fowler said the national tour, designed to give the public an up-close look at the classic airplane, began in mid-March. He said he never tires of flying a piece of history.

  ''There's nothing like getting in it and actually taking a flight and really learning the history that way with the airplane,'' Fowler said. ''It's an amazing piece of machinery and we all pretty much volunteer our time on the weekends to come out and to do this.''

  Fowler, a pilot for Delta and who also has flown F-16 fighter jets for the Air National Guard, noted the B-17s do not have pressurized cabins.

  He said that factor added to the worry for pilots on top of the dangers of the war itself during WWII.

  There were 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935-45. Of those, 4,735 were lost in combat.

  The aircraft was not built for luxury, as soldiers were crammed into tight spaces packed with 50-caliber guns, bombs and heavy machinery.

  ''It's such an honor and a privilege to fly this aircraft,'' said Jim Lawrence, the Madras Maiden's co-pilot.

  ''I've flown a lot of combat but nothing like what the guys who flew this airplane did.''

  Lawrence, 71, served in the military as a fighter pilot deploying to Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

  For Lawrence, the opportunity to fly this plane was amazing, but the history behind it was something even more significant.

  The Flying Fortress is owned by the Liberty Foundation and is one of only 12 B-17s that are still flying, according to the organization.

  The Madras Maiden was built toward the end of World War II and never saw combat in that war.

  From 1944-1959, it was a research and development aircraft that was equipped to be a ''Pathfinder'' airplane . Inside, it was outfitted with an H2X ''Mickey'' radar system and is the only Pathfinder aircraft left in existence, according to Liberty.

  The B-17 has undergone many jobs through the years including a cargo transport hauling produce, a fire ant sprayer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and as an exhibit for three aviation museums.

  Phoenix-area residents can tour the Madras Maiden on Nov. 4-5 at the Deer Valley Airport, Cutter Aviation Hangar, 732 W. Deer Valley Road. The aircraft usually takes flight between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., then is available for the tours after the last flight.

  The cost to take a flight is $450 for non-members of the Liberty Foundation. Members pay $410. Donations are accepted during tours.

  Money collected from the event goes to preserving the airplane and continuing to display it across the country for airplane enthusiasts.

  ''We don't keep it flying, you do,'' Fowler said. ''The only way we survive is the public knows we're out here.''

  For more information, call 918-340-0243 or visit the web site at libertyfoundation.org.

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