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A thundering flight back

B-17 ride over Greater Boston rewards with time warp

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 21, 2009

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The engines chuffed a cloud of dark smoke and the four massive propellers whirred to life, propelling the 64-year-old bomber as it thundered into the hazy sky.

Below, there was no “symphony of light and flames’’ of the “calculated, remorseless campaign of destruction’’ that Edward R. Murrow described in one of his famous dispatches about the “orchestrated hell’’ conveyed by B-17s over Germany during World War II.

Yesterday, as one of the few remaining bombers made its way over the Boston area, there was only Albert Audette and his memories.

The 87-year-old from Woburn, who survived 30 missions over the English Channel as a gunner and radio operator aboard the aluminum-skinned workhorse of the fledgling US Air Force, was given a free ride on the Liberty Belle, a recently restored B-17 and one of only 14 that can still fly.

“This is the baby that saved our lives,’’ said Audette, before hobbling aboard an aircraft built to resist more flak than he cares to remember. “Without it, we would have never made it back. It was a great flying machine.’’

It was his first time flying in a B-17 since he kissed the ground after his last mission on May 25, 1944. The flight was arranged by the Liberty Foundation, an Oklahoma-based non-profit group that has been flying the bomber around the country since it completed a 14-year restoration project in 2004.

The rechristened Liberty Belle, which was built in 1945 and never saw combat, was restored to honor veterans. It was named by Don Brooks, director of the Liberty Foundation, in honor of his father, a tail gunner on a B-17 named Liberty Belle in World War II. The foundation will offer flights to the public this weekend at Lawrence Municipal Airport, but the price is steep, at $430 for a half-hour in the sky. The proceeds will be used to underwrite the cost of keeping the plane flying, according to the foundation.

“Our operating costs are about $5,000 an hour, given the maintenance, fuel, and parts, which are not readily available,’’ said Natalie Maher, a spokeswoman for the foundation, adding annual maintenance costs run more than $1 million. “It may not be something for everyone, but it’s for those who want to take a step back in time to see what it was like for our veterans.’’

For vets like Audette, the flight was a time warp.

As he sat beside the radio operator’s console, with the fuselage above him open to the sky where he used to fire a 50-caliber machine gun at incoming Luftwaffe fighters, he recalled how his oxygen mask would freeze when the plane reached high altitudes and the temperature could plunge to 50 degrees below zero.

“If you didn’t have your mask on for 15 seconds, you’d be dead,’’ he said.

When the flak from Nazi anti-aircraft batteries was heavy, he and other gunners would lie on the floor, above ammunition cases, the only part of the plane with a modicum of armor. “There was nowhere else to go,’’ he said. “Paper thin is how we described it.’’

The thin-skinned B-17 was able to take some damage and continue its mission, but Audette knows he was one of the lucky ones. Of 12,732 B-17s produced between 1935 and 1945, 4,735 were destroyed in combat, according to the foundation.

As the four engines rumbled over Greater Boston, Audette described the tumult of takeoff and how he counted the seconds until the B-17 cleared through the clouds to avoid hitting other bombers, which flew in tight formation to avoid being split by fighters.

He pointed to the compartment in front of him, where bomb-bay doors released their havoc, but he explained how the planes carried relatively few bombs - just two 2,000-pound bombs, four 500-pound bombs, and 100 smaller incendiary bombs.

As he surveyed the cramped quarters, he smiled broadly.

“This is something else,’’ he said. “Really something else.’’

Audette was one of several veterans offered a free ride in the clouds. Among them was Mario Natola, 75, an Air Force veteran from Derry, N.H., who served in Korea. For Natola, who has late-stage cancer, it was his dying wish.

“We’re not sure he’s going to make it through the week,’’ said Kim Natola, his daughter, who brought him to Lawrence from a hospice center. “This was what he wanted to do before he died. He wanted to fly one more time.’’

The brief flight yesterday ended with a thud as the big wheels grasped the hot tarmac.

“Same as the others,’’ Audette said, not flinching at all.

When John Shuttleworth, the pilot, came back from the cockpit to shake the veteran’s hand, the old man beamed.

“Fantastic - just fantastic,’’ he said. “I’ll never forget it.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.