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History hums in the air over Brooksville

The B-17 Flying Fortress spewed contrails of white show smoke as it made its first rumbling pass over Hernando County Airport on Tuesday, drawing cheers and applause from more than 200 onlookers.

The Nine-O-Nine, which flew 140 combat missions during World War II without loss of crew, is one of two vintage bombers brought to Brooksville for a three-day stint. The other is the restored B-24 All-American, the crew of which shot down 14 enemy aircraft on July 25, 1944.

Jim Wiggins, 75, served in the 8th Air Force, 1st Strategic Air Depot in England from 1943 to 1945.

The Brookridge man worked as a crew chief on two B-17 bombing runs before he was transferred to a repair base. There, he worked on the famous Memphis Belle before that bomber departed on its storied 25th mission.

Wiggins marveled at the Nine-O-Nine after touring it from front to back Tuesday. The plane has been restored to its original combat configuration, with bombs, guns, radios and turrets.

The B-17 in its day proved effective in high-altitude strategic bombing.

"It's got a mystique that's hard to describe," Wiggins said. "We're so captivated by it because you could knock the devil out of it and she'd still bring you back alive."

Once, however, Wiggins was aboard a B-17 that crash-landed in Belgium.

"We got out okay, but we left the plane," he said. "Some Belgian farmer probably turned it into a chicken coop."

Kene LaCotte of New Port Richey paid $300 to ride the Nine-O-Nine from Tampa to Brooksville. LaCotte said the trip was well worth the price.

"That's my first flight in 50 years in one of those babies," said LaCotte, 72, who has trained pilots to fly bombers and other military planes. "It was wonderful. Just super."

Not everyone visiting the revered bombers was old enough to remember their heyday.

Jennifer Jobe, 13, came to the airport from Floral City with her father and grandfather. She was impressed after her first time aboard an airplane _ especially one with so much history behind it.

"I got a chill," said Jennifer, a pupil at Inverness Middle School. "I thought it was cool."

The planes will remain on display at the Hernando County Airport from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. today and from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday.

Visitors can tour both bombers for a donation to the Collings Foundation, which sponsors the planes' appearances. The cost is $7 for adults and $3 for children.