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B-17 BOMBER FLIGHT SOARS BACK IN TIME

Vintage bomber's Tampa stop takes former pilot on 65-year trip.

The yellowed pages of his flight log tell it best.

Thumbing through the small black book his wife dug out of storage, 90-year-old Charles Davis Jr. searched for the page with that date - the day he left for war in a B-17 bomber.

As he stood on the tarmac at the Tampa Executive Airport Monday afternoon, Davis' old green Army Air Forces pilot cap rested snugly on his white head of hair. He thought about wearing his old pilot suit, but that didn't fit.

He lifted up his Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses to get a closer look at his book. Behind him sat a plane just like the one he used to fly, one of only eight currently flying in the world.

"Sept. 15, 1944," he said. "That's the day we picked up the plane."

Sixty-five years later, the Bradenton resident had the chance to relive his 18 months in the Army Air Forces, where he flew 35 missions as a first lieutenant in Europe during World War II. Stationed in England, Davis regularly flew a B-17 to bomb German marshalling yards.

After his children inquired about having their father fly in one of the restored aircraft, known as the Liberty Belle, Davis got an invitation to do just that. The Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit museum dedicated to preserving aviation heritage, asked the veteran for a trip, kicking off the group's visit to Tampa.

This weekend, the nonprofit will be giving 30-minute flights for a $430 fee from the airport at 6582 Eureka Springs Road. Those who request a flight will soar the skies over Tampa while rotating through the plane's different gunner stations. Organizers encourage others to come and watch the sturdy plane in action. Or for a donation at the end of the day, history buffs can take a tour of the grounded plane.

"People will be able to see and experience what the crew experienced in World War II," said Scott Maher, spokesman for the foundation. "It's a rare opportunity. We really encourage everyone to come out."

Taking a step off the plane after his ride, Davis smiled, grateful for the experience. The loud rumble of the propellers, the scent of burning fuel and feel of its rugged steel frame in the sky brought back memories.

He remembered the time he was carrying 5,000 pounds of bombs and ended up flying upside down. He was forced to drop the bombs in the English Channel and then somehow landed a very warped plane.

Another time, a plane was hit above him and cracked in half. It looked like his plane was going to be taken down with it. But somehow, the falling pieces missed his aircraft.

German railway yards were always located in the center of towns, he said, and during every bombing thousands of people died.

At the end of every mission, he recalled being given 2 ounces of 100 proof alcohol that he always slid over to his flight engineer.

It's important to remember the war and how it ended, he said. "It probably wasn't necessary to kill all those people, but it ended the war," he said. "We never want to get to that situation again."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

To reserve a flight, or for more information about the Liberty Foundation's visit in Tampa, call (918) 340.0243. Also go to www.libertyfoundation.org.

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