Crawford Hicks’ recent ride on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber ended better than one he took 74 years ago.
Hicks, 97, of Warner Robins, was a B-17 pilot in World War II and flew 10 missions before getting shot down over Germany and taken prisoner. Hicks and his crew bailed out as the plane went down in flames, then he was immediately captured.
But at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport on Saturday, he had quite a different greeting when he stepped out of the plane after about a 30-minute ride. This time, a small crowd of people standing nearby erupted in applause and whistles.
The Museum of Aviation paid for the ride for Hicks and 15 volunteers who are working on the restoration of the museum’s B-17. Also along for the ride was Hicks’ son, Rob. Getting into the cockpit requires walking over a narrow catwalk and through some tight spaces, so Hicks stayed in the rear, but he was happy.
“It was wonderful,” Hicks said after stepping off the plane. “It was noisy as always. It felt good. I knew what the pilot was doing when it landed.”
The plane was the Madras Maiden flown by the Liberty Foundation. It is one of just 13 B-17s still flying out of 12,731 built, and people were paying $450 each to go for a ride.
The museum paid for the volunteers to take the ride to thank them for their long hours working on the plane in the three years since it came to the museum in pieces.
Among the volunteers on the flight was Ron Barber, a retired Air Force colonel. He supervised aircraft maintenance workers in the Air Force but never did the work himself until he started volunteering on the B-17. He has been working on it for a year.
The flight was originally scheduled for Aug. 27, and Barber was heartbroken that he had another commitment that day. But then it was rescheduled due to weather.
“It’s once in a lifetime for me, and I am thrilled to be here,” he said before the flight.
Mike Wood, an Air Force retiree who flew on the AC-130 gunship and with the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, known as J-STARS, works on the B-17 as a volunteer six days a week. He started out working seven days a week, eight hours a day.
“My wife made me take Sundays off,” he said.
He said it was his love of history that got him interested in the project.
“The B-17 was never built to last,” he said. “After the war they scrapped them all, so there’s very few left. That’s what makes it unique.”
The B-17 is a huge, four-engine plane and is one of the most revered in military history. Early in the war the loss rate on missions was high because fighters protecting the planes didn’t have the range to go all the way to the target.
Hicks told a detailed story of his career and his capture to his granddaughter, who transcribed the tapes and put it online. The story includes his first flight into combat.
“I was so scared I almost got sick when I saw the flak but was too busy flying to get sick,” he said.
Hicks’ plane was shot down on May 30, 1944, a week before D-Day. Hicks was in an 18-plane formation that successfully bombed its target in Oschersleben, Germany. They were on their way home when a German Messerschmitt 109 fighter came at Hicks’ plane head on and opened fire. The bullets set the two engines on the right wing ablaze. Hicks activated fire extinguishers in the engines, but it didn’t work.
The plane began to descend, and the fighter made another attack. This time the bullets hit and killed the bombardier as Hicks was talking to him. The alarms started going off, and the crew began to bail out. Hicks was captured soon after he hit the ground.
He spent 11 months in a prison camp and was freed by Gen. George Patton.
“I tried to kiss him, but he wouldn’t let me,” Hicks said.
The Germans surrendered a week later. Hicks continued to serve in the military, and after retirement he became an attorney. He practiced until he was 90.
Hicks put it simply when asked what it meant to fly on a B-17 again.
“Thank you for letting me be here, God,” he said.
The flight wasn’t just a fun ride for the volunteers but also a research trip. They are getting close to reassembling the fuselage and were carefully looking at how it is put together. The plane arrived at the museum three years ago and work began almost immediately. Although the restoration is expected to take another five years, people still can view the plane because work is being done in the Scott Hangar, which is open to the public.
The project is largely relying on volunteers and private donations. Anyone wishing to contribute can find out how at ww.museumofaviation.org.