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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Richard Austin, of Granite Bay, stands in front of the Boeing B-17 "Memphis Belle" Monday, April 22, 2013 at Mather Field, which is similar to the original B-17 Memphis Belle he said he flew on a test flight during WWII. Austin said he went on 35 missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    The Boeing B-17 "Memphis Belle" will fly over Sacramento on Saturday, April 27 and 28, 2013 as part of an educational tour. Sixty eight years ago these B-17 bombers flew from bases far from home.

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WWII bomber pilot, now 90, soars in movie's Memphis Belle

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 8:16 am

Dick Austin, strapped into the seat of a growling, rattling bomber, grinned and gave a thumbs-up as the craft lumbered over Rancho Cordova.

When he was in his early 20s, the retired pilot flew 35 bombing missions in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. On Monday, the Granite Bay resident got to take a spin in a restored B-17, one of the few airworthy of its kind in the world, this time without dodging bullets.

Austin, 90, was one of the military veteran guests of a group that brought the restored bomber, used in the 1990 movie "Memphis Belle," to Mather Airport for public tours and flights.

"I kissed the ground when I flew my last mission," Austin recalled. "When you're 21, you're full of adventure, but I look back on it and wonder how I lived through it."

In fact, he lost many friends in B-17s while stationed at Nuthampstead base in England in 1944 and 1945.

"On my first mission, I saw my wingman's plane next to me catch fire, and he pulled away from the formation," Austin said. "There was a big flash, and that was the end of that."

That kind of story drives the nonprofit Liberty Foundation to buy and maintain WWII planes and organize tours of the Memphis Belle to 48 cities a year, said Bob Hill, a pilot with the group.

"We owe a debt of great gratitude to the greatest generation," Hill said. The foundation estimates that more than 1,500 American WWII veterans die each day, making preservation and education efforts more urgent.

The plane will be available for public flights and tours, Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Atlantic Aviation FBO at Mather, 10510 Superfortress Ave.

The public can schedule a 45-minute flight on the bomber for $450, which helps the foundation pick up the annual tab of $1.5 million to maintain it and take it on tours.

The original Memphis Belle is grounded at an Ohio air museum, and the airplane at Mather never saw combat. But it was restored for the movie by the same name, complete with the well-known painting of a seductive pinup girl on the forward fuselage.

Memphis Belle, a nickname given to the airplane by its captain in honor of his Tennessee sweetheart, was one of the most storied of the WWII heavy bombers, completing 25 missions and carrying her crew home safe each time, even after suffering severe damage.

In 1942 and 1943, the crew of the Memphis Belle dropped a payload of more than 60 tons of bombs over Germany, France and Belgium, flying 148 hours and 50 minutes of missions and covering more than 20,000 combat miles.

The fuselage art on the restored B-17 at Mather also includes 25 bombs, denoting each mission, and eight Swastika designs, one for each German aircraft claimed to have been shot down by the crew, both of which were on the original plane.

The B-17 was dubbed the Flying Fortress because of its defensive fire power. The model has 10 .50-caliber guns in turrets around the craft, including at the sides, under the belly, at the tail and in the nose.

The bomber on tour with the Liberty Foundation is one of 13 B-17s worldwide that can still fly.

Austin, a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Corps, remembers the layers of clothing, including sheepskin liners, required for the crew to withstand temperatures plummeting to 50 or 60 below zero during high-altitude flights.

Austin's crew dropped bombs at the German rocket plant at Peenemünde and on advancing Nazi tanks in the Battle of the Bulge near Bastogne. He said that the plane returned from one mission riddled with about 350 bullet holes.

This time, however, he got to ride as a passenger in the restored bomber, with his son, Richard Austin of Granite Bay, sitting next to him.

"It was great, and nobody was shooting at us," said the younger Austin.

For more information, go to www.libertyfoundation.org

Call The Bee's Anne Gonzales, (916) 321-1049. Follow her in Twitter @AnneGonzo.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Anne Gonzales



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