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Erik Burgess, Published August 06 2013

VIDEO: World War II B-17 war bird 'Sentimental Journey' visits Fargo

FARGO – With unmanned aircraft almost certainly the wave of the future, big hulking planes might seem more like UFOs to today’s youth.

That’s what makes an old war bird’s appearance this week at the Fargo Air Museum all the more important, said Dick Walstad, co-chairman of the Fargo AirSho.

The B-17 Flying Fortress – nicknamed the Sentimental Journey – is one of three big World War II bombers stopping here as part of the Air Power History Tour put on by the Commemorative Air Force.

The 10-crew B-17 that landed in Fargo on Monday, complete with machine gun turrets on all sides and a fully functional bomb hatch beneath, is just one of 20 that are still flyable, Walstad said.

“It was a whole different world,” Walstad said, referring to the era of WWII war birds. “These guys flew with guns pointing at them from all directions and dogfights in the air … so it’s a real unique piece of history to be able to see these things and, in particular, to see them fly.”

Two more big bombers will arrive Thursday in Fargo. Tours will be given until 5 p.m. Sunday.

One of the planes on the tour is a B-24 Liberator, perhaps best known because of the Laura Hillenbrand book “Unbroken,” which told the story of B-24 Liberator bombardier Louis Zamperini.

Also on display will be a B-29 Superfortress, called Fifi, the biggest of all three bombers and the only B-29 still flyable in the world. It’s only the second time in about the last decade that a B-29 has visited Fargo, Walstad said.

A B-29 called the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.

The storied past of these planes is one big reason why Bill Goeken said he’s proud to call himself a pilot of the B-24 that will come to Fargo on Thursday. The retired airline pilot has flown B-24 and B-29 bombers since the late 1970s.

“If the war had turned out differently, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Goeken said. “So I’m patriotic about it.”

Exhibit admission to see all three war birds and a fleet of support aircraft is $15 per person, or $30 per family. Children 6 and younger are free.

Until the other two planes arrive, adults can pay $5 to tour the Sentimental Journey, said Laural Scholl, the plane’s loadmaster and wife of pilot Pete Scholl.

“She’s more of a time machine than a plane,” Laural Scholl said.

A ride in the tail of the B-17 costs $425, while a ride in the nose, alongside the popular World War II pinup sketch of Betty Grable, is $850. Rides will be given as people sign up.

The B-17 will also do a flyover on Military Appreciation Night at 7 p.m. Thursday at the RedHawks game at Newman Outdoor Field.

The Sentimental Journey was built in 1944, but never saw combat and instead was used for mapping in the Philippines. In the 1950s, it was used in nuclear weapons testing, and in the 1970s it fought forest fires in the Pacific Northwest. It went through a major restoration in the 1980s and could be flyable for decades to come, Scholl said.

“We’re hoping another 150, 200 years,” she said. “As long as they keep making this (aviation) gas, this low-lead fuel, we can still fly her.”

The Sentimental Journey’s was here at least once before in 2008. Another B-17, the Aluminum Overcast, has made multiple stops here, the most recent in 2011.

Still, it’s a special event to see the old planes, especially with a federal sequester that grounded the Fargo AirSho this year, Walstad said.

“These opportunities don’t come along very often, so it’s really in everybody’s best interest to get out here and see it while you can,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518