Flying Fortress Descends on the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

The B-17 Flying Fortress was built to be a battleship of the sky. Today, it has put its guns to rest and serves a new purpose. It is a flying museum.

On June 26, one of the only fully restored B-17s in the world landed at Glacier Park International Airport as part of an annual summer tour around the United States. Its name is the Sentimental Journey. It looks and feels like World War II, with all of the original gadgets but none of the firepower. On its side are the painted letters of its name and a large painting of famous WWII pinup girl Betty Grable.

The crewmembers of Sentimental Journey take their aircraft’s name and history seriously. Russ Kozimor says it’s “a privilege and honor to fly on this.” Laz Tollas calls it “flying on a piece of history.”

Built in 1944, the Sentimental Journey has received years of tedious maintenance and restoration to keep it in flying condition. Tollas estimates there are only 50 fully restored models left in the world and maybe a dozen or so that are capable of flight. The Sentimental Journey, when not touring the nation, is maintained by the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force in Mesa.

“Instead of people coming to our museum,” Kozimor said, “we take the museum on the road.”

The first B-17s were built in 1934 after the U.S. Army Air Corps asked for a “battleship of the skies.” Military officials wanted a multi-engine bomber that could surpass speeds of 200 miles per hour. The best engineers at Boeing were put on the job. The result was a fortress-like beast that was unlike any other plane people had seen.

The bombers were famous for their daytime raids over Germany during World War II. They lived up to their nickname “Flying Fortresses” by sustaining significant damage in battle yet continuing to fly. More than 12,700 were built.

After the Sentimental Journey landed in the Flathead, it was kept on display at the airport for tours and flights. It leaves town on the morning of July 3. Members of the public are invited to tour the grounded plane for $5 per adult and $3 per child 12 and under. Flights cost $425 and last about 45 minutes, including boarding, engine start, taxi, takeoff, landing and shutdown.

Tollas said it costs thousands of dollars per hour to fly the B-17, but if a tire needs replaced or any tinkering is required, that number gets inflated quickly. Each engine requires 34 gallons of oil and it takes 1,700 gallons of fuel to fill the plane. Then, of course, many of the parts are specialized to the point of being obscure.

“You can’t just go to NAPA,” Tollas said.

Kozimor, a mechanic by trade, has been on more than 300 flights to date. He became a crewmember, quite simply, because he’s an “airplane nut.” That kind of passion is necessary to keep up with the constant maintenance required on the plane. He said there are engine inspections every 25 hours.

“It takes a lot of TLC because it’s 65 years old,” Kozimor said.

The Sentimental Journey is mostly unpainted, a testament to the original design plans. Kozimor said engineers figured out that to completely coat the aircraft with durable paint would add an extra 800 pounds, an unwelcome load for a plane already carrying 8,000 pounds of bombs, 10 men and plenty of other gear.

Inside the plane, it feels as if everything is the same as it was in 1944: the panels, the control board, the machine guns and the rest. Kozimor recalls what a group of Vietnam veterans told him after flying in the Sentimental Journey.

“This plane’s got soul,” the vets told Kozimor. “We can hear the ghosts in there.”

For more information on the Sentimental Journey or to make reservations for a tour or flight, call 602-448-9415.

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