Valdosta Daily Times

October 28, 2013

World War II veteran relives life on a B-17

Brandon Powers
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber was crucial to the Allied war effort, particularly in the European Theater where its range allowed strikes deep into German territory. Today, only about a dozen of these legendary planes survive in airworthy condition.

The Liberty Foundation owns and operates one such specimen. While it never saw action in World War II, it has survived to fly a variety of missions since the war. The foundation made its plane available for tours and flights this past weekend at the Thomasville Regional Airport

On April 3, 1945, a B-17G with the serial number 44-83546 was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Force just 27 days before the surrender of Germany, ending the war in Europe. For the remainder of the war, the plane was in and out of storage at various bases in the U.S. and later served in transport roles both at home and abroad.

In April 1959, the plane was dropped from the military’s inventory when it was sold for $2,600. It was converted to a water bomber in 1960 and would serve in that role for the next two decades. In 1982, it was purchased by the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation where it received a full restoration.

In 1989, the plane was used in the film “The Memphis Belle,” which portrayed the first heavy bomber crew in World War II to complete 25 missions. Since filming, the plane has kept its Memphis Belle paint scheme and tours the country allowing visitors to view and even experience first-hand a flight aboard a piece of living history.

One such visitor is 91-year-old former Valdosta City School Superintendent James F. Goolsby. With a little help from the ground crew, Goolsby enters the small hatch in the side of the bomber. The last time he stepped through such a hatch was after he piloted his B-17 from Framlingham, England, to Bradley Field, Conn., on July 2, 1945.

Having never been close to a plane before volunteering for service, 1st Lt. James F. Goolsby flew a total of 23 missions during the war and received the Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster after leading bombing missions in 1945 into Oldenburg, Neumunster, and Burg, Germany where he encountered enemy fighter attacks and ground fire.

Following the war, Goolsby had no interest in flying, saying he “always kept one foot on the ground for the next 20 years.” Eventually his postwar career would find him serving as the principal of Thomasville County High School from 1962-67, superintendent of Valdosta City Schools from 1967-77, and a stint as interim headmaster at Brookwood School in Thomasville for one year.

Despite having the experience of completing nearly two dozen missions in a B-17, Saturday’s flight was a first in one respect for Goolsby. Strapping into a jump seat in the mid-section of the plane marks the first time he had flown in the bomber from any position other than the pilot’s seat.

The plane’s four engines cough to life, one by one, and begin to idle as the oil warms. After several minutes and getting the OK from the ground crew, the brakes are released and the plane begins to taxi to the runway. Once at the runway, the engines rev with brakes on for a final check. The engines roar and the plane shudders as the brakes strain against the pull of the four 1200 horsepower engines.

Wind from the propwash and smoke from the exhaust rushes into the fuselage through the two open windows in the mid-section of the plane where the waist gunners were positioned.

The past 68 years seem to vanish as Lt. Goolsby pumps his fists in excitement at the sound.

The brakes are released and the plane accelerates down the runway. Moments later the shuddering aluminum relic from another era is transformed into a graceful flying machine as it lifts from the runway, and takes to the sky over Thomasville.

Seatbelts are unfastened and passengers move about the plane experiencing the flight from the various positions throughout the plane. There’s the hatch above the radio operator’s position where you can stick your head out above the plane’s fuselage and feel the cold wind in your face as you take in the nearly 360-degree view. Or you can squeeze through the bomb-bay onto the pilot’s deck where you can get a close view of the engines out of each window before descending on hands and knees below to access the bombardier and navigator seats in the nose of the plane.

Sitting in the bombardier’s seat, hunched over the bombsight, surrounded by the plexiglass nose at the very leading edge of the plane, imparts a near sense of weightlessness as the ground passes beneath and nothing but blue sky stretches out above you down to the horizon.

Back near the rear of the plane, Goolsby is steadied by crewman Mike Woodward as he stands smiling looking at the passing landscape through the starboard waist gunner’s position. The cold wind whips through the compartment as memories that Goolsby describes as both “pleasant and rough” are brought back to mind.

The flight comes to an end, and with the lightest touch, the old warbird comes back for a perfect landing. Back on the ground, Goolsby, surrounded by family and friends, remarks on the experience by saying, “I didn’t know it would make me shed tears, but so be it.”

Make that mission number 24 completed for this heroic veteran.