SALT LAKE CITY — Buckled into a seat on a vintage World War II-era B-17 bomber, Richard Stucki looked equal parts the excited passenger and contented former aviator the soon-to-be centenarian actually was.
Stucki was enjoying a VIP flight Monday aboard the Madras Maiden — one of only a dozen B-17 aircraft still flying today — as an early birthday present from his family. He turns 100 on July 19.
The flight was arranged by one of his grandchildren who contacted the Liberty Foundation, which owns and tours the muscular, four-propeller airplane that will be on display this weekend at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Public tours will be available Saturday and Sunday at TAC Air, 303 N. 2370 West.
During World War II, the Cedar City native transferred from the Army to the Air Forces, where he became a flight instructor at Hobbs Army Air Base in New Mexico. It was there he became familiar with the mighty B-17 by making daily flights in the aircraft, he said.
"We started at six in the morning and flew till noon," he explained. "We flew all the time and always had four students."
Flash forward to current day and he was complimentary of the pilots manning the cockpit of the B-17 on this sun-drenched spring day.
"This was nice. (I) didn't have quite the view I use to have sitting up front," he joked. "It was a nice ride. They did a good job taking off and landing both."
Recalling his days as an instructor, Stucki said the B-17 “just took some experience” to learn to fly effectively, but was a capable flying machine.
Dubbed the "flying fortress" because of its offensive firepower, the Boeing B-17 was among the most famous war-era aircraft of its time. Throughout the war, the B-17 was produced in larger quantities than any other previous model. The aircraft was equipped with 13, .50-caliber machine guns and three revolving gun turrets, along with waist and cheek guns.
Madras Maiden was built toward the end of the war and never saw any combat, a press released stated. The aircraft is now being used as a "flying museum" that pays homage to the men and women who fought in the war.
"Our primary goal is to honor the veterans of World War II and all veterans," said David Lyon, pilot for the Liberty Foundation, a Claremore, Oklahoma, organization dedicated to recognizing the legacy of service in WWII. "And also to educate the younger generation that really doesn't know that much about the sacrifices that were made by the young warriors back in the '40s that fought in World War II and were successful."
The B-17 was an airplane that earned the respect of enemy combatants, Lyon said. The flight crews lauded the B-17 for its ability to take and withstand heavy combat damage and return safely home, he said.
The group is touring the Madras Maiden, formerly known as Chuckie. The aircraft is painted in the markings of the 381st Bomb Group that participated in nearly 300 missions during WWII, dropped 22,000 tons of bombs and shot down 223 enemy aircraft.
The B-17's mission today is to teach the American people about the courageous WWII veterans, and honor those brave aircrew who never made it home, Lyon reiterated.
Along with media members, Stucki and a few of his great-grandchildren were allowed to take a short flight in the skies above the Salt Lake Valley. Great-granddaughter Aspen Holdlmair, 15, of South Jordan, said being on the flight was a special moment she was able to share with her great-grandfather.
"Right now in history class, we're learning about the world wars," she said. "It's cool to be able to get on this plane and fly (while) learning some history with it, too. It was quite a cool experience."
"I definitely felt a connection (with him)," she added. "It was very sweet and I definitely will remember this."
While the Madras Maiden has been operational for 73 years, the aircraft has been "gently flown" over those many decades, said Jon Eads, mechanic for the Liberty Foundation. The aircraft has about 6,000 flying hours on it, which is about what a current jet flies in a couple of years, he said. Because of that and the fact that engine parts are pretty easy to come by, keeping the B-17 properly maintained is not a problem.
"A lot of people had bought up all these (B-17) parts from the government after the war, (keeping) them in warehouses figuring that the airlines were going to still use those engines," he said. "(Then) the jet came out and all the airlines went to jets, leaving (the old) parts just sitting there."
He has a ready supply of parts at this disposal and when something comes up, he is able to find what he needs in a few days, he said. However, the cost of maintaining a WWII-era aircraft is not at all cheap, Lyon said.
"It costs about $4,500 an hour," he said. The annual cost to maintain the aircraft is in the $1.5 million range, he added.
Despite the expense and hours of 'blood, sweat and tears,' it's still worth it, he said.
"It's fun and touring the country — meeting the veterans and meeting the people who come out is fascinating," Lyon said. "Seeing the interest being sparked in the younger generation gives you hope that others are going to follow along in our footsteps and get involved in an operation like this."