Soaring over Natchitoches, Northwestern State University and surrounding countryside with a mighty roar, a World War II-era B-17 Flying Fortress offered passengers a small taste of the plane’s capabilities and a glimpse into its role in U.S. History. The four-engine bomber “Nine O Nine” cruised above the city and Red River, brought to Natchitoches Regional Airport to offer Wings of Freedom Tours presented by the Collings Foundation.
A Wednesday afternoon flight included Allen Posey of Baton Rouge, brother of Natchitoches Mayor Lee Posey, both NSU alumni. The Posey family’s interest in the plane stems from their father’s World War II experience. Allen Murph Posey Sr., also an NSU graduate, was a bombardier on a B-17 that was shot down on May 17, 1943, and he subsequently spent 23 months in a POW camp.
Similarly, fellow passengers Ben Rushing, a professor of mathematics at NSU, and Thomas King, a local radio personality, had personal interest. Rushing’s father was a navigator on a B-17 who served in England during WWII and flew over Germany, then was transferred to North Africa and was shot down twice. King’s father loaded bombs on the B-17 at an airbase outside London and would occasionally catch a flight with the crew to see the areas they had been bombing.
Wings of Freedom will host flight and walk-through tours through Friday and the crew was expecting visits from a troop of Boy Scouts and a few local school groups. In addition to the B-17, a P-51 Mustang is also on display at the airport. Proceeds from the tours go towards maintenance of the planes. There are six B-17s still in operation in the U.S. and two are owned by the Collings Foundation, a non-profit that preserves artifacts and organizes living history events to enable Americans to learn history through direct participation.
Another Wednesday passenger, Marion Salter, said it’s rare for Wings of Freedom to visit a city as small as Natchitoches.
“They came two years ago and for them to come back is a miracle,” Salter said. “It’s an honor for them to come.”
Salter’s husband, Stanley Salter, is chairman of the Natchitoches Airport Commission and their love of airplanes goes back a long way. Their first date was to Love Field in Dallas when they were students at Southern Methodist University, she said.
Georgia Hilton, also aboard Wednesday, shares the love of flight. Her husband Mike also serves on the Airport Commission and, along with the Salters, is a key organizer of Wings Over Natchitoches, a popular annual October fly-in that includes plane displays and air shows at Natchitoches Regional Airport, which is adjacent to the NSU campus.
“I love flying. I love the history and I love having them here,” Hilton said.
With passengers seated on the floor and strapped in with heavy seatbelts, the Nine O Nine roared off the tarmac into a perfectly clear blue sky, circling the city and heading north along the Red River for a 30-minute flight. Once in the air, passengers could explore the bomber, carefully balancing through the utilitarian aircraft, imagining what it would have been like to serve on its crew during strategic bombing campaigns.
The B-17 served in almost every theater of World War II. According to resources at Boeing, which developed the plane, in the 1930s “the first B-17s saw combat in 1941 with the British Royal Air Force. As World War II intensified, the bombers needed additional armament and armor.
“The B-17E, the first mass-produced model Flying Fortress, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound bomb load. It was several tons heavier than the prototypes and bristled with armament. It was the first Boeing airplane with the distinctive — and enormous — tail for improved control and stability during high-altitude bombing. Each version was more heavily armed.
“In the Pacific, the planes earned a deadly reputation with the Japanese, who dubbed them ‘four-engine fighters.’ The Fortresses were also legendary for their ability to stay in the air after taking brutal poundings.”
Even today, the Nine O Nine carries the aura of a rugged metal workhorse, battle-tested, irreverent and resilient.
Wings of Freedom tours have been a featured focus of the Collings Foundation since 1989 and the crew travels throughout the year to airports around the country. Next stops are Tyler, Texas, then on to Waco, Houston, New Braunfels and other Texas cities.
More information on the Collings Foundation and Wings of Freedom tours is available at collingsfoundation.org.
Information on Natchitoches Regional Airport is available at natchitochesla.gov/airport/natchitoches-regional-airport.