WWII B-17 gunner tells his story of survival
The last time longtime Kansas City-area resident Roy Shenkel flew in a Boeing B-17 was during World War II — on April 6, 1944, to be exact.
His plane had just been damaged, and he had to bail out as it was going down over Yugoslavia.
“I passed out from a lack of oxygen,” said Shenkel, who was a waist gunner aboard the plane. “I judge I fell 15,000 to 20,000 feet before I came to.”
He opened his chute and drifted downward. He landed hard and broke an ankle. He eventually was taken prisoner by the Germans and held in a prison camp for 13 months and one week.
On Saturday, the 93-year-old Shawnee resident will take to the skies again — this time aboard the Liberty Foundation’s B-17 Madras Maiden.
The foundation flew the plane into Wheeler Downtown Airport to get it ready for this weekend as part of its 2017 Salute to Veterans Tour.
Shenkel said that when he saw the plane, he thought that it was, and still is, a pretty airplane.
“I tell you what I like,” he said. “I like the sound of the engines when they take off. They got a sound of their own. It’s good and solid.”
The plane from the Liberty Foundation, based in Claremore, Okla., is one of about a dozen B-17s still flying. The bomber was known as a “Flying Fortress” because of its defensive firepower.
The Madras Maiden was built under contract by Lockheed-Vega in Burbank, Calif. It never saw any combat. Rather, the plane spent its military career as a research and development aircraft.
The B-17 was sold as surplus in 1959. Over the years, it was used as a cargo plane to haul fresh produce between Florida and the Caribbean and as a fire ant sprayer under contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Between 1979 and 2014, the bomber was owned by three different aviation museums and was slowly restored to her combat configuration.
The Liberty Foundation bought the plane in 2016 and renamed her.
John Ferguson, a volunteer pilot for the aircraft, said the Liberty Foundation tours about 50 cities each year educating and promoting World War II aviation history as well as honoring veterans who flew the B-17.
The plane also is used to educate people about the price of freedom.
“When you see a B-17 in a book, or in a movie, or in a documentary or something of that nature, you’re detached from it,” Ferguson said.
By providing the public flights and tours, people are able to touch history.
“You get the sights, the sounds, the smell, and I even say the taste practically of what it was like for these guys to be in these airplanes — without having to get shot at,” Ferguson said. “It makes it tangible.”
The Liberty Foundation will offer 45-minute flight experiences with about a half hour of flight generally from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the downtown airport.
The flights are $410 for Liberty Foundation members and $450 for nonmembers.
Membership costs $40, which allows members to purchase discounted flights for family and friends.
After the public flights, the aircraft is then opened up for tours until roughly around 5 p.m. each day.
“We don’t charge for the tours,” said Ferguson, who added that donations will be accepted.“We just want people to come out and see the airplane.”
The foundation uses proceeds from the flights and donations to keep the plane flying. It costs more than $1.5 million to keep the B-17 airworthy and on tour.
Ferguson said he hopes that when people tour the aircraft, they realize the sacrifices that were made by those who flew the planes during World War II.
“It’s not just to be somber, but it’s to be uplifted at the sacrifices and then go, ‘This thing is totally cool,’ ” he said.