Classic plane gives vets a chance to reminisce, younger generation chance to learn

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BROOMFIELD | Bob McAdam hasn’t spent a lot of time in a B-17 bomber. He only flew in the famous World War II aircraft on official missions twice. But his story is intertwined with the iconic plane nevertheless.

McAdam was 23 when he went on his first combat mission in 1944 as a navigator for the 10-man crew of a B-17. The next trip he took in a B-17 came 10 months later when he was flown to a medical facility after surviving a Nazi prisoner of war camp.

Now a 96-year-old Highlands Ranch resident, McAdam’s first and only WWII mission ended with a parachute jump out of the heavily damaged long-range bomber over Nazi-occupied Austria. He was captured about an hour after landing along with the rest of the crew, in enemy territory, and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner.

After he landed in Austria, McAdam tried to evade capture. He hid in a field and then made his way to a wooded area. He said as he moved across the road toward the trees, he saw someone wave at him about 100 yards away. So he waved back and made a beeline for the trees.  

“As I got to about two yards from the trees, a piece of bark flew off one of the trees as I heard a rifle fire behind me. I turned around and two men were behind me. One of them was a soldier who had his rifle on me,” McAdam said. “Why he didn’t pull the trigger, I still don’t know. Maybe he thought they could get information out of me. Maybe it was humanity.

“I’m indebted to two people that day,” he added. “The guy who packed my parachute and the guy who didn’t shoot me.”

McAdam recounted his service so many years ago following a tour of an operational Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber. The “Madras Maiden” B-17 is currently parked at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield. It’s owned by the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit group that runs the “flying museum.”

John Hess is a commercial pilot who volunteered with the Liberty Foundation to fly the Maiden during his off time. Hess is such a fan of the B-17 to the extent that he owns two AT-11s, the plane used during WWII to train pilots to fly the B-17.

“Most pilots felt this was the plane to be in,” Hess said. “This was 30 years after the Wright Brothers, they built this plane that was so high-tech. It is amazing the technological advances (the war) brought out.”

Still, Hess said he doesn’t fly across the country just for his classic aviation fix. Rather, it’s about giving veterans like McAdam a chance to reconnect with a part of their life.

“It’s amazing when the veterans get on a flight, the stories just flood back to them. They end up sharing stories that many of them had never shared with their family before,” Hess said. “The crews were so young, often no more older than 25.

And you think about the responsibility they took on at such a young age, not just for the plane but also for the crew,” he added. “They have stories to tell.”

The Liberty Foundation will run paid flying tours aboard the Madras Maiden May 20 and 21, and then will have the plane on the ground for free walk-through tours (see below for details).

While McAdam was set to fly May 15 as part of a media tour, the flight had to be grounded after a fuel pump failed while the plane warmed up. The crew of the plane said repairs shouldn’t take more than a day and wouldn’t interfere with the public tours.

McAdam wasn’t sure if he’d get back to the airport to take a ride. But he didn’t seemed concerned with that as much as he did about why he wanted to be there for the tour in the first place.

“I don’t want this story to be about me,” McAdam said. “I want people to know about this so they’ll learn the history.”

Fly on the Madras Maiden

When: Saturday and Sunday, call 918-340-0243 or email [email protected] for times and reservation

Where: Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport

Tickets: $450 for flights, free ground tours