By Brett Milam
A living legend of the skies, WWII veteran Lt. Herb Heilbrun, was on hand at Cincinnati Municipal Airport Aug. 31, to fly again in his plane: the B-17 bomber.
At almost 97-years-old, Heilbrun walks with the slight assistance of a cane, but doesn’t have much trouble navigating entry into a plane he piloted before he was even in his 20s.
During WWII, Heilbrun flew 35 missions out of Foggia, Italy into Germany with the 15th Air Force division. When it was all said and done, he had racked up 261 hours, 51 minutes inside the B-17.
“That’s my baby out there,” Heilbrun said, as he stood admiring the B-17 Aluminum Overcast, restored by the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Heilbrun’s classic bomber plane is noted for being escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen, the bomber escort group consisting of the first black combat pilots in United States history.
In fact, Heilbrun made national news for reuniting with a member of the Tuskegee Airmen group, Lt. John Leahr. He had flown 132 combat missions.
“I’ve been wanting to hug one of those guys for 50 years,” Heilbrun told the Enquirer in 2002 about a 1997 reunion with the Tuskegee Airmen. “You don’t know how many times they saved my tail.”
The two soon struck up a friendship, which was detailed in the book, “Black and White Airmen,” by John Fleischman.
Leahr died at the age of 94 in March 2015.
The flight happened at Lunken Field at the Cincinnati Municipal Airport and it’s not the first time Heilbrun has had a chance to revisit his experience in the B-17.
“I stayed on the 17. I love the 17,” he said.
B-17s were known as the Flying Fortress because of their defensive capabilities, with its 13.50-caliber machine guns on the plane consisting of nine-feet ammo belts, tail turrets and waist and cheek guns. But it was a cold fortress, as it could reach -35 degrees celsius when up in the air.
Throughout its 10-year production run between 1935 and 1945, 12,732 B-17s were produced, with 4,735 lost during combat missions. Only 100 B-17 airframes exist in the world and only a small fraction of those are in “airworthy condition.”
Most B-17s were cut up for scrap, used in Air Force research or sold on the surplus market after the war, EAA said in a press release.
After coming down from the 20-30 minute flight around Cincinnati, Heilbrun seemed giddy enough.
“I would do it all over again,” Heilbrun said. “I love my country.”