While walking across the tarmac toward the "Memphis Belle"--a giant, four-propeller B-17 bomber from World War II--the pilot said to me, "Everytime those young men went up in one of these planes, they knew they had an 80 percent chance of never coming back."
"We have better odds than that, don't we?" I asked. Jim Lawrence laughed and assured me we'd land safely. He's a retired Air Force pilot with 600 combat missions in a fighter jet.
The "Memphis Belle" was brought to Boise by the Liberty Foundation, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit dedicated to maintaining and touring the plane around the county, taking the public for a 30-minute spin in the sky. The plane, built by Boeing in 1945, flew over Germany and Japan in World War II, before being sold as surplus in 1960 for a little more than $2,500.
It was then converted into a fire-fighting tanker until 1982, when it was restored to its original appearance as a wartime B-17. In 1990, the plane starred in the Hollywood movie Memphis Belle, and since 2005, the Liberty Foundation has had the aircraft on loan to take to a different city every weekend.
On Monday, it was our turn. The crew lead us into the plane, equipped with machine guns, bombs and much more complicated seat belts than your standard airline.
After a shorter safety spiel than any commercial airline in the world, the four propellers fired to life for an incredibly loud, somewhat rickety flight. The back windows of the plane were completely open, and a section of the ceiling was an open sunroof.
We leveled off at a pretty low altitude and walked around the plane. I held onto the barrel of a Browning .50 caliber machine gun for support and stuck my head out the window at 175 mph--strangely liberating. I stumbled around the length of the plane, over the foot-wide walkway above the bomb bay, and up to the cockpit where two pilots weren't remotely fazed to have a stranger standing behind them. Ducking beneath their wall of flight instruments, I crouched into the nose of the plane, made of plexiglass and offering a 180-degree view of the city below us.
Despite its size, this was no smooth airliner flight. It felt like an overgrown Cessna, with the occasional dip and spurt of weightlessness that left me glad I popped a few Dramamine beforehand.
"We give you a very, very slight taste of what the veterans went through and the sacrifices they made," said Chuck Giese, our de facto flight attendant. "We don't take you up to 20,000 feet, you're not going to be on oxygen, it is not going to be 40 below, and if we do this right today, nobody will be shooting at us."
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but if you don't have the $400-plus for a quick flight, see the slideshow above and the video below: