Niagara Gazette

August 18, 2013

Veteran B-17 pilot recalls bomber's role in WWII

By Eric Keppeler lifestyle@gnnewspaper.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — For Richard Notebaert, the memories are still fresh in his mind – even after 70 years.

The Clarence resident piloted a B-17 bomber for the United States Army Air Force during World War II, surviving 50 missions out of North Africa.

The 93-year-old recently had a chance to visit an old friend when the Liberty Foundation’s 2013 Salute to Veterans Tour brought a B-17 Flying Fortress modeled after the Memphis Belle to town.

“It was just a wonderful airplane,” Notebaert said before his flight last week at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga. “It flew beautifully and it was so easy to fly. It was a very forgiving airplane, and it always brought me back alive.”

Upon takeoff, Notebaert said that some things were different – like the absence of the jolt of adrenaline that always preceded combat. But much about the Boeing plane remains the same.

The trademark drone of the four powerful engines is unmistakable, echoing a dozen baritone lawnmowers. The smell that permeates the air is not the jet fuel that is so common today – but rather, high octane diesel.

The interior of the craft is not pressurized, instead sporting wide open windows for gunners that results in a wind tunnel of suction. The planes typically flew high enough to make it mighty cold inside – bomber jackets are heavy for a reason – although this flight never became uncomfortable.

Of course, the biggest difference was that no one was shooting at him this time.

“We used to come home all the time with a lot of flak holes,” he said. “On one of our missions, three of our gunners were awarded Purple Hearts.”

From May to November in 1943, Notebaert was stationed near Marrakesh – where, he said, the food was awful.

As a member of the 99th Heavy Bombardment Squadron of the 15th Air Force, he flew his missions that totaled 314 hours – mostly over Italy.

“I think the saddest memory that I have came on a bombing run,” Notebaert said. “The B-17 in front of us took a direct hit – the wings came right off and we saw all of the parachutes come out. But we noticed that one of the parachutes didn’t have a body in it, so one of the guys didn’t have time to strap in.”

Over the course of his missions, Notebaert was awarded several honors, including an air medal with nine oak leaf clusters.

After he completed his 50th mission, he rotated back to the states, where he became a flight instructor in New Mexico – at the ripe old age of 23, teaching the next generation how to fly B-17s.

“We really have no idea what it must have been like,” said son John Notebaert, who was on hand for Monday’s flight. “Twenty-one-year-olds nowadays have to decide if they want an Xbox or a Nintendo. When he was about that age, he was leading his crew of 10 men in a flight over the Atlantic Ocean to Africa in a war.”

After the war, Notebaert worked as a commercial pilot at National Gypsum for 33 years until he retired 30 years ago.

For more information on the Liberty Foundation or on the B-17s, check out www.libertyfoundation.org.

“It is truly an amazing experience,” said John Ferguson, a volunteer pilot with the Liberty Foundation. “It’s a rare opportunity to experience history, and it’s also a chance to honor our veterans and thank them for all that they did for us.”

Contact Eric Keppeler at lifestyle@gnnewspaper.com