THE BELLE OF THE MILITARY VISITS ISLAND; the World War II B-17 Will Be Boarding at St. Simons through Friday

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Byline: TERESA STEPZINSKI

ST. SIMONS ISLAND - A proud piece of military history touched down on St. Simons Island early Monday.

Its machine guns silent and bomb bays empty, Liberty Belle, one of only 14 World War II B-17 Flying Fortress warplanes that still fly, landed at McKinnon-St. Simons Island Airport as part of the Liberty Foundation's "Salute to Veterans Tour."

The warplane will remain through Friday. Free tours are available daily, and people can also purchase a half-hour flight.

"This was the workhorse of World War II," said Bob Brown, 77, of Fernandina Beach, who along with his friend, Chuck Panella, 75, also of Fernandina Beach, inspected the plane from nose to tail gun Monday.

"You could put 100 bullet holes in her, and she wouldn't come down. Can you even imagine being in the ball turret?" Panella said as he eyed the turret, about 3 feet wide, hanging from the belly of the plane scant inches above the tarmac.

Both Air Force veterans and pilots, Brown and Panella had flown up to St. Simons for their weekly "$100 hamburger" when they spotted the B-17 as they landed at the airport.

Brown and Panella flew in Brown's 1957 Cessna 182 for lunch at an island restaurant, where the burger itself doesn't cost $100 but that's their whole tab including the airplane fuel for the trip.

Ron Gause, a foundation pilot, flew the bomber to St. Simons Island and fielded questions from visitors who flocked to the majestic aircraft.

Restored to pristine condition, it is the second B-17 to proudly bear the name Liberty Belle. It was built near the end of World War II and never saw combat. It is painted in the colors and nose art of the original Liberty Belle flying fortress that flew countless missions with the 390th Bomb Group of the Mighty 8th Air Force, Gause said.

"It's the newest B-17 flying today," Gause said.

Gause, 75, is a lifelong member of the foundation, which is a nonprofit flying museum. One of its volunteer pilots, Gause said has been flying the Liberty Belle since 2005.

"It's an honor and a privilege to be able to fly her," Gause said. "She's a joy to fly. She's a little heavy on the controls in a turn, but she's a very stable aircraft."

Army veteran Mike Brown and his wife, Brenda, discovered the plane while visiting the island from their home in Soperton, Ga. …