Video: B-17 bomber carries World War II memories over Tampa skies

The Nine-O-Nine, a B-17 Flying Fortress, is one of three World War II planes visiting for the Wings of Freedom tour. They'll be at Tampa Executive Airport until Thursday.
Published February 4
Updated February 11

TAMPA — Clutching tightly to a still-pristine seven-decade old log book, Carol Ballmann stood on the flight line at Tampa Executive Airport and marveled at the ancient warbird.

Before her stood the Nine-O-Nine, a B-17 Flying Fortress owned and operated by the Collings Foundation.

“My father was a pilot in those during World War II,” she said. “I love seeing these old planes.”

During the war, Henry Stadelmeier flew the four-engine bombers on missions to attack Nazi forces, ferry prisoners of war and even deliver food. The log book was his.

For Ballmann, 72, of Brandon, coming out to see the Nine-O-Nine was a chance to reconnect with lost history.

“My father never talked about the war,” said Ballmann, an antique dealer.

Her father once flew these same skies in the 1940s at MacDill Field, now MacDill Air Force Base. He died in 1991 at the age of 74.

The Nine-O-Nine was one of three planes the non-profit Collings Foundation brought to Tampa as part of its Wings of Freedom tour, which includes a B-24 Liberator bomber dubbed Witchcraft and a P-51 Mustang fighter called Toulouse Nuts.

The planes arrived Monday and will remain at the airport through Thursday.

For a price, visitors can take a 30-minute flight aboard these rare aircraft.

On this day, Ballmann decided to stay on the ground.

“I’ve flown on one before,” she said. ‘It was amazing.”

But husband George Ballmann, 76, and their children Dan Ballmann, 50, of Wesley Chapel and Kristen Solomon, 48, of Riverview, climbed aboard the old four-engine plane, pulling themselves up through a hatch on the side before strapping in.

“This is a family affair,” said George Ballman, a Navy veteran who wore his father-in-law’s Eighth Air Force patch on his Navy hat.

The nostalgic trip wasn’t just for senior citizens.

The co-pilot, Mike Mainiero, a 21-year-old corporate pilot based in San Francisco. His grandfather served as a P-51 instructor during the war.

Mainiero noted that he’s “about the age of the men who flew this during the war. Only while we have a nice, easy flight, those young men flew for hours to drop bombs and get shot at.”

The Eighth Air Force was also known as the “Mighty Eighth.” The combat unit suffered about half of the Army Air Force's World War II casualties (47,483 out of 115,332), including more than 26,000 dead, according to the Air Force.

All told, the Mighty Eighth earned 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals.

Keeping the old bomber flying requires constant care, said Angel Estrada, 29, of Dearborn, Mich.

A former Navy mechanic, Estrada was recently hired to help maintain the Nine-O-Nine and the Witchcraft.

“The more experienced guys say that the airplane will talk to you if you listen right,” he said, referring to the Sixth Sense-like ability aviation mechanics are said to gain while working with such ancient aircraft. “You have to have passion for this. I love my job.”

Shortly before 4:30 p.m., the Nine-O-Nine rumbled down the runway, the four Pratt and Whitney radial engines kicking up a deafening roar. During the short flight, George Ballman, his two children and the other passengers poked their heads out of an open midsection hatch, and squeezed through tight passageways to make their way to the big plexiglass window where the bombardier used to sit.

As the Nine-O-Nine landed and taxied down the runway, Ballmann patted his right hand over his heart.

“This is history,” he said. “I’m choking up with emotion.”

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-112 . Follow @haltman

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