Bellingham WWII vet takes birthday B-17 flight

When the Boeing B-17 came into view, 93-year-old Bellingham resident Jim Blaney began to smile.

A surprise birthday flight on Tuesday, June 23, gave the World War II veteran a chance to return to the skies in the same type of aircraft that he captained during the mid-1940s.

“Well, this whole damn thing is crazy,” Blaney said with a smile as, surrounded by family and friends, he prepared to board the plane for a 30-minute flight around Bellingham International Airport.

Blaney identified friend Bill Stoelt as the “dirty rat” who purchased the ticket when the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour brought its B-17 to Bellingham on Monday. The two became close friends after Stoelt, who lives in Lynden, housed Blaney’s ERCO Ercoupe — a single-passenger plane — when he first arrived in Bellingham in 2010 and then purchased the aircraft when Blaney sold it.

Before taking off on Tuesday, Blaney vowed to get even with Stoelt and the rest of his friends and family who helped keep the flight a birthday secret.

“I knew it was coming, so I thought we’d surprise him with it,” Stoelt said. “It was an honor to do it.”

After piloting 37 missions over Germany during the war, Blaney was more than familiar with the layout of the plane, even commenting that the order in which the engines were started was different from how he was instructed as an aviator.

But the flight remained y extremely enjoyable, he said.

“(Flying) becomes second nature,” Blaney said. “It’s the same ease and pleasure of someone driving a fine car.”

Born north of Toronto, Canada, Blaney began flying around age 17 and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force when he was 22. He spent two years in the service and another four and-a-half in the reserves, after which he began working in the aviation insurance business.

Blaney continued to fly for recreation, often flying his wife and four daughters to family vacations. After moving to Bellingham in 2010, he settled in Fairhaven and took a step back from piloting once he reached his 90s.

Daughters Ruth Blaney and Carol Blaney recall their father flying over their childhood home in Iowa.

“He would circle the house and we would all run out and wave,” Ruth said. “He was very proud to be a B-17 pilot.”

Today, Blaney’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have heard stories of his time during the Battle of the Bulge, flying over the Swiss Alps at dawn and receiving sugar cookies and Oh Henry! candy bars after 10-hour missions.

“I’m totally relaxed when I’m flying,” Blaney said, chuckling from beneath his long, white beard. “Except when I’ve got to go to the can.”

Libby Keller can be reached at 360-715-2242 or libby.keller@bellinghamherald.com

Tour ends Wednesday

The Colling’s Foundation’s Wings of Freedom Tour visit to Bellingham International Airport runs through noon Wednesday June 24.

Four World War II aircraft — a B-17, a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, North American B-25 Mitchell, and a North American P-15C Mustang — are available for flights and tours. They are located at 4201 Mitchell Way, just south of the airport’s main terminal.

People can view the planes for free from the tarmac. Tickets to see the planes up-close cost $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. Flight tickets start at $400 per person for 30 to 60 minutes.

Parking is available in the airport’s Economy A Parking Lot across from the event’s enterance. The first 30 minutes of parking is free, and $1 per hour after that.

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