We knew they were coming. Everyone had their ears on super alert, straining to hear that thrilling sound that only the engines of WWII era aircraft can make. There were several false alarms with folks dashing out the door to check the skies, only to be disappointed. And then suddenly it was the real deal, as evidenced by the screaming and running and actual jumping up and down as the unmistakable sound came nearer and nearer.
This week we had the great pleasure to visit the airport to see the Wings of Freedom Tour, a traveling group of four restored WWII era aircraft: a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber, a B-24 Liberator, and a P-51 Mustang. While there are lots of aircraft flying at the airshow at WWII Weekend, events like this are a rare opportunity to spend time aboard and really explore the aircraft.
The B-17 Flying Fortress is a heavy bomber plane that was used during the war for strategic bombing against German industrial and military targets. It has four engines, thirteen machine guns and was manned by a crew of ten: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio man, flight engineer, two waist gunners, tail gunner and ball turret gunner. It was made with the hope it could defend itself without the aid of additional fighter planes. They were used in both the European and Pacific theaters, flying in formations for daylight bombing raids. You can read more about them in the classic The Flying Fortress by Edward Jablonski.
Mary Rose climbs aboard! (she was dressed most appropriately in her vintage aircraft skirt)
Hanging out on the catwalk.
The nose where the bombardier sits with the Norden bombsight. Have you heard of the pickle barrel boast, claiming a bomb could be dropped into a pickle barrel from four miles up? (me neither)
The ball turret. (shudder)
Josiah pops his head out of a top window.
And of course we met many veterans who came out to see these aircraft, particularly those who flew in these types of planes. Here are the girls with a B-17 pilot! Mary Rose got his autograph in her Flying Fortress book.
The B-24 Liberator is another heavy bomber with four engines and a ten man crew, however with a more modern design and a heavier bomb load than the 17. There are only two flying B-24's left, and we have now seen both of them.
He served as a tail gunner on four (!) B-24s and told us some of his experiences, including getting shot down twice and ending up as a POW. You can read his story here and here. Another article about him here tells how he went back to Hungary where he was shot down and actually met people who were children during the war and saw his plane go down. Amazing.
The girls had a little silly fun too. They brought along a picture of a very famous B-24 pilot, so they could take a picture of his picture in a B-24. As they heard another B-24 veteran say, "You'd never know he was a movie actor. He was all man." (I believe him.)
The B25 Mitchell Bomber was made famous by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. We couldn't climb aboard this aircraft but just poke our heads up inside, and we did get to see it take off for several flights.
The P-51 Mustang is a favorite small single seat fighter plane used as escort for the heavy bombers. We got to watch 'Betty Jane' take off and land for several flights as well.
The girls took some time to do some artwork of the aircraft. Mary Rose brought her painting of the Liberator back the next day and got two veteran B-24 crew members to sign it for her- a tail gunner and a bombardier. Very cool!
And then at last it was time for the planes to fly away and move on to their next stop. The propellers are arduously spun, smoke flies and the engines roar to life as they prepare for take off (one even shot out a dandy little fire ball). Off they flew into the wild blue yonder, but you can check the tour schedule to see if they are coming to an airport near you. And wherever they land, the veterans and their amazing stories are sure to follow.