This past spring the Wings of Freedom Tour flew into Arizona, and Gerry and I caught up with it at the Scottsdale Airport. The popular tour features three of the most famous combat aircraft from World War II, all of them flyable. They include the heavyweight workhorses of the strategic bombing campaign over Europe, the B-17 (model G) Flying Fortress, the B-24 (model J) Liberator, and perhaps the most famous and successful fighter plane of all time, the P-51 (model C) Mustang, in a unique 2-seat configuration.
[Photo, left: A B-17 Flying Fortress, perhaps the most famous and romantic airplane of World War II. The heavy bomber was the mainstay of the strategic bombing campaign over Europe from 1942-1945. The plane had a reputation for sustaining great damage on its missions and still making it back to base. Yet more than one third of those built were destroyed in combat... That's me in the green cap. My parents are right behind me. My father who is 90 years old is wearing his VFW cap for his World War II service in the 20th Air Force. He was part of the ground team servicing B-29 Super Fortresses on the island of Tinian in the Pacific. I think he was proud to attend this show, and I was proud to bring him along.]
The planes were available for viewing on the ground which included a tour through the inside of both B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator. Half-hour flights were available on either bomber but it is an expensive ticket (starting at $325). The more affluent flier might consider an hour of "Flight Training" aboard the 2-seat Mustang, surely a once in a lifetime experience. A flight on any of these planes is a very rare privilege because there are only a handful of them left in flying condition. The costly tickets are considered donations toward the upkeep of these vintage aircraft. Maintenance is extremely expensive. Many of their parts must be custom fabricated.
[Photo, right: The B-24 Liberator was the other heavy bomber used in the European theater. Its characteristics such as crew size, range, number of guns, bomb capacity, etc. were very similar to the B-17. Yet the B-24 did not share the same popularity or reputation. The B-17 was said to be more durable and handle better, and its total dropped bomb tonnage for the war was far greater than the Liberator. Ironically, far more B-24s were manufactured, 50% more, for the simple reason that they were cheaper and easier to make.
[Photo, left: Inside the cockpit of the B-24J Liberator, apparently one of only two flyable B-24s left in the world. The other is a B-24A owned by the Commemorative Air Force (formerly Confederate Air Force). Model "A" represents the first version; model "J" the final version. It was surprisingly cramped inside the cockpit, as were most of the forward spaces inside the B-24. Here I sit sideways because I couldn't squeeze my long legs in front of me. Having a small physical stature would be a definite advantage for working in a B-17 or B-24. Also, surprising was the limited visibility out of the narrow windows. The cockpit is set well back on the plane's nose which also inhibits visibility.
[Photo, above right: This P-51C Mustang is the world's only remaining dual control model. A small number of P-51Cs were converted to 2-seat primarily to provide VIPs with fast transport. The most famous passenger of a 2-seat Mustang was General Eisenhower who surveyed the battle scene at Normandy in the plane.]
The Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts, has conducted the Wings of Freedom Tour since 1989. The foundation is a nonprofit educational organization whose purpose is to organize and support "living history" events that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation.
Their tour stops all over the country and attracts three to four million people each year.
You may book "flight reservations" online.
[Photo, left: the Wings of Freedom in Flight, courtesy of Collings Foundation Media.]
It would be easy to look at these vintage planes like vintage autos at a show, admiring the beauty of the aircraft, the glamour of their nose art, and their rarity. However to truly appreciate them, one must always remember and appreciate the history they represent:
- The planes and their crews flew during our country's last undisputed war of survival; they were literally fighting for our freedom.
- Once perfected, the air fleets of the heavy bombers were truly "weapons of mass destruction." Their business was carnage and destruction on a scale previously unknown in warfare. The destructiveness of air raids and the war in general should never be forgotten.
- Most of all, the airmen of the strategic bombers paid a terrible price in terrifying conditions. Their casualty rate was among the highest of any U.S. military organization during World War II.
[Photo, above right: The B-17G Flying Fortress, above left: the B-24J Liberator.]
While viewing the interior of the bombers, I was struck by the crude and primitive conditions inside, and the utterly cramped quarters. What was it like to conduct mortal combat in such a place? I could barely move around in t-shirt and shorts. Yet the bomber crewmen wore about sixty pounds of bulky equipment, including a heavy flight suit, flying boots, parachute, steel flak vest, leather headgear, and oxygen mask. 
[Photo, right: The ten-man crew of a B-24 decked out with all their gear awaiting the start of a mission. There were four officers to a crew: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and navigator. The bombardier and navigator also manned guns when not performing their other duties. The six enlisted men manned the other guns with two of them also performing as radio operator and flight engineer. Click on the photo for an enlargement showing the plane. Photo courtesy of Remington Society.]
The bombers were unheated and unpressurized. During the winter temperatures could reach fifty degrees below zero, as the planes often cruised at an elevation of 20,000 feet or more. The crewmen were dependent on oxygen at that elevation, and the masks were unpleasant, clammy and could become frozen in the sub-zero conditions.  There was no bathroom on the plane, and flights could be as long as ten hours or more.
The American bomber crews were at greater risk than their British counterparts. Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) chose to conduct their large-scale raids generally at night, for the most part wantonly bombing the German cities without distinction between civilian and military targets. America's 8th Air Force (which operated out of England, and later the 15th Air Force out of Italy) preferred to practice "precision daylight bombing" with the goal of accurately attacking German military and industrial targets. This exposed American fleets to the full wrath of the German Luftwaffe. During the height of the Luftwaffe's power in 1943, only about one in four bomber airmen were completing their requisite tour of duty (usually 25 or more missions).  The others were injured, dead, or prisoners-of-war. Each plane that went down over Germany meant the loss of ten men.
[Photo, above left: A B-17 Ball Turret. It took an airman very small in physical stature and very large in courage to man the bull turret guns. The turret was entered from the fuselage through a tiny opening. The ball was then cranked down away from the fuselage so it could rotate 360 degrees. The ball turret gunner could then rotate the turret to attack fighters coming in from any direction below the B-17. He was positioned on his knees in the ball and had no room at all to move around.
Photo, right: The bomb bay separated the fore and aft sections of the plane. A very narrow catwalk offered back and forth access.]
While the bombers bristled with machine guns - the B-17G had 13 guns, and the B-24J had 10 - they could not sufficiently defend themselves against the German fighters (mainly the Focke-Wulf-190 and Messerschmitt-109).  Their losses began to diminish in 1943-4 with the arrival of the long range P-51 Mustangs which could escort the bombers to their targets and wreaked havoc with the German fighters. Yet by the end of the war, of 12,732 B-17s built, 4,735 were destroyed in combat. 
If a bomber was fatally hit in flight, the chances of the entire crew bailing out weren't that great especially if they had to get out in a hurry. They had to move through the cramped spaces in bulky gear to the nearest opening such as the bomb bay (assuming it was open) or perhaps the waist gunners' large windows. A seriously wounded plane might not be able to hold smooth, level flight. The torque of a diving plane would make movement in the plane very difficult.
[Photo, left: The rear section of a B-17 looking toward the tail. At right is one of two waist gunner stations. On this B-17, the opening was sealed with a plastic window. On the B-24J the waist gunner's opening had no window. Most historic photos show no windows. At the left rear is an egress hatch. The waist gunners were the only crew members who had room to move around.]
Bailing out of the plane was no guarantee of survival. Bombers were stacked up at varying altitudes. Fighters were buzzing about. Debris could be flying around. Tangling the parachute or hitting anything would likely be fatal. There were many terrifying ways for an airman to die.
On August 17, 1943, one of the most notorious raids of the war took place. The 8th Air Force launched a two-pronged attack deep into Germany, sending a total of 376 B-17s against the Messerschmitt-109 factories in Regensburg and the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt. The Germans meant to defend these sites at all costs and threw everything they had at the raiders, inflicting huge damage. The pitched air battles that went on virtually nonstop for hours resulted in the loss of 60 aircraft (and therefore 600 men) and another 172 damaged. Despite the losses, the Americans still successfully attacked the sites.
In his memoir, Raid on Regensburg, Lt. Col. Beirne Lay described some of the horrors he witnessed that day: 
- The plane he'd originally been assigned to that day got hit and instantly exploded.
- A nearby plane was hit, and men bailed out of the bomb bay, the waist gunner window, and the rear hatch. The pilot and copilot had apparently been holding the plane level for the men to get out. The plane started into a shallow dive and neither pilot nor copilot made it out of the plane.
- A man bailed out and immediately hit the plane's horizontal stabilizer. He went limp and fell without his parachute ever opening.
- Most chilling, Lay's plane flew through an extensive debris field consisting of B-17 pieces, parts of German fighter aircraft, and human body parts.
Various foundations tour the vintage military aircraft around the country. These shows are exciting events and very worthwhile to those who are interested in aviation and history. A flight aboard one of the vintage planes would be a once in a lifetime experience. However when you are enjoying thse planes, don't ever forget about the men who flew them in combat, and what they went through.
[Photo, above left: The bombardier's position on the B-24. Above right: The bombardier's position on the B-17. The bombardier on the B-24 had virtually no room to move around and apparently worked the bomb sight while lying on his stomach on the cushion. The B-17 bombardier had about the most room of any crewman in the front of either plane. He had a chair to sit on while working. Note the machine guns on either side of the B-17 bombardier's position. The bombardier and navigator manned these guns when not working on their primary tasks.
[Photo, above left: The distinctive tail structure of the B-24, and the tail gunner's position. Above right: The tail and tail gunner's position on the B-17. The tail gunners had an automatic mechanism to shoot their guns. By comparison, the waist gunners actually handled and aimed their guns manually.]
- The Air War in Europe, p. 98
- Boston Globe article, Albert Audette, veteran B-17 crewman stated.
- Strategic Bombing..., p. 9
- The Air War in Europe, p. 193-203
- Liberty Foundation, B-17 History
- Eighth Air Force H. S.,1943 Combat Chronology
- Reader's Digest - Raid on Regensburg, p. 324-331
- Collings Foundation website
- The Boston Globe Online, "A Thundering Flight Back", July 21, 2009
- The Air War in Europe, Time-Life Books, R. H. Bailey, 1979
- Strategic Bombing by the United States in World War II, Stewart H. Ross, 2003
- Liberty Foundation website
- Eighth Air Force Historical Society website
- Reader's Digest Illustrated Story of World War II, 1969 - Article: Raid on Regensburg, Lt. Col. Beirne Lay, Jr., USAF
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