Small and large airplanes fly over my house all the time, but when I heard the deep sounding and powerful “WWWwwrrrrhh” of propellers overhead I knew it was something special. Looking up I saw a World War II-era bomber plowing through the sky. “Wow!”
A quick web search revealed wartime era airplanes were at a local airstrip and they could be toured. This was a golden opportunity to introduce my young daughter to a part of history.
We arrived on the tarmac and saw three planes: single prop TP-51C Mustang called “Betty Jane” and two large bombers.
Betty Jane was silver in color with a sleek design; she was tightly built for speed and highly polished so that sunlight gleaned of her exterior occasionally blinding those who dare to look upon her. Some partition tape kept onlookers several steps back; this was a ‘look but don’t touch’ aircraft.
The B-24J Liberator sat further afield. This aircraft was stoutly and solid in appearance and looked as though it could take some solid punches if needed – it could also hit back with its 10 .50 caliber machine guns. It was a good-sized plane with 67 feet in length and a wingspan of 110 feet. Visitors could climb/walk through the plane via a small entrance at the rear. Inside it was Spartan with exposed cables and ribs of the airplane showing. Continuing through the plane was a large bay filled with replica bombs the girth of watermelons and about three feet long. A skinny catwalk in the middle of the bay, about six inches wide, was the only walkway to the other side. This was not scary when walking several feet off the ground, but what about when you’re several thousand feet up in the air? At the other side was the cockpit, with a variety of levers and switches. The Liberator could carry up to 28,500 pounds of weaponry – that is equivalent to the weight of 7 modern cars each weighing 4,000 pounds each! The Liberator is the only restored flying B-24J in the world.
The next plane we visited was the elegant and formidable looking B-17G Flying Fortress. This is aircraft is often featured in movies and what people frequently think of when they hear of a Word War II bomber. Although this plane is somewhat pleasant to view it should be remembered it is a machine of war with 13 .50 caliber machine guns. The Flying Fortress is about 75 feet in length with a wingspan of 104 feet; this workhorse could carry up to 35,865 pounds of weaponry – that is almost equivalent to the weight of 9 modern cars each weighing 4,000 pounds each!
Visitors climb in through a ladder at the front of the plane. You can see in the front gunner’s position and also the compact looking cockpit. Like its sister plane, the inside is cramped and utilitarian – space was not wasted on conveniences. A small catwalk leads people through the bomb bay and you have to steady yourself with a rope handrail. Here you can see the ball-shaped lower gunner’s turret and get a feeling for just how small, claustrophobic and even terrifying this position must have been. Next were the side gunner’s stations and their large .50 caliber machine guns complete with replica bandoliers, filled with bullets the size of lipstick containers, that fed into the movable (but non-functioning) machine guns.
At one point a mechanic pulled off the cowlings over an engine and completed some work on an engine. He was readying the plane for a flight that afternoon for visitors.
We toured the planes several more times, walked around and underneath them and thoroughly enjoyed the visit.
Later that day, while at home, I again heard multiple propellers with a deep sounding and powerful “WWWwwrrrrhh” overhead. Directly overhead was the Flying Fortress that I had seen earlier that day. It really was something special. I am glad I had the opportunity to see it and introduce a family member to this part of history.
These aircraft have been recovered and restored by the Collings Foundation, a group that preserves machines that helped build the world and helped keep it free. Visitors can tour the planes on the ground and experience them while in flight. Check the foundation’s website for tour locations, dates and prices.