Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - May 27, 2011

A view from above

WWII bombers act as time machines for those lucky enough to fly in them

by Jessica Lipsky

More than a dozen historic aircraft will land at Livermore Municipal Airport on Sunday, March 29, for a three-day salute to veterans and the incredible machines they flew.

The Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom tour will open two bomber planes -- a B-17 Flying Fortress and aConsolidated B-24 Liberator -- as well as a P-51 Mustang, a Russian Yak-18 and several other trainer aircrafts to the public for tours and flights during the Memorial Day holiday.

Four World War II veterans will be on site as well as WWII merchandise for sale and the Swinging Blue Stars, a female vocal group that specializes in performing songs from the 1940s and '50s.

The festivities begin at noon Sunday, with bomber tours until 4 p.m. Tours are $12 for adults and $6 for children; veterans are "pre-paid." Hour-long flights will be given before and after tours for $425.

If you hesitate to take a flight because you're prone to nausea, vertigo or are just easily shaken, never fear. I was recently given the opportunity to travel back in time to fly a "mission" and survived to tell the tale.

Last week, I took a day off work to brave the wild blue yonder, also known as the skies of the Central Valley. My day began in Livermore where I met Kevin Ryan, stop coordinator for the Memorial Day event, who would fly me to Bakersfield for my date with history.

Ryan, a Pleasanton resident, has been involved with the Collings Foundation for 19 years but as I gazed uneasily at his 1976 Cessna 182 (a dual engine, four-person aircraft), I couldn't help but hum Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" and pray that this wouldn't become The Day the Journalist Died.

Forty minutes later, we were cruising 7,000 feet in the air nodding our heads to the sweet sounds of Bachman Turner Overdrive on Ryan's portable radio. Even as Ryan allowed me to "take the wheel" for a few miles, the 90-minute flight was incredibly smooth (albeit extremely cold) and definitely didn't prepare me for what lay ahead.

Four WWII era planes sat on the tarmac at Bakersfield's Meadows Fields Airport and, as volunteer crews scurried about preparing the planes for flight, history lovers and aviation enthusiasts climbed through the bombers and pretended to fire weapons, which a young child eagerly enacted for his delighted mother.

A Boeing B-17, a heavy bomber that got most of the notoriety during the war, was the more popular plane by passenger count. With a wingspan of 103 feet and maximum speed of 250 miles per hour, this bomber was named Nine-O-Nine in honor of a plane that flew 140 missions and took down three Nazi aircraft with its 13 machine guns.

Never one to go with the crowd, I chose instead to board Witchcraft -- the world's only fully restored and operating B-24. Witchcraft saw combat in the Pacific Theater in operations ranging from bombing (the plane can carry 8,000 pounds of bombs) to resistance force operations, and it flew 130 missions under the British flag.

As I stepped onto the bomb bay with a WWII enthusiast from Templeton, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be one of the 10 crew-cut young men who would navigate the narrow pathways of the bomber daily.

Witchcraft's four engines started in a dull roar that rattled everything not bolted to the plane and soon was reminiscent of the Nascar races my dad dragged me to as a child. Shortly after we became airborne, the pilot rang the "bail out" bell and we were free to roam around the plane, sit in any of the gunner seats, and try to keep our balance -- which is where the problems arose.

The B-24 bomber has no sealed or pressurized cabin, no lights to guide you toward the lavatory (in fact, there isn't a restroom at all), and it quickly became clear that this wasn't a flight for the faint of heart.

I'm usually a brave person -- I have no fear of heights or speed and generally like dangerous situations -- but as I climbed into the nose of the plane and sat in the bombardier's seat I was overwhelmed by nausea. The front of the plane shakes like the worst turbulence I've experienced during a flight and I wasn't remotely prepared for the cold air that whips your face and neck when you stand to look through the nose gunner.

I grinned weakly at my fellow passenger and headed for the body of the plane where two waist gunners are perched on the sills of "windows." When one of the crew motioned for me to stand behind the gun for a picture, I knelt down and immediately received an ice cold blast of air up my back and, much to my chagrin, had to run for cover as the photographer, clad in cargo shorts, laughed.

If I learned anything from my flight on Witchcraft, it was that I would be a terrible member of the aircrew. Not only was I developing vertigo but I couldn't handle weather that my airplane mechanic grandfather would have scoffed at. Because B-24s had a range of 3,000 miles and their crews would routinely fly for hours at 25,000 feet where temperatures could be sub-zero. To keep from freezing to death, crews would wear heated suits that could be plugged in near the gunner seats.

Well, if I couldn't actually get a heated suit I would have to pretend, and I crawled on my hands and knees toward the bomb bay and the tail gunner. I was stunned to find the bay open, with one of the crew sitting leisurely as his right leg hung out of the plane. He smiled at me and nodded his head toward the open doors, which bordered an inches-wide plank that I, apparently, was expected to walk across.

My eyes widened and I shook my head in fear: No way was I going tightrope walk 1,500 feet in the air. I would lose one of my favorite shoes, if not my life, and my roommate would be mighty upset that she had no one to help pay rent.

Once the doors were closed and all limbs were safely inside the aircraft, I made my way to the tail gunner where I sat for the remainder of the flight and pretended to drop bombs on whatever caught my eye. My inner sadistic 10-year-old rejoiced and my real, wimpy self was overjoyed to find a spot on the plane that wasn't terribly windy.

A little over an hour from the time we took off, Witchcraft landed in Bakersfield and I boarded Ryan's Cessna yet again to fly toward Livermore. Although I drove home barely handling the wooziness caused by flying all day, my ride in an amazing piece of history is officially my favorite reporting assignment to date -- and the closest I'll ever get to using a time machine.

So if you have the gumption, take the afternoon off and enjoy a bumpy ride through history. While the price may be high at $425, a fellow passenger summed it up neatly:

"It's really the experience of a lifetime. How many people can say they've been up in a WWII bomber and survived it?"

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