Most museums tell patrons to look but not touch their displays. The Wings of Freedom Tour not only permits it, however -- they encourage it.
The annual traveling aviation event is unusual, in that it's a "living, breathing museum" that invites people to get an up-close look at World War II bomber and fighter airplanes, some which still touch the clouds.
"Instead of the planes being in a museum in one place in the country, whereas a certain number of people would see them, by traveling around the country, a lot more people get to see them," said longtime hobby pilot and event volunteer Kevin Ryan. "You can take off and land, which you certainly couldn't do in a museum."
This weekend the interactive tour will once again mark Memorial Day weekend in the Tri-Valley with another appearance from Sunday through Tuesday at Livermore Municipal Airport. The Collings Foundation, which organizes the Wings of Freedom Tour and other living history events across the country, is celebrating the tour's 30th national anniversary this year, as well as the tour's 28th consecutive appearance in Livermore.
The small fleet of historic wartime airplanes flies over from the Central Coast each year and lands in Livermore, where they pay a visit for several days. During that time, the public can climb on board the aircraft for self-guided tours and learn more about the "flying tribute" to the military service members served by or that built, maintained or flew the planes during World War II.
The organization's five "unique and rare treasures of aviation history" on display this year includes the B-17 Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine," only one of nine in the country still in flying condition, and the B24 Liberator "Witchcraft" -- the only remaining example of its type still flying in the world. According to Ryan, "Most of (the B-24 planes) were scrapped, out of 18,500 that were built."
The B-24 bomber -- and a B-25 used in the Doolittle Raid that will also be onsite -- were the "backbone of the American effort during the war," according to the Collings Foundation, and renowned for "their ability to sustain damage and still accomplish the mission."
Joining the tour this year is a dual-control P-40 Warhawk, the legendary fighter aircraft flown by the First American Volunteer Group. Better known as the Flying Tigers, the group was comprised of pilots from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps who defended China against Japanese forces.
"There's only two that I know of, that are two-seat, dual-controlled configuration," Ryan said about the Warhawk on exhibit.
Returning once more this year is the P-51 Mustang, affectionately nicknamed the Warhawk's "Little Friend" for saving numerous American crews from enemy fighter attacks. Many were scrapped for their aluminum once the war ended, leaving very few models that still remain.
Despite the fleet's imposing appearance, looks are deceiving; visitors are often surprised by the limited space inside the aircraft -- especially the seemingly larger-than-life B-17 and B-24.
"They're always amazed at how small they are," Ryan said. "They always come out, 'Oh, they're small, aren't they?'"
"You also have to remember the crews ... just came out of the Great Depression," he added. "They were all very young and agile, and the movies made (the planes) look big." Probably less surprising, however, is that "creature comforts were not the design specs" of the planes, which are also louder and less agile than their modern counterparts.
"On the two bombers, there's no hydraulic assist on the controls, it's all cables and muscle," Ryan said. "It takes effort to fly them; there was certainly no power (steering) of anything."
Because the bombers were "relatively big, heavy and slow" -- usually flying "maybe a little more than 200 mph" -- fighters like the P-40 served an equally important role in the war, according to Ryan.
"We would fly them when going on bombing missions to fend off the Germans, and they were a lot more maneuverable and a lot faster," he said.
For an additional fee, Ryan said visitors can even take a flight or flying lesson in one. The once-in-a-lifetime experience is also "a really good opportunity for younger generations to see what airplanes were like during World War II, to actually see, rather than just read about it," according to Ryan.
Wings of Freedom Tour 2019
This year's Wings of Freedom Tour is on May 26-28 at Livermore Municipal Airport, 680 Terminal Circle. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. on May 26, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on May 27 and 28.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children under 12.
Flights are $400 to $450, depending on the aircraft booked, and are 30 minutes in length. Flying lessons are $2200 to $3400 for an hour. For reservations and information on flight experiences, call 800-568-8924.