Kevin Ryan, a pilot who lives in Pleasanton and has been involved with the Collings Foundation for more than 20 years, was waiting for my fellow journalistic lunatics and me last Wednesday at the Livermore Municipal Airport. Kevin looked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed while I yearned for coffee, sleep and the safety of solid ground.
The flight to Santa Barbara, where we were to meet the bombers, was smooth and beautiful. Kevin and his 1976 Cessna 182 delivered us safely to land, and I tried not to appear too grateful to have both feet solidly on pavement. As a person with mammalian vs. avian anatomy and a morbid dread of falling from thousands of feet, I had no desire to challenge Mother Nature by flying again so soon after landing. That is, until I turned around and saw the planes.
The Wings of Freedom tour was created as a flying testament to the bravery and tenacity of the human spirit -- honoring the flight crews, ground crews and workers who made and flew these bombers as well as the people they sought to protect. I don't think I understood the significance of these planes and this experience until I was in their presence. Seeing them, I could understand why the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator were said to be backbones of the American effort in World War II. They were daunting, humbling, strangely beautiful and -- totally awesome.
All my fears and adventureless ways flew out the bomb bay. Suddenly I was a little kid going to Disneyland for the first time, running around and peering up at the giant machines, climbing in and out, through every nook and cranny.
The greatest challenge of the day proved not to be gathering the courage to fly -- though my sense of self-preservation was still firmly against boarding a craft more than half a century old -- but rather choosing which piece of history to experience.
The P-51 Mustang, one of the machines that perhaps turned the tide of WWII and whimsically was named "Betty Jane," was unfortunately not an option, but that left two amazing aircrafts to choose from. The most widely recognized aircraft from WWII was the B-17 Flying Fortress named "Nine-O-Nine," and one of only eight still in flying condition. The 1944 Consolidated Liberator, dubbed "Witchcraft," flew a record 130 missions over Europe and is the only craft of its kind still flying the world.
Riding in "Witchcraft," the last of a species, was too tempting to resist. Clambering through the same spaces as had all those young soldiers was thrilling and profoundly sad, knowing that with its memories, triumphs and losses, "Witchcraft" would one day no longer take to the sky.
After I signed my life away to the care of the B-24 and her crew, there came what I will call a prolonged anticipation period -- a very long wait. Three hours later, "Witchcraft" returned from its local flight and we boarded to make our journey to Monterey.
As each engine of the B-24 started up, a cloud of smoke billowed out behind the propellers, and my anxiety returned with even more colorful death scenarios. The force of the wind from the propellers nearly knocked me over, ruining any attempts to look fearless and nonchalant.
Hauling camera case and purse on my shoulder, I crawled up through the open bomb bay doors and levered myself up onto the catwalk. The catwalk between the front and rear of the plane was little more than a plank, half a foot wide with few places to hold onto.
"Don't step on the bomb bay doors. They will open." The words of the puckishly melodramatic crewman returned to my mind as we passengers buckled ourselves into our seats. Inside, "Witchcraft" was all sharp edges, narrow spaces and a truly disturbing number of gaps in the frame with views of the world below.
My hair whipped in front of my face and tangled over my forehead even before takeoff, and as the B-24 taxied down the runway and gathered speed for liftoff, I held on for dear life. The wheels parted ways with the ground, and I let loose an embarrassing squeal, thankfully drowned out by the roar of the four engines.
Shortly after takeoff a loud bell rang, and we were free to wander. Once again my fear was gone and I eagerly scrambled to the waist guns and the open windows. The view of the coastline was breathtaking, and though I tried to capture the wonder with my camera, the pictures hardly do it justice.
I slithered through the bomb bay, balancing carefully on the catwalk and hoping my typical clumsiness would take a hiatus. I made it to the front of the plane unscathed and crawled on hands and knees into the gun turret. I couldn't get the grin off my face. The world was sprawled below, and the waves looked like splashes of blue and white paint.
The air was cold but bearable up at 1,500 feet, and I spent the hour-long flight keeping myself warm by exploring every part of the aircraft. I made a perch in the tail turret, a place slightly sheltered from the wind and with a clear view to everything we were leaving behind. It also afforded a clear shot to the P-51 that danced and barrel rolled alongside of us like a hyper little kid.
When we strapped back in for landing, and when we finally disembarked, the giant grin was still plastered to my face. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay up in the sky and make "Witchcraft" my new home.
The Wings of Freedom Tour comes to Livermore on Sunday with the P-51 Mustang, the B-17, and my dear partner in flight, the B-24. The trip may seem steep at $425 a pop, but I can safely say that despite my reservations, there is no experience like this one.
There was a moment on "Witchcraft" when another passenger turned to me with an expression of unparalleled joy on her face. Her words as she spoke -- yelled -- in my ear will stick with me for a long time as a perfect summary of my adventure: "Would you trade this for the world?"
My answer: "Not for anything."
Wings of Freedom Tour 2013
What: Ground tour and flights of legendary World War II airplanes
Who: The Collings Foundation
Where: Livermore Airport General Aviation Terminal
When: May 26-28
Walking tours: $12 for adults; $6 for children 12 and under for access to all of the aircraft. No charge for WWII veterans.
Flights: Donations are $425 per person aboard the B-17 or B-24. Flight experiences take place before and after tours. Call (978) 562-9182 for reservations.
More information: www.collingsfoundation.org
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