Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Wings of Freedom - the Birds and the B-17s

I love history and I love airplanes.  When I read that the planes of the Wings of Freedom were going to be at the Carroll County Regional Airport, or the Westminster Airport as we know it, I knew I had to go.

I read that a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator, and a P-51 Mustang were going to be there.  Saturday ended up being a grey chilly morning.  The sun was losing its battle with the clouds, but the sky was still bright.

When I arrived, there were no planes on the tarmac, but plenty of tents and guys dressed up in period costumes.  I overheard that the B-17 was on its way back from a round-trip to Gettysburg.

I waited only a few minutes when I heard a child cry, "There it is!"  I turned with equal excitement and saw the B-17 piercing through the low-lying clouds with its recognizable rumble of its four piston engines, landing gears dropped.

Unlike the smooth and deliberate landings of today's jet aircraft, the B-17 slowly lumbered down the runway, resisting the temptation to reduce its speed, thrusting forward until its momentum lost its battle with gravity, pushing its tail to the ground.

Once on the ground, the B-17 taxied down the runway with a commanding presence, its four loud engines with its rotating blades spewing blue and grey smoke, filling the air with the wonderfully strong scent of burning oil and fuel.

The taxiing B-17 rotated back and forth from its rear as it steered along the tarmac, lacking the maneuverability of the tricycle landing gears of newer planes.

Once in place, the pilot shut down the beast, bringing the engines to their peaceful state with its propeller blades in their symmetrical alignment.  The heart-pounding thunder of the engines gave way to silence only to be interrupted by the sudden cheers and huzzahs of the awaiting crowd.

Once up close, I felt as if I was absorbed in its history.  This plane could have flown missions over France, Belgium, perhaps all the way to Berlin and back while its pilots shivered from fear and cold.  The ball-turret hung from the belly of the plane.  A round metal tomb mounted to the plane with gears and tracks, the ball turret and its guns were there to protect the plane, its pilots, and the mission.

The front of the plane, with its angry windows, proudly struts its nose into the air with its wings confidently behind it.  It's decorated with nose art, painted bombs representing its missions, and swastikas showing the downed victims of the guns of their fortress.

I climbed my way into the plane through an undersized opening under the nose of the plane.  I poked my head up into the cockpit, much smaller than I anticipated.  The cockpit shaped by the heroic imagery of Hollywood was replaced by the crammed and uncomfortable metal seats, controls, and knobs of a small control center.

Under the cockpit is the nose gunner, his world being a big round window giving him the ability to see the world coming toward him.  He's tasked with protecting the plane from the forward position.  Its wide expanses allow a short man to kneel and almost touch floor to ceiling.

I turn toward the back of the plane and find the bomb bay doors lying beneath a rack of bombs, the main package being delivered to the enemy.  The passage to the belly of the plane is narrow and the sideways-stepping passenger is supported by only a thin metal plank.

"Pilot to navigator."  No World War II movie with bombers is complete without this trite, melodramatic, and unused phrase.  "Hey, Billy.  How much farther?" is a much more likely statement to be heard from the cockpit.

The B-17 was known as the flying fortress.  The plane was protected with a nose gunner, a top turret gunner, a ball turret gunner, two waist gunners, and a tail gunner.  No matter which way an enemy tried to penetrate the space of the plane, it would be repelled by the stinging hornets fired from the fortress guns.  

The tail gunner was a lonely man.  Not only did he need to crawl to his position on his hands and knees, he worked alone looking only at where they've been.

I spoke to one of the members of the Wings of Freedom about the B-17.  I asked him about the bombs painted on the side of the plane.  This one had over 100.  He said this plane was actually built right at the end of the war and never saw action.  It was later used for some testing, military air transport, and eventually found its way to into a state fire-fighting unit.  The plane was later bought by the Collings Foundation and restored to look like the B-17G Nine-O-Nine.  The original Nine-O-Nine flew 132 missions.  I asked how that compared to the Memphis Belle, which I knew (thought I knew) to be the first B-17 to fly the required 25 missions that allowed its pilots to seek refuge back in the safety of the United States while they sold war bonds.  However, I was informed that the first plane to accomplish this feat was a plane called Raging Bitch.  The military thought the name inappropriate as its image of war celebrity and sought  a more politically correct champion.  Thus, the Memphis Belle won the accolade.  

I was disheartened to learn that the B-24 Liberator had to make a detour to New Jersey for some repair work, though we were granted a 50% discount on our $12 admission price.  However, a P-51 Mustang came out of hibernation from a nearby hanger.

This is an earlier model Mustang lacking the distinguishing bubble canopy.  The plane was set apart by its squared-off wings, tail fin, and elevators, four prop propeller, and its underbelly air scoop for cooling the engine.

 By the time I got to the P-51, I had lost a lot of the emotional thrill from these historic relics.  I was at history overload.  We weren't able to climb up on the Mustang, or sit in its cockpit, or fire its Browning machine guns - can you believe that?

The most fascinating fact I learned about the P-51G was that a 2-seater was built and flown over the beaches of France on D-Day carrying the invasions' orchestrator, Dwight Eisenhower, the future President of the United States.  He directed operations from thousands of feet in the air looking down as our men landed on the beach and stormed up the banks and into France.

Sadly, there are very few of these planes left in the world.  I was excited that I got to spend some time seeing this planes, touching them, and imaging myself being there when they were the symbols of our military strength.  Apparently the Wings of Freedom come to Westminster, Maryland every year.  I hope to make this trip again next year and meet the B-24.  I hope you can make it, too.


Jillian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jillian said...

I messed up my first comment so that's why the deletion.
By the way. My name is Jim. The posted name Jillian is my wife's name, the one on our account used to post this comment.
I enjoyed your photos and notes. I am a longtime fan of WWII military aviation. I live near a minor airport and am fortunate to occasionally see one of these old war planes fly over- usually preceded by the unmistakable sound of their engines. That once permitted me to get a photo of a B17, this one I think it was in fact, that is very like your opening. I tried posting the images below. I hope they show.
Thanks for posting these thoughts and images. I hope you get to see the B24 next. (:>)

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