‘Wings of Freedom’ Pilots Fly WWII Bomber Planes Around Country

Published: Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 4:37pm
Updated: Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 5:02pm
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
The Wings of Freedom B-24 is the only flying B-24 Liberator remaining.

"British mosquito bombers were over German targets again last night,” read an anchor from a radio newscast during World War II.

It’s not exactly breaking news anymore, but one group wants to make sure the war efforts of that time aren’t forgotten. Some pilots are keeping the memory alive by keeping combat planes in the air. 

“The area we’re in is called the waist gunner section,” said pilot Rob Collings as he gave a tour of a B-24 Liberator Wednesday. 

The plane was a heavy bomber that flew over the Pacific during World War II. Collings landed this plane about a half hour before, at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

Yeah, it still flies.

“They built 18,500 of them during World War II. Just a remarkable, remarkable number,” Collings said.

He said this is the last B-24 still flying. Besides a part-time pilot, Collings is Executive Director of The Collings Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes “living history” events. This is one of them, called Wings of Freedom. Visitors can tour the plane for an entry fee, and the prices climb between $400 and $2,200 if they want to take a spin with a pilot.

“We also have a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-25 Mitchell and P-51 Mustang,” Collings said. “These four aircraft really represent four of the most important aircraft in securing victory in World War II and our freedom today.”

The airmen in these types of planes went on risky missions to bomb valuable resources behind enemy lines. Now, these four planes fly 10 months out of the year, landing at airports in towns and cities across the country.

“I’m out here because I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I wanted to see what the veterans prior to me had to go through and had to fight with,” said John Kreischer, who served with the United States Marine Corps in 1968 and 1969.

Kreischer and other visitors explore inside the bare-bones bodies of the planes, sidling past the guns and climbing into the bomb bays. On this spring day, it’s almost a little warm in here, but Collings said that wasn’t the case when these planes flew in the war.

“This was cold. It was 50 degrees below zero. And these windows were open,” he said.

Missions were eight hours long.

“(You’re) not only fighting the elements, you’re fighting the enemy. So yeah I feel for the guys that were before us,” Kreischer said. 

The chance of survival for an airman were slim. According to the World War II Foundation by the end of the war, more than 40,000 airmen were killed in combat theatres. About 23,000 planes went down with them.

To see one of these planes today is rare. To fly one - even more so. 

“Every time I get in this thing and start the engine, I feel like a kid," Mac McCauley said.

McCauley has been the foundation’s B-17 pilot for 18 years. He affectionately calls it by its nickname, the “909.” He’s clocked more than 6,000 hours in this plane.

“I’ve had an opportunity to fly with some really great veterans,” McCauley said. “In fact, I had an opportunity to fly with Basil Hackleman, who was one of the original pilots for the 909.”

It was more common to meet World War II veterans at these events when the foundation first started them in 1989. Their attendance is waning, but Collings said they’re seeing a lot of new visitors.

“What I hope is we can spark interest in a lot of the younger generation. And hopefully they go home and they get on the internet or get a book and start to read more about the history and keep that memory alive,” Collings said.

The Wings of Freedom event will fly to Scottsdale Friday.

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