WWII Airplanes on Tour

The Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour this year includes B-17 and B-24 bombers and also a P-51 Mustang fighter. You can visit the airplanes for a small donation and, for a substantially larger donation, you can actually take a ride! If the tour is coming to an airport near you, these planes are well worth seeing. Schedule here.

The P-51 has an interesting history. Its design was led by James “Dutch” Kindelberger, a high-school dropout who had worked as a draftsman and taken correspondence courses before gaining admission to college. Kindleberger became president of North American Aviation in 1935. When his company was approached by the British govenment to manufacture a batch of P-40 Tomahawk fighters, Kindelberger proposed instead that a new design be built. Fortunately for the world, his proposal was accepted, and the first P-51 was flown only 6 months after the order was placed.

The P-51 had considerably greater range than previous escort fighters. Hermann Goering told his interrogators that it was when he saw P-51s over Berlin that he knew the war was lost for Germany.

Aerial warfare is of course not only about machines; it is also about men. Randall Jarrell, a major American poet, served in the U.S. Army Air Force during the war, and wrote many poems centering around WWII air combat.

The best known of these is Death of the Ball Turret Gunner:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose

One of Jarrell’s most haunting poems is A Front (as in “cold front,” but probably also a reference to the term “front” in a military sense), which begins:

Fog over the base: the beams ranging
From the five towers pull home from the night
The crews cold in fur, the bombers banging
Like lost trucks down the levels of the ice

(One of the bombers has lost half of its radio equipment: it can transmit, but cannot receive…and thereby, has lost its navigation as well as its communications, since it cannot receive the signals from the electronic navigation stations (”the beams ranging from the five towers”) which were to guide it home. Those on the ground can hear the bomber crew, but their attempts to help are lost in the void.)

Here’s an excerpt from Losses:

In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”

They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities

In Siegfried, a former gunner on a bomber reflects on the mission that cost him his leg:

In the turret’s great glass dome, the apparition, death,
Framed in the glass of the gunsight, a fighter’s blinking wing,
Flares softly, a vacant fire. If the flak’s inked blurs-
Distributed, statistical-the bombs’ lost patterning
Are death, they are death under glass, a chance
For someone yesterday, someone tomorrow; and the fire
That streams from the fighter which is there, not there,
Does not warm you, has not burned them, though they die.
Under the leather and fur and wire, in the gunner’s skull,
It is a dream: and he, the watcher, guiltily
Watches the him, the actor, who is innocent.
It happens as it does because it does.
It is unnecessary to understand; if you are still
In this year of our warfare, indispensable
In general, and in particular dispensable
As a cartridge, a life-it is only to enter
So many knots in a window, so many feet;
To switch on for an instant the steel that understands.
Do as they said; as they said, there is always a reason-
Though neither for you nor for the fatal
Knower of wind, speed, pressure: the unvalued facts.
(In Nature there is neither right nor left nor wrong.)

(The phrase “the steel that understands” is a reference to a computing bombsight)

7 thoughts on “WWII Airplanes on Tour”

  1. “Do as they said; as they said, there is always a reason … .”

    This is the discipline free people submit to when they are threatened with destruction, which they shake off when the menace has passed.

    This exceptional, terrible expedient, this power, once tasted by those who direct and expend the lives of citizens, makes them hungry to keep it, to use it for their own dream of the good.

    The industrial era and its wars did not just burn cities. Those decisions, those precedents, those ways of doing business, burned the cultural capital of freedom. We need to pick through the ruins like archeologists to remind ourselves how free people actually lived, before they were herded and driven and directed. We are relearning it. But we need to learn more, and faster.

  2. I have been going to airshows for my whole life. I grew up next to a National Guard base and actually worked at the BX as a teen in my first job.

    Anyway… the family and I went to a local airshow that had the “Heritage Flyby” which included a restored P51D. What a gorgeous bird. Just sitting on the tarmac, she looked ready to jump in to the sky and chew up some bandits.

    What really inpressed me, however, was a mock combat between this same P51D and an ME108 Taifun (which is the commerical version of Willie’s ME-109).
    That ME-108 sounded so weak and underpowered (and small) when compared to that unique supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin in the P51D. Anyone who has ever heard that Rolls-Royce Merline will never forget it.

    I can only imagine what it was like in England 43-45. Watching the heavies and their little friends must have been a phenomenal sight to behold. I amd extremely grateful for those groups and individuals who invest their time and money to preserve that heritage. I am very very pleased to be able to show these to my boys.

  3. I gave my younger son a ride in a B 17 for his birthday a couple of years ago. I only wish I could have done the same for my cousin who flew 50 missions out of North Africa but he had died of emphysema, the curse of the WWII generation. I also got a ride in the B 24 which is the only one flying. That was actually more fun because the waist gunner openings were not cover with lucite. You could lean out if you dared. Great ride.

    They have a similar thing at the RAF base where the museum is. Duxford is the name of the base and they also restore WWII warbirds there. They have a two seater Spitfire trainer you can get a ride in.

  4. I once played in a band called “Black Flak and the Nightmare Fighters.” The tour is coming into my region later this month — I may have to organize a road trip. Thanks for the heads-up.

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