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!. Indeed, flight instruction is available in the P-51, which is a two-seat trainer version. If the tour is coming to an airport near you, these planes are well worth seeing. Schedule here. Collings is also looking for volunteers to help organize tour stops in their locations.

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)

Here’s a link from the comment thread from the 2010 post about the Collings Tour: a memoir of a WWII bombing mission

See also my related post: Dresden

26 thoughts on “WWII Airplanes on Tour”

  1. When their B17 and B24 came to my town I paid the $5 to visit them. What struck me was this narrow catwalk – maybe 12″ wide – above the bomb bay doors – just think aluminum and if you fell – that was it.

    There is a story of a ball turret gunner on a B17 – hydraulics all shot up – they could not raise the turret to let him out and couldn’t lower the landing gear.

    When it finally limped to England the crew said their goodbyes and the turret gunner was crushed in the belly landing.

    On the mustang one of the best videos I have seen on it – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd5cg77mA48 – Dr Wagoner explains what it is like to actually fly it – Dutch knew what he was doing – even the air scoop generates some thrust – but a beast to land – and take off – killed a lot of pilots in training – that 1800 hp engine wants to take it every which way – and of course you can’t see out front –

    My hat is off to those 20 year old pilots who mastered this plane – in fact – all of them who flew – 8th AAF – chances 1/3 you’d be killed seriously wounded before your bomber missions were up – had to do 25 I think

  2. David – you like history – fascinating snippet I read some time ago – a year before the Mustang’s arrival in numbers in Europe there was talk of the AAF buying the F4U Corsair -0 that would have had the range – feard by the Japanese in the Pacific – they never did – it would have saved a lot of lives – only thing I can think is that it was a supply problem – couldn’t make enough of them for 2 fronts

    Bit of alternative history – seeing Blue Corsairs in the Pacific and olive drab Corsairs in Europe

  3. The Mustang was initially a diamond in the rough, its basic advantages over most of its competitors being the clean lines and the revolutionary [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laminar_flow]laminar flow[/url] wing. However, the Allison engine limited its performance, especially at high-altitude. What transformed it into the best WW2 fighter was the Rolls Royce Merlin engine.

  4. I’ve flown in the B 17 and B 24. I took my son in the B 17 for his birthday. The B 24 is amazing as you sit in the aft section for take-off, then you can walk around until landing. To get to the nose compartment, you crawl along a catwalk next to the huge, still turning, nose wheel. When I did it, the waist gunners’ openings were not covered, the B 17s are, and you could lean out if you had the nerve, or were foolish enough. A friend of mine was up in the B 24 and crawling along the catwalk into the nose when his cellphone fell out of his jacket. It would up on top of the doors for the nose wheel and fell out when the plane was landing. It must be on the roof of one of the light industrial building in the landing pattern at Orange County airport. He could call the number and it would ring but he never found it.

    Great experience. Best $400 I ever spent. My cousin who did 50 missions in B 17s from North Africa in WWII is dead or I would love to have taken him up. The 8th AF required 25 missions, then 35 later when the losses dropped. From North Africa, it was 50. The P 51 would be a trip. When I was at Duxford, in England, they had a Spitfire trainer that you could ride in but I didn’t have the chance.

    The sensation I had was how small those planes are when you are inside them. Tight quarters. They were huge for the time until engine technology caught up. I’ve never seen a B 29 restored. I understand that there is one but I don’t know if it is flying.

  5. There is a restored B-29 of, I believe, the Commemorative Air Force. I missed an opportunity to see it a few months ago in Fort Lauderdale. However, an acquaintance of mine who is a retired airline pilot went out to see it and was impressed. I’m sorry that I missed it.

  6. Jonathan – even today – seeing a B29 is impressive – the CAF is the only one flying one – I can hardly imagine how much it costs to keep one of these going

    They recently restored it – wrong term – really re engineered it a bit – those original Wright engines were always troublesome – they put a different model in and if I remember right had to re engineer the cowling

    The B 50 – came out post war I think – is essentially a B29 with a different wing and different engines –

    The Russians even copied the B29 when one was forced to land in Siberia

  7. There was a Discovery Channel show on a B 29 that had landed on an ice field on Greenland, I think. They found it covered by 40 feet of ice and snow and got it to the surface, in pieces as I recall. They reassembled it and tried to take it off to bring it back. The Auxiliary power unit in the tail caught fire and it burned up, after all that work.

    It was a heartbreaker. I’m glad there is one and I would like to see it.

  8. Mike – you are right, that was a hearbreaker – but it wasn’t under anyting – those were the P38s they got out – under 200′ of ice – you can see the P38 Glacier Girl at many air shows – the B29 – it was ready to take off – and caught fire from a stupid error –

  9. My father was a gunner, usually a waist or top gunner because he was tall and had difficulty getting into some of the other spots, on a B-17 in the 15th Air Force, flying from Italy. He didn’t often speak of his experiences, but he did tell me the story of a ball turret gunner trapped and crushed on landing (not in his plane). If the story is untrue, it’s been around a long time. What he did tell me of his experiences emphasized two things: the cold of flying at higher altitude and the holes silently (because of the loud ambient engine and wind noise) appearing in the plane’s skin as if by magic, from flak. Any one of those pieces of flak was probable death. He said he got used to many things , but never those holes.

  10. Sorry, that should have been a B-24 in the above post…..I don’t know why I consistently mix up these two planes, but I’ve done it since I was a kid.

  11. @Mike – if you want to see a good movie depicting those times buy/rent the Memphis Belle, (the movie from about 1990) – directed by Katheryn Wyler, the daughter of the legendary Wm Wyler, who in WW2 I think directed the original movie Memphis Belle.

    They take you from the morning – getting up in the dark, breakfast, briefing, takeoff, to…terror in the skies.

    On the B-17 and B-24 they are as different as night and day although both had 4 engines – B-24 had wings on the top which made survival after ditching in water iffy – great book is <unbroken story of one who survived, then 587 days on a life raft – and years as a POW in a Japanese camp.

  12. Bill, I remember now that it was P 38s on a ferry trip that would up under the ice. The B 29 was also in a similar situation but I can’t recall if it was buried.

    The story about the guy who ditched and then was captured is about an SC Olympic runner named Louie Zamperini.

    The second Memphis Belle movie had a few annoying errors, like the kid who was supposed to be a medical student. The service had a V 12 program that accelerated medical school and any medical student would have been in that program. The military was desperately short of doctors.

    The original movie was better, IMHO.

    I’ve got some photos of the B 17 and 24 we flew in I’ll post them.

  13. Mike – there was an interesting photo of them boring 200′ into the ice to get the P38s – there were 1-2 B-17s there because they are relatively plentiful and the p38 so rare they took what they could of the 38s – Glacier Girl is a compilation of the various 38s they took up – some more crushed than others Have a photo of her I took at Reno if you want to see it –

    The B-29 AFAIK it was above ground – just landed there post WW2 – and after a good summer of flying in from Thule to fix it – it burns when it is ready to take off – all because someone forgot to turn off the APU in the back – and the bouncing of the plane on the ice started the fire –

  14. If anyone is interested, here’s a link to the website of the 484th Bombardment Group of the 49th Bombardment Wing, 15th Air Force. My father was a member of the Yocherer crew, pictured under the 827th Squadron. This website has some interesting information and photos related to the B-24’s flying from Italy, including unit history, a list of missions, planes and personnel lost.


  15. “Glacier Girl is a compilation of the various 38s they took up – some more crushed than others Have a photo of her I took at Reno if you want to see it – ”

    I would like to see it. I used to know a guy who was an aeronautical engineer during the war. He told me that the P 38 had trouble with the main spar of the wings when first built. I haven’t seen anything about that since and don’t know if it was BS. I have books on the P 51 and DC 3 and the pilot manual on DVD for the 38 but haven’t found anything about his story. Do you know if there is anything to it.?

    I would normally doubt such a story, assuming the engineering would prevent such a screw-up in calculating stresses but, when I worked in the wind tunnel at Douglas in 1960, I learned about engineer’s errors. We ran a test in the four foot tunnel on a new design of a jet engine nacelle. It had a hub in the air intake that wasn’t covering the shaft bearing. It was there just to direct flow and add a bit of compression.

    The engineer had gotten the forces wrong and, when the air flow in the tunnel hit mach 1.0, the hub separated from its mountings and went up the tunnel against the air flow. Everybody hit the deck because in 2 seconds it was going to come back down the wind tunnel at mach 1.0. It did and broke the window in the plenum chamber, decompressing the tunnel into the building. The roof was mounted on rails and went up about a foot. Everybody was holding onto pillars and the wind for a couple of seconds was about 100 mph. The building was open and quickly decompressed up to the roof. Nobody was hurt but about 6 months after I went to school, a guy was killed when a hydraulic jack exploded.

    Anyway, know anything about P 38 design problems ?

  16. Did some radio in Oregon during the First Gulf War. Was doing pre-show research and saw that the guy who shot down Yamamoto was from Central Oregon. Named Rex Barber. He was listed in the phone book. Called him and he agreed to come to the station on a Saturday night. He came with a buddy who flew P-51s over Europe.

    Barber told me that he took a train from Central Oregon (Terrebonne) to Portland with a buddy to enlist. This was late Summer 1941. They both lied about their ages to get in. He was told to stand in a line with 200 other gentlemen. Sargent with a clipboard came by and said you – and you – and you and pointed at Barber and said, “You all fall out there for pilot training. He had never been on anything taller than a tractor before.

    Months later he was a P 38 pilot and they were shipping his unit and the planes on a transport out of SF to Pearl when Dec 7th happened. Turned around and went back to SF.

    Several months later they were pulled out of bed at 3AM and told to fly at wavetop height in absolute radio silence on a certain compass heading for several hours. They would come to an island and Yamamoto may be flying above it.

    They flew in darkness. The sun came up. About 1000 hrs they saw the island. There was a Betty bomber and a cover of Zeros. His unit mixed it up with the Zeros. He took the Betty and it went into the jungle. They were low on fuel and turned to home.

    Another guy claimed the kill. It wasn’t until years later that an expedition to the island verified Barber’s version of events.

    They were all sworn to absolute secrecy. That turned out to have saved Barber’s life as he was later shot down and captured. If the Japs had known who he was they would have literally skinned him.

    After the war he went back to being a humble alfalfa farmer.

    Most fascinating 3 hrs of my life sitting in a studio with him and his buddy.

  17. Greg – interesting story! Another interesting story is the time I talked to the owner of the bomber cafe http://thebomber.wix.com/bomb from their web site they have really fixed it up since I was there – looked a bit dilapidated – but the owner – told me ruight after WW2 there was such a surplus of bombers – he went to a base – base commander told him |pick any one you want” – for $600 picked a nearly new B17 – on take off ground looped it – crashed the plane – base commander told him “go pick another one”

    This guy is probably dead now – but I still remember the conversation a good 15 years later

  18. David – some of you might like this video – an AAF publicity film on the new P51 B – talk about the new RR Merlin engine, the engineering behind the aileron design, check list and flying demo –

    BTW a bit of trivia – Mines Field – was an old AAF field where they made the Mustang – site of the current LAX

    Surprised how much they knew about the speed of sound – and compressibility


  19. I believe “Kiwi Bird” was the name for the B29 that was being re-furbished and burned on the Discovery Channel show. I remember they had a hard time getting the engines – all four – warmed up in the cold, and went from engine to engine to engine to engine to engine without being able to get them all warm at the same time. I think that caused delay that lead to the disastrous fire that destroyed the ship. Their supply plane also threw a rod bearing at just the wrong time.
    I wondered if they had just tried to take off on two engines they could have succeeded. With no bomb load, and light fuel, it may have worked. All four radials and remaining bits were left to sink to the bottom after the next thaw. It sure was a sad occasion even to me as an observer.
    I read somewhere that the P-51 radiator, under the fuselage near the center of the wings, added some mph to the plane. Heated air expanded out the back and added thrust.

  20. Rats, meant to mention that I saw a B-17, Memphis Belle, at the local airport last Saturday. It will be here in Cherokee County for several months as work is done by a restoration group.
    Narrow catwalk from the cockpit to the waist, plywood flooring, lots and lots of oil dripping to the asphalt. About 4800 horsepower pulling them into the air fully loaded is a terrifying concept – fuel enough to fly to Berlin and back, enough explosives to make everything smaller than a dime, and flight controls operated by cables wandering here and there.
    Made me think of my late father working on B-29 R3350(?) radials in the Chicago Dodge plant during WWII. I had to leave.
    On US-41 in Marietta, at the Lockheed plant, or maybe NAS Marietta{remains?} there is a B-29 parked just inside a fence, visible from the highway. I was so surprised to see how small it is.

  21. Tom – that Dr Waggoner gave the best origination on the Mustang I have ever seen – riht on the scoop adding thrust (although “how” I don’t know) – that link I left in my fiorst post here gives you the “ride” and the talk – didn’t realize how dangerous they were on the ground – between having to S-Turn for lack of visibility to taking off (that 1800 ho engine with the torque (P-factor) really wants to take it off the runway – to landing – but in the air – the Mustang was something…

    On the Kiwi Bird I’d think trying to take off on 2 engines on that snow and ice field would be near suicide

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