History flies in
The inside of a B-24 Liberator shakes loose memories. From the top secret Norden bomb site to the distant tail gunner bubble, there are stories lying in wait.
The tiny hatch of a ball gun turret tells tales.
“Once you were in it you were wearing it,” said Don Winden, a pilot from Minot, N.D.
The walkway holds another story. Winden’s father worked as a tail gunner on a B-24 with the 8th Air Force out of England. During one mission, they were shot up badly and expected to ditch into the north Atlantic. They were unable to release their bombs automatically, so crew members stood on the tiny walkway, ocean passing beneath, releasing them manually.
The B-24 touched down at Superior’s Bong Airport Wednesday, one of three traveling museums ready to share their history up close and personal.
“You can see them flying, you can smell them, you can feel them,” said Ryan Keough, ride manager for the non-profit Collings Foundation that flew the plane, along with a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and a P-51 Mustang to Superior for a three-day Wings of Freedom tour.
For Winden, the B-24 is more than a piece of living history. She’s kin.
“I’ve got a family history in this airplane,” he said. “My aunt helped build this airplane. She worked at the factory in Fort Worth where this was built. And my uncle met her when he was in pilot training in Fort Worth and he became a pilot on a Liberator and flew with the 15th Air Force out of Italy.”
Added to his father’s service, Winden had plenty of reasons to volunteer to co-pilot the bombers for more than a week.
“This airplane is almost family,” he said.
It’s been a change from his work flying business jets.
“This handles more like a Peterbuilt truck,” Winden said. “The radial engine sounds like a Harley on steroids.”
Jim Harger of Crivitz, Wis. was at the airport to fly with his son, who is in the process of getting a pilot’s license. When the bombers began landing, he stopped by to take a look. Harger worked on B-52s when he served in the U.S. Air Force. Seeing the World War II era planes was a treat.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It tells you what it was like. That’s the story, right there, those guys that flew those. Unbelievable, what they had to do compared to these days.”
The planes weren’t heated. The 10-member crew would navigate the cramped interior draped in heavy electrically-heated suits and oxygen masks, braving close quarters and sub-zero temperatures for nine-hour stretches during missions. They knew the tricks to keeping the machine guns from freezing up and fiercely protected the bomb sight technology. Most of them were barely out of high school.
“These airplanes bring out a lot of emotions in people,” Winden said. “I get emotional when I talk about it. It was a different country back then.”
The B-24 parked in Superior is the only true Liberator that flies. Although it flew missions in the Pacific, it has the paint scheme of a famous bomber, “Witchcraft.” During its 130 missions, no crew member ever got hurt and the airplane never turned back for any reasons.
“They considered it a good luck ship and they stuck rookie crews on it because they always knew it would come back,” Winden said.
The Wings of Freedom tour was only supposed to fly for five years to celebrate the 50th anniversary of World War II. Today, 25 years later, it continues to bring these flying museums to about 110 cities a year.
“As long as there is the memory of a WWII veteran around or the memory of the family of a WWII veteran we’re going to keep this going as long as we can,” Keough said.
Sometimes Winden or other volunteers tell the tales. Other times, they listen. Nearly everyone who climbs in the planes leaves with a new perspective.
“That’s why I enjoy this tour because I see such a wide range of emotions when people go through these things,” Winden said. “They come out in tears because they probably had some relative who has stories.”
The planes flew in Wednesday from Alexandria, Minn. They depart today at noon for Anoka, Minn. That’s where Winden will leave the B-24 and go back to some quieter planes. People can tour the aircraft through noon today, $12 for adults, $6 for children. World War II veterans can tour the craft for free.
“It’s their wall,” Winden said.