The Last Word: Wings of Freedom Tour a walk through WWII aviation history

Kerry Hubartt

I live about five miles south of the DeKalb County Airport, as the crow flies. So it’s common for airplanes of various kinds to fly overhead on their way to or from the airfield.Monday I heard an unusually loud rumbling in the sky. As a big fan of airplanes and aviation history, I tend to run outside and see what’s up, literally, when something different may be flying overhead. This time it was a World War II bomber, and I remembered that the DeKalb Airport was to host the 2019 Wings of Freedom Tour Monday through Wednesday.

So Tuesday I made a point to visit the airport, which is three miles south of Auburn on County Road 60. The price of admission allowed me to wander among four rare World War II-era military aircraft and even climb inside two of them, both gigantic bombers.

The Wings of Freedom Tour is put on by the Collings Foundation, a non-profit located on a small airfield in Stow, Mass., dedicated to the preservation and public display of aviation- and automobile-related history. Its mission, according to its website, is to organize and support “living history” events and the presentation of historical artifacts and content that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation.”

The direct participation in this case is seeing, touching and even going through these historic aircraft. And, if your interest is strong enough and you can afford it, you can even fly in these old birds.

Flights cost $450 per person on either the B-17 or B-24 bombers and $400 for the B-25 bomber.

The more adventurous aviation fans could schedule a flight training run in the P-51 Mustang for $2,200 for a half hour or $3,200 for an hour — and you would get to take the controls, even with no previous flight experience.

Here is some more detail about the four planes that were on display last week:

The “Nine O Nine” Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress with a wingspan of more than 103 feet is powered by four 1,200-HP Wright engines. This particular B-17, built in 1945, was too late for WWII combat. But in 1952 it was subjected to the effects of three different nuclear explosions. After a 13-year cool-down, it was sold and restored.

The “Witchcraft” B-24J Liberator with a wingspan of 110 feet is powered by four 1,200-HP Pratt & Whitney engines. It fought over Europe and the Pacific Ocean during WWII. After years of abandonment in a bomber graveyard in India, it was restored and flown for the first time in 1989.

The “Tondelayo” B-25 Mitchell bomber dates back to 1944. Her initial assignment was to Moody Field as an advance multi-engine trainer. There were 16 B-25s that flew in the famous April 18, 1942, Jimmy Doolittle raid on targets on the Japanese mainland. The bomber, smaller than the B-17 and B-24 with a 67-foot wingspan, is powered by two 1,600-HP Wright engines.

The “Toulouse Nuts” P-51 Mustang fighter is a two-seater with a 37-foot wingspan, powered by a 1,450-HP Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Called the big bombers’ “Little Friend,” the P-51 escorted the bombers deep into enemy territory and back on every mission.

The experience of climbing in one end of two of the bombers — the B-17 and the B-24 — passing through the old planes and climbing out the other end was thrilling, but also difficult. You had to watch your head, and it was incredible how small the space was in which the crew had to operate. I could barely squeeze through the area they had to walk from front to back. And the spherical gun turrets at the bottom of the aircraft afforded little space to move and little protection from enemy fire.

I drove back to the airport on Wednesday, hoping to see one of the planes in flight and did manage to catch one of the bombers taking off for one of the flights offered to the public.

Later that afternoon, back home, I heard the loud rumbling from the sky that I’d heard Monday and ran outside again to watch the last bomber leaving the DeKalb Airport at the end of its tour stop there. It was crossing the sky overhead, heading southeast toward the next stop on the 110-city national tour — Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers, where it all began more than a century ago.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.