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Bomberville (On the Road)

Hunched at the command console of the AIR&SPACE/Smithsonian web site, I detect a vague grumbling drone that is probably airborne. It's been longer than I can stand to admit since I was an active pilot, but the senses still spring to life at the suggestion of an airplane in flight. The reflex is especially sensitive to takeoffs. Outdoors, my eyes find the source of the sound and track it, spending a moment to make sure nothing is amiss—as if I could correct it. All these years later, I still fly wing in my mind.

Inside, my mind filters the airplane sounds from the clutter and attempt identification. If the sound is enticing enough, I'll take a moment to pop outside the home-office and catch a glimpse of something more exotic than a Cessna.

I've recently returned to Arizona, so such noise usually proves to be a helicopter out of nearby Falcon Field. This low resonant rumble might be one of the new, quiet ones. No. I suspect a radial engine. An auspicious sign, but not enough to interrupt work. Probably just a T-6, or one of the Yaks motoring out for some late evening calisthenics. Closer, now, I can discern more than one engine. This has potential. Is it a DC-3? A two-ship? As the rolling thunder reaches a crescendo overhead and begins to fade, the sound is of more than two engines.

That settles it.

A mad dash out of the home office, around the corner, down the hall and out the front door is rewarded with a healthy dose of late evening Arizona sky and the diminishing grumble of an unknown number of radial engines, out of sight. He—or they—are not very high. Must not be going anywhere far away, or they have a load.

Suddenly but gradually, a pair of slab-sided vertical fins rise above the rooftops, followed by the singularly awkward profile of a B-24. A Liberator. J-model, by the look of the nose. That can mean only one thing: The Collings Foundation! 

The B-24's trademark twin tails


If you are flying a B-24J in the waning months of the twentieth century, you can safely rely on the oldest trick in the barnstormer's book. Once you get set up, make a few flights out over town where people can see the airplane. Soon, there will be a trail of cars toward the airport. A B-24 at the local airport in 1998 is as irresistible now as the Jenny was in 1924 out at old man Jenson's field, and just as easy to track down.

The next morning, camera in hand, I head to the airport. The 9:00am flight makes a wide arc out east of the field and slowly climbs into the clear desert air. Just as in the '30's, even if I didn't know where the airport was, I could work the flight path backwards and find it.

The magazine did a piece on the Collings Foundation (see Bomberville, Feb./Mar. 98) and while the art accompanying the article was attractive, purists lamented the lack of photos. Purists in this case means pilots. The magazine sensibly has a wider audience and the thoughtful art direction reflects that. As webmaster, I am allowed a certain amount of lattitude and, as a pilot, I get the purist's point. So I assigned myself the task of making some digital images to post on the web.

Like I need a rationale to examine a B-24 up close.

First stop at Falcon is the Confederate Air Force Arizona Wing hangar. The B-17G Sentimental Journey glistens in the sun, looming over a Heinkel He 111. The nice lady at the desk says the touring bombers are operating out of the Superstition Air Service ramp at midfield. Back in the car and around to the other entrance. Sure enough, the iconic olive drab vertical fin of the Nine-O-Nine juts up behind the SAS hangar.

History has come to visit.


The B-17 Tour starts at the nose


On the ramp, a small crowd of civilians cluster around the B-17. The Fort is entertaining a string of curious visitors while the B-24 carries the willing lucky few for actual rides. Neon bright T-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes seem incongrous around these historic bombers. The calm clear weather is the wrong context for this working antique. Its days of meaning were shrouded in English fog, heavy bomber jackets, mud and flak. Inside, the airplane is remarkable. With the exception of real bombs and live ammunition, it has been painstakingly restored to operational status. It's almost unnaturally clean.


Right side waist gun on the Nine-O-Nine


Unwittingly, I start my self-guided tour of the B-17 through the crew door in the rear, which turns out to be the exit of tour. The visitors are youngsters who think that the Second World War was fought in black and white, boomers whose parents might have participated, and a few gray-haired old men who have retired to the Phoenix desert for their golden years. They are the keys that unlock the significance of the tour. Each year, there are fewer of them and more turn up in wheelchairs.

One of the retirees leads a couple of friends on a private guided tour of the old bird. He pauses at the radio operator's desk behind the bomb bay and recalls, "This is just like it was." He runs a pensive finger along the top of the wooden shelf holding the radio. "I'm not sure about the table being wood, but that's the radio we had." For a moment, it's 1944 in his mind. With the casual thoughful conviction of experience, he recounts a story about the radio operator's position in the Boeing B-17G Heavy Bombardment aircraft in operations with the Eighth Air Force in the European Theatre of Operations in World War Two to his tiny entourage. He does not bother to mention the squadron or group.  It's a generic piece of history.

"This is where our radio operator sat. Every time we made a drop, we had to radio back. I remember one day over Berlin. Our operator sat right here at this desk. We had just let the load go, and he was making the call. We took a flak burst, close in. It blew the whole radio right out of the mounting bracket. Gone, just like that. Didn't put a scratch on him."

There is an awkward silence in the cramped compartment while the rest of us try to absorb the feelings of his words. The veteran moves on, the specter of sudden, violent death and blind luck for him, a matter of fact.

"Back here", he continues, "is where the waist gunners were."

The next group is led by a middle-aged fellow who explains something to his attentive friends in German. One cannot help but wonder what these folks think about the bombers that once reduced their cities to rubble.

They are followed by a mother taking her young kids out at the airport to look at the old airplanes. The kids are fidgeting. They want to get back and see the waist guns, where they presume the action was.

I poke my head up out of the radio operator's gun port and take a shot of the B-24, as it returns to sit out the midday heat.


All American returns to the ramp



The B-17 is the more familiar and the more attractive, but the B-24 is the prime attraction. With much squealing of brakes, rattling from the R-1830's, and a last brief huff from the right outboard engine, the big, four-engine beast swings around into position. It squeals to a halt, lets all the engine readings settle and then falls silent. No one watching other than a few lucky pilots know what an act of finesse that was, given the lack of nosewheel steering on the airplane.

Outside, a lawyer in a flightsuit who has driven up from Tucson is wiping down the landing gear. I ask him about the flight. He grins conspiratorially, "The worst day flying in a B-17 is better than the best day in the office." He is too young to remember the war first hand, but old enough to appreciate the legacy he is grooming. "It is important", he asserts, "that we remember the men and the times". Perhaps so. Still, the youngsters on the ramp are in curious disbelief. Without the perspective of the veteran who passed through ahead of them, they wonder what all the fuss is over airplanes without jets. I consider whether the lawyer and I are members of the last generation that can or will remember. For his part, the lawyer runs the rag over and over the now clean strut, reluctant to lose touch with something so important and so rare.


View from the pilot's seat of the All American


All American proclaims the nose art. It aptly describes the entire experience. We, the victors, won and now retain the freedom to operate these relics. We also get to write the history and over time it has evolved into a mythology. These artifacts entice us to skip a day of work or school, so we can come to the airport and admire them. Whether or not we fully and accurately comprehend what they represent depends upon how much we buy into the mythology and whether or not we get the chance to talk to one of the old, quiet, gray-haired men.

The Liberator doesn't look any less awkward up close than in the grainy old black and white pictures and film clips. In the film clips, however, the bombers always travelled in numbers for safety. This lone example is all the more unusual for its rarity. The B-17 has a partner down at the CAF hangar. The B-24 is all by itself.

I brazenly crawl up into the bomb bay and head for the cockpit. The Collings ground crew spots the intrusion and catches up with me. The explanation that I am from AIR&SPACE/Smithsonian works its usual magic and the staffer grants me a moment to snap pictures.


Nose turret (left) and engineers's console of the All American


Late in the day, operations resume. After clearing it with the tower and the airport, I take up a position to get some up sun shots. Two W.W.II heavy bombers operating out of the fixed base operator is incongruous to the extreme.

It's hard to imagine fighting a war in these machines. Without a bomb load, the Collings pilots don't have to work them hard. The bombers lift off at mid-field, make a wide lazy turn, and cross overhead to begin a tour of the local area. Even with a light load, as they drone away in loose trail formation, they look like big, fat targets in comparison to the raging Mustangs and other fighters you see at Reno.


Flight deck of the All American


The Liberator, unmistakable as it crosses over the airport, is outbound with a fresh load of sightseers into history. Down on the ramp a grizzled desert rat with a ZZTop beard, a cane, and a "UFO's are Real" button enthuses wildly. He rants in my direction, "Gawd Damn! Lookit that! Boy, I bet they kicked some Nazi ass. No wonder we won the war!" I don't know if it was all that easy. The hulking aluminum time travelers seem excruciatingly slow, easy to hit. Ploesti must have been a nightmare at tree-top level. I can't believe any of it was as glamorous as it might now seem.

The crowd contains a small number of quiet old men, easy to overlook, who look differently at these last lonely flying examples than the curiosity seekers. They remember when hundreds of these ships flew steadily into the meat grinder of the flak and the Luftwaffe. They remember the freezing cold, the floor slick with a crewmate's blood. Some of them may remember the sudden jolt, fire trailing from a burning wing, fighting the spin-induced G as they made for the exit, the sudden immense solitude of free-fall and the wonderful satisfying jolt of the harness when the chute opened and they knew they had a chance.

They come from all walks of life. They haven't talked about it over the years. They might today, memories triggered by the smell of burnt avgas and oil, the clattering of the Pratt & Whitneys and the unmistakable shapes of Bomberville on the road. They were there when it was all too real. They know for a fact how glamorous it really was.


The B-24 All American returns for another load


When flight operations have concluded and no one is looking, I walk up to the flank of the Nine-O-Nine. A huge American star and bar dominate the side of the airplane. As the last rays of the setting sun bathe the airframe, I reach out to touch the wing and up feel the fuselage. I want to touch its soul, if there is such a thing. This particular airframe never saw combat, but, nonetheless, has had a tough life. As the Yucca Lady, the Fortress was placed in the desert near an atomic bomb shot and lay there for years, too hot to approach. Eventually, it was reclaimed and served a tour of duty as a firebomber, based at this very airport. In those days it was a pickup truck, not a rare war memorial.

Rebuilt to combat specs, the ersatz Nine-O-Nine was popular on tour and at airshows until a landing accident sheered the gear off and smashed the airframe. Like the legend it represents, this B-17 simply would not die. That is what Collings and the Confederate Air Force and the Yankee Air Museum and other such institutions do:  Keep the history vividly alive. Three hundred thousand dollars later it returned to service.


The B-17 Nine-O-Nine taxies to the active


Providing a clear understanding of the Mighty Eighth for future generations may ultimately prove more difficult than serving in it ever was. You can't explain a war with just two airplanes. You need those old men with that look in their eyes and their memories to share. Still, if an airframe can be said to have feelings, I sensed that the soul if the old bomber was proud to be carrying on, still operational, still working.

A bit lonely, perhaps, but proud.



AIR&SPACE/Smithsonian Magazine:Bomberville, Feb./Mar. 98

Collings Foundation's B-24J "Witchcraft"

Arizona Wing of the CAF



Author's note: This piece is a bit dated.  The All American is now painted as Witchcraft. The Collings tour now includes a North American P-51 C, the Betty Jane. And the Arizona Wing He 111 was lost some years back on tour in Wyoming. But they have finished the restoration of a B-25 which tours as Maid in the Shade.

If a Collings tour comes to your town, go to the airport.  If you live in the valley, just go to Falcon Field. The CAF Arizona Wing hanger is right at the southwest corner of the airport.