In which a tiny air force has an impact far greater than its numbers suggest.
- By Lance Thompson
- Air & Space magazine, March 1998
(Page 2 of 4)
Those who do get to go are rarely disappointed. Ken Virchow, 48, of Bolton, Connecticut, savored every sensation of his ride on Nine-O-Nine from the moment the Wright-Cyclone R-1820-97 engines kicked over and coughed out a charcoal gray cloud. "Exhaust smoke seeps up through the bomb bay and ball turret opening," says Virchow. "There's lots of vibration as they run the engines up, but once those propellers bite the air and you start to move, it's tremendous." Robert Hardy of Worcester, Massachusetts, who flew 71 missions in B-24s for the 456th Bomb Group, enjoyed a 75th birthday ride on All American courtesy of his grandson. "Haven't been on one since 1945," Hardy shouts over one of the still-running engines. "It was fantastic!"
Two full-time mechanics, Mike Nightingale and Bill Strawn, keep the bombers running. Nightingale, 28, is a wiry Californian who grew up restoring P-51 Mustangs. His toolbox looks like one that could be found in any home garage. "Usually we can borrow anything else we need from somebody at the airport," he explains. When a rainstorm in Hartford, Connecticut, cancels all flights and drives everyone else indoors, Nightingale is up on a ladder, shoulder-deep in the B-17's number-two engine, trying to locate a malfunctioning cylinder. "This is a chance to do real field maintenance," he rhapsodizes. "To be able to work on these airplanes and fly in them--that's absolutely fabulous."
Strawn, 42, was a Chevrolet mechanic in Florida before getting his airframe-and-powerplant license and joining the tour. When he volunteered to help replace an engine on All American during a stop at Clearwater, Florida, he was hooked. Of the foundation's two bombers, Strawn believes the B-24 is the greater maintenance challenge. "Every engine has two banks of seven cylinders and there's more cowling to take off," he says. He points at the engines, nine feet above the runway. "You get up on a ladder on a windy day, you'll know why this one's tougher," he continues. "You sure get attached to it, though." With a new B-24 tattoo on his upper back, Strawn is now a dyed-in-the-skin Liberator man.
Sticking to the tour's schedule is a high priority, but safety comes first. Though both airplanes get thorough overhauls during an eight-week winter hiatus in Florida, while on tour they are inspected after every 25 to 50 hours of flight. When an unexpected repair grounds one bomber, the other keeps the schedule. "If we need something big, like a new engine, the foundation ships one out," explains Haskell. (Foundation members hunt continually for spare parts, scavenging from parts distributors, private collectors, and junkyards.)
Keeping Nine-O-Nine and All American airworthy is a full-time job, but only part of what it takes to keep the tour on track. A diverse group of volunteers travels with the aircraft, taking donations, loading and unloading gear, organizing riders, assisting the mechanics, and manning the souvenir tables (referred to by the team as "the PX"). Dee Brush, 31, is a plainspoken native of Boca Raton, Florida, who might have inspired some engaging nose art in the heyday of the bombers. When a carpal tunnel condition ended her career as a court stenographer, she left her hometown--for the first time--aboard a vintage bomber. "I'm single," she says. "I've got no kids. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. My friends think I'm the luckiest girl in the world."
Richard Ziel, 19, has been with the tour for seven weeks. His parents called the foundation, explained their son's fascination with warbirds, and arranged for him to join the tour as a high school graduation surprise. "Most of my friends don't even know what these planes are," he says.
The bombers are flown by a team of pilots on vacation from day jobs. Jim Sheehan, 35, a DC-10 and MD-11 pilot for American Airlines, once flew DC-3s, DC-4s, and Constellation freighters in the Dominican Republic. "I could fly 'em and I could fix 'em when they broke in the jungle," says Sheehan, who calls the B-17 "the most pleasurable airplane I've ever flown.
"I'm used to flying at 35,000 feet from ugly airport A to ugly airport B," he continues. "Here, you're down low enough to enjoy the scenery. Flying down the Columbia River gorge and looking up at waterfalls, you feel real lucky." There's another sensation Sheehan doesn't get in the jumbo jets. "In the MD-11, you're in a pressurized cabin," he says. "Here you can slide open the window and smell that 60-weight oil burning off the engine. That's yummy."