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Bomberville

In which a tiny air force has an impact far greater than its numbers suggest.

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."

Bob Lowenthal, 59, a 747-400 captain for Northwest, has just joined the tour. "Ever since I was a boy I've been reading about B-17s," he says. "When I first started flying with the airline, all the captains were World War II bomber pilots." One of the pilots Lowenthal is now learning from is Rob Collings, Bob Collings' 23-year-old son and an experienced warbird pilot. "When I first got here," remembers Lowenthal, "I thought, Who's this cocky kid showing me how to fly? Then I thought, back in 1943, that's exactly who would be sitting in the left seat--a 23-year-old hotshot."

Some 50 years ago, that's exactly what tour member Dick Dinning was. A tall, lean, soft-spoken veteran of the 351st Bomb Group, Dinning flew 33 missions as a B-17 pilot. He has a warm smile, a sympathetic ear, and the deep respect of everyone on the team. Even mechanic Strawn, whose merciless impressions of crew members spare almost no one, addresses the veteran pilot as "Mr. Dinning." Dinning flies chase in his single-engine Mooney 252, ferrying pilots and spare parts and using a Stormscope lightning detector to lead Nine-O-Nine and All American around rough weather.

When the three airplanes land at a stop, everybody pitches in, including the pilots. Folding tables have to be unloaded, along with chairs, crew luggage, tools, spare parts, canopy covers, souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs, books, videos, photographs, patches, and inert .50-caliber ammunition (a big seller). Ladders have to be lowered, and signs displayed to guide visitors through the aircraft. Fuel and oil levels are checked, oil wiped off of engine cowlings and wings, and Plexiglas windshields cleaned with Lemon Pledge. Yet the first visitor steps aboard less than 15 minutes after the propellers stop turning. "These people have been waiting a long time," explains Haskell, waving his arm at the assembled crowd. "We have to move fast or we lose them."

With riders scheduled from first light to dusk and a constant stream of visitors, there are few idle moments. The team set a record of 21 local flights during a 1996 stop in Fort Collins, Colorado. "After a day like that, you shut down, get supper, go back to the hotel, and do a spin into the mattress," says Sheehan. "Then get up at six the next morning and do it all over again."

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