Try not to show it’s your first mission on a B-24. As the aircraft banks into a bomb run, .50-caliber waist guns jackhammer the air with bursts of defensive fire. The bomb bay doors growl open, and the fuselage is filled with hot wind and exhaust fumes. On one of the bombs, someone has scrawled a greeting to “Adolph.” A huge cross mark has been mowed into a hay field below and covered with hundreds of pounds of puff-producing white flour.
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Welcome to World War II Bomber Crew Fantasy Camp. Don’t get stuck in the ball turret. Or call sergeants “sir.”
The camp is sponsored by the Collings Foundation, a group known for preserving and flying vintage aircraft, and the 2010 session drew 12 “cadets” willing to pay nearly $4,000 each to experience two days as B-24 airmen. On its Wings of Freedom tours, Collings offers glimpses of air combat with fly-alongs in its renowned warbird collection. Fantasy Camp, however, turns toe-dipping into total immersion.
“It’s a vision I’d had since grade school,” says Taigh Ramey, president of the nonprofit Stockton Field Aviation Museum in California. Ramey, who owns Vintage Aircraft, a company specializing in the restoration of warbirds and antique aircraft, provided radios for Collings’ fleet, then expanded into piloting the classic airplanes. Four years ago, he presented his idea to foundation executive director Rob Collings: “I said, ‘Hey Rob, could we, uh, drop bombs out of your planes and shoot the guns?’ Rob thought for a minute and said, ‘I don’t see why not.’ ”
There were a number of reasons why not. “You’re taking an historic airplane, restored to look authentic, and making it into an aircraft capable of doing everything it did in World War II—not just looking like it could,” says Collings. The period-faithful had to be made 21st century functional. Ramey and about 10 volunteers from the Stockton Field museum had to reactivate inoperative bomb racks and rewire gun turrets. To support .50-caliber machine guns that actually fired (rented from suppliers to Hollywood studios), they reinforced gun mounts.
Locating a target range appropriate for the cement bombs was also an issue. Luckily, Stockton Field museum vice president Ken Terpstra has friends with large, private ranches. One friend made his ranch available for the bombing runs; another for a gunnery range.
Paying participants started booking in 2009, and, despite the moribund economy, last year’s camp had one more camper than the 2009 session.
DAY ONE, 7 A.M. In the lobby of a Holiday Inn, a pair of uniformed U.S. Army Air Forces non-coms—1940s-correct down to glasses and wristwatches—bark out a roster of names. Guests at the continental breakfast bar gape as the olive-drab cadre boards a bus bound for the training school at Stockton Army Air Field (better known as Stockton Metropolitan Airport).
Brothers Chris and Craig Connor from Long Island, New York, are on the bus. Craig is a U.S. Air National Guard flight engineer on Lockheed C-130s. Both brothers are hardcore World War II buffs and collectors. “To experience even a minuscule cross-section of what bomber crews endured during the war is going to be incredible,” Craig tells me. “That’s why we’re here.”
In the shadow of the Stockton control tower, Ramey and the volunteers have transformed the Stockton Field museum’s 1970s prefab hangar into a World War II barracks. Bunks and footlockers line one wall. Belts of .50-caliber ammo overflow stenciled wood crates. A lounging re-enactor reads circa-1940s magazines. On the walls are posted orders in the jittery font of manual typewriters, and the mock mail from home bears three-cent victory stamps.