1 p.m. Captain Gaston delivers the briefing. There will be two 80-minute flights, each carrying a six-camper crew. Our target is in a hay field on a private ranch east of Stockton.
Board the B-24 through the bomb bay (unless you’re one of the uninitiated). Inside, Ken Terpstra encourages us to “get the whole experience.” He grants us free rein, only warning us that after the bomb doors open at altitude, we shouldn’t stroll along the 12-inch-wide bomb bay catwalk. (Strike that off the bucket list.)
Four aircraft with a combined age of more than 250 years make a time-tripping lineup on the Stockton taxiway. Vintage Aircraft’s Twin Beech is a camera aircraft (an opportunity to shoot a B-24 dropping bombs and firing machine guns attracts major photog talent), and a Stinson L-5 will scout the target. We can expect opposition, but not—as we’d hoped—the Collings’ Messerschmitt Me 262 (it’s grounded). Instead, Rob Collings will pilot the P-51.
Witchcraft’s takeoff roll seems interminable. But the climbout with all 56 cylinders hammering—that big wing banking in the sun—is glorious. Long before cruising altitude, seat belts click off. One camper is already walking toward the rear gun position. I’m crawling through a duct-like tunnel beneath the cockpit into the nose.
What airplane buff hasn’t imagined how it must have been in the war, perched up front in a glass bubble, plowing through blue sky with the might of a bomber roaring at your back? This flight is just like it was, without the deadly flak. Below, in the bombardier’s compartment, Taigh Ramey lets me peer into the Norden bombsight. The crosshairs drift across a turquoise swimming pool, then a small-town mini-mall. I imagine people looking up.
Over the ranch, reports from a .50-caliber percuss the fuselage. Mo Levich is alternating single shots with staccato bursts—okay, they’re blanks—out the waist-gun port, leaning into the recoil as he tracks a target at 10 o’clock low. Due to mechanical problems, the P-51 has returned to base, so we’re targeting the camera aircraft instead. No aggro Mustang, the docile Beech is easier to track than a clay pigeon.
Chris Connor is manning the ball turret, pulling 360-degree rotations and inclining the guns vertically. Fantasize this: You’re crammed inside a Christmas ornament suspended from the bomber’s belly while arcing Bf 109s fire 20-mm cannon at you.
We’ve banked repeatedly, dropping altitude in increments. Now we level into an arrow-straight path, with only slight deviations. Up in the bombardier’s compartment, Ramey feeds corrections to the cockpit as the Norden figures the path and calculates the release point. The bomb bay bell jangles, and doors retract. Nearly a quarter-ton of cement heads for the target.
After two more bombing runs (no plume of flour noted), we head for base. After we land, mission two, hauling six more campers, departs. A second P-51 is scrambled to serve as a target stand-in.
When everyone’s back on the ground, there’s a graduation ceremony outside the Stockton Field museum’s hangar. Ribbons are awarded at attention and the class guidon retired. Sergeant Murphy, in full dress uniform, barks his final order: “Dismissed for chow and inebriation.”