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

Air & Space Magazine

In a chilly New England drizzle, they press against a chain link fence, scanning the skies. There's a curious cab driver on his day off, a sweater-clad four-year-old perched on her father's shoulders, and a computer programmer shivering despite the embrace of a boyfriend in a surplus flight jacket. And there are many old men wearing ballcaps and windbreakers, which are adorned with embroidered patches and enameled pins that depict the aircraft their lives once depended upon--Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators.

Their patience is soon rewarded by the sight of two incoming bombers: Nine-O-Nine, one of a handful of B-17s still flying, and All American, a fully restored B-24J. Together the two warbirds make up a self-contained airshow that will stop in 137 towns in 35 states. The 10-month, coast-to-coast tour has been organized by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts, a non-profit group that has been flying the World War II-era aircraft since 1987.

Founder Bob Collings originally envisioned the B-24 as a static exhibit, but friend and B-24 veteran Don Sparks observed, "If you do that, two or three thousand people will see it a year. If you fly it around the country, two or three million could see it." Both bombers required extensive and costly restoration. "People told me they would never fly, and if they did, it wouldn't be economically feasible to keep them flying," says Collings. "Fortunately, I wasn't smart enough to know that." A retail computer systems entrepreneur, Collings feels that bringing these old airplanes back to life is one way to show his appreciation to World War II veterans. "We can never pay them back," he says, "but if people can get inside these planes, see them fly, and fly in them, they'll get some idea of what these men went through."

The Allies flew thousands of B-17s and B-24s--perhaps most famously in daylight bombing raids over Germany--and though losses were high, many crew members survived the war because the aircraft were built to take punishment. Assigned to every theater of the war, the B-17 in particular was known for withstanding battle damage and safely returning its six- to 10-man crews. The B-17G flown by the Collings Foundation (serial no. 44-83575) was manufactured late in the war and never served in combat, though it did fly as part of the Military Air Transport Service before beginning a 20-year stint as a fire bomber. But the B-17 it was named after, the original Nine-O-Nine, was deployed on February 25, 1944, and flew 140 missions without an abort or loss of crew before being scrapped.

The foundation's B-24 (serial no. 44-44052) flew in the Pacific theater from October 1944 until the war ended. The bomber was named All American after a B-24 that was part of the 15th Air Force's 461st Bomb Group. On July 25, 1944, the original All American shot down 14 enemy fighters; two months later the aircraft was lost over Yugoslavia, though all of the crew survived.

The foundation's B-24 is still flying thanks to a $1.3 million restoration that required nearly 100,000 hours of work, much of it volunteer. The old bomber had to have over one-third of its aluminum skin replaced, as well as 400,000 rivets. Restorers also replaced 5,000 feet of hydraulic lines, a mile of control cable, and all of the electrical wiring. The foundation is still paying off loans it took out for the restoration; much of the expense is offset by private donations. (The aircraft earn enough money on tour--through souvenir sales and contributions from visitors--to cover the cost of maintaining them.)

Organizers set the route and schedule typically four to six weeks ahead of the airplanes, relying on local coordinators to organize publicity, secure ramp space at the airport, and arrange for crew lodging and transportation. Coordinating the tour in transit is the job of Phil Haskell, the operations and supply officer of the two-plane air force. A 61-year-old ex-Army aviation crew chief, Haskell became involved in 1986, when he volunteered to help restore the B-24. He is the team's answer man. Whatever the question--How many hours on the number-three engine? What's the price of fuel in Burbank? What state will we be in a week from Tuesday?--Haskell can pull out a spiral notebook and find the answer.

He also schedules the rides, a responsibility complicated by cancellations due to weather, unexpected maintenance requirements, and last-minute no-shows by riders. With operating costs for each bomber averaging $2,000 an hour, the foundation requires a minimum of six people paying $300 each for a 45-minute ride. "We're not an airline," explains Haskell. "If we only have five, we don't go."

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."

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