The men who flew them into combat are in their 80s now, but flying the big multi-engine bombers of World War II is still a young man's -- or young woman's -- game.
The last remaining Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber still flying landed Wednesday afternoon at the Monterey Jet Center with husband-and-wife team Rob and Caroline Collings at the controls.
Caroline Collings flew as command pilot in the one-hour hop from Paso Robles to Monterey -- "we take turns," she said -- and the four-engine bomber was accompanied by a four-engine Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and a twin-engine North American B-25 Mitchell.
All three planes are of a type that wrote history in all theaters of World War II and have been restored down to the .50-caliber machine guns and functioning bomb bays of their wartime years.
Rob Collings, 32, began flying when he was 16 years old and has been flying World War II bombers since he was 19. He has 2,600 hours in the B-24, more than 1,000 hours in the B-17, and just under 1,000 hours in the B-25. He was never a commercial or military aviator.
"I've always been a civilian pilot," he said.
The Liberator "is the plane for me," he said. The Mitchell is "a nice, stable aircraft," the Flying Fortress is also a stable aircraft, though it can be hard to handle in a crosswind, but the Liberator "is difficult all around."
The three bombers are among 22 historic military aircraft owned and flown by the Stow, Mass.-based Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization founded in 1979, and they are being flown from town to town across the United States as part of the foundation's annual Wings of Freedom Tour, which began Feb. 17 and is scheduled to conclude in Chicago on July 31.
Rob Collings has been with the foundation from the beginning. Caroline Collings, 30, left her job as a commercial pilot to accept an invitation to fly for the foundation as a volunteer.
"I jumped on it," she said. "It's a fantastic opportunity to get to fly something like this and to meet the vets who created history in these aircraft."
One of the veterans on the flight from Paso Robles was Clarence Bush of Watsonville, who flew twin-engine P-38 Lightning fighters outfitted for photographic reconnaissance from Okinawa over China, Japan and Korea during World War II.
"We had wing tanks for extra range," he said, "and we stayed pretty high. If I saw an enemy aircraft, I ducked and ran. We had no armor or armament, just a bunch of cameras."
Mike Hemp of Carmel Valley never flew a B-17, except on the radio. His "Bombardier's Lounge" radio program on KRML, broadcast Fridays at 1 p.m., is set in a B-17 cockpit that he "flies into the past" as "Capt. Mike" and plays big band jazz from the 1940s. He turned out in full flight costume, wearing an officer's billed cap with "50-mission crush," and a leather flying jacket with a Flying Tigers "blood chit" sewn on the back.
Droning along at 200 knots and below the crest of the Coast Range and Gabilans over the Salinas Valley, the scenery drifts slowly by. The waist gun positions offer the best views, and the B-24 has the advantage that passengers can work their way from nose to tail.
"You have to be kind of an athlete," Collings said, "to do that in the B-17," and B-25 passengers must choose which end to fly in. Getting into the bombardier's or tail gunner's seats on the B-24 requires a good deal of flexibility and a willingness to crawl on hands and knees at times.
The Collings have far more experience in bombers' cockpits than the pilots who flew the planes in combat missions ever got.
"They'd have 100 hours tops" in World War II, said Marcy Rice of the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, before they went into combat. Rice won her Wednesday flight on the B-24 in a raffle, and her husband, a member of the museum board, is a former Marine aviator who flew F-4 Phantom jets in Vietnam.
The planes carry a folding pavilion, souvenirs, books, T-shirts and other memorabilia, along with ladders and orange cones to mark off the display areas when they land.
"We're like a couple of gypsies flying around the country," Caroline Collings said.
Nearly all of the airplanes in the foundation's collection are flyable or in the process of being made airworthy, she said.
"We believe in keeping the aircraft capable of flight. Like anything mechanical, an airplane likes to be flown," she said.
Keeping the planes in the air involves "constant maintenance, inspections, preventive maintenance," Rob Collings said, and a crew of excellent mechanics.
Airline pilots come up to him, he said, and tell him that the foundation's flight maintenance "is well above commercial grade."
The entourage brings two spare engines for each plane and has other spare parts warehoused and ready to be flown in by FedEx if needed.
All three bombers are unpressurized, just as they were in World War II, though Collings seldom flies them above 12,500 feet, compared to the 20,000 to 30,000-foot ceilings the planes were capable of, with crews swaddled in insulated flight suits and breathing bottled oxygen.
"The only reason they flew that high," he said, "was because of enemy fighters and flak."
The planes will be open for walk-through tours at the Monterey Jet Center from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday. Tour donation is $10 for adults, $5 for children under 12.
Thirty-minute flights aboard the aircraft are available for a tax-deductible donation of $425 aboard the B-17 or B-24, and $325 for a rear-fuselage ride or $400 for a ride forward on the B-25. Walk-through donations are also tax deductible, and proceeds are used by the foundation to maintain and fly the historic planes.
Saturday the three planes will fly to Hollister Airport, where they will be on display at Gavilan Aviation through Sunday.
For information, call 373-8907, or see www.collingsfoundation.org. For flight reservations, call (978) 618-6626.
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