The Collings Foundation’s 2019 “Wings of Freedom Tour”

In a few weeks, the familiar and unmistakable drone of World War II heavy bombers will be heard once again in the skies over-head. I am already getting excited! It is time for the annual reappearance of the Wings of Freedom Tour at nearby Moffett Field. Moffett will be one of many stops across America for the tour and its priceless collection of beautifully restored, vintage aircraft.

The stated mission of this annual tour is two-fold: first, to restore and preserve vintage aircraft in flying condition; second, to pay tribute to those who flew in the war while insuring that future generations will be reminded of those veteran’s experiences and sacrifices. The war years of 1941-1945 were, on balance, undoubtedly the worst of times; yet in many smaller ways, they were also the best of times for this country. The book, The Greatest Generation, by Tom Brokaw reflects the uniqueness of the times and the generation who lived them.

While I have no personal affiliation with the Collings Foundation, whatsoever, I wholeheartedly support their mission to insure that the contrasts and the color of those times are never lost to future generations. I write this endorsement of their tour strictly as an act of appreciation and thanks.

I especially look forward to re-visiting the Wings tour this year because I had the great, good fortune last Memorial Day to fly the Foundation’s most iconic warbird, the P-51D Mustang. For one glorious half-hour, I had the ability to take the rear seat controls of that beautiful bird under the watchful eye of pilot Nick, seated up-front. I posted, here, on that experience last year: it and other related posts can be located by entering “Mustang” in the search box on the top right of my home page.

My flight in Toulouse Nuts was the thrill of a lifetime for someone like me interested in aviation – especially the warbirds from World War II. The Collings tour offers anyone the chance to go up in one of several iconic airplanes that played a pivotal role in the war. A half-hour ride in the P-51D will cost you $2400, but a half-hour adventure aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator bomber runs $450. A nominal fee of $15 for adults and $5 for children, enables you to crawl at your leisure through the bombers mentioned for an up-close-and-personal ground adventure!

If you have not visited the Collings Wings of Freedom Tour, Google it on the internet to see if it will be coming your way this summer. Take your children and treat them to an eye-opening reality-experience that will make a lasting impression. The following photo says it all for me:

A veteran who flew on B-24’s provides a living link to hundreds of kids who are learning that a knowledge of history has far more to offer them than spending still more social media time on the internet. If you visit the tour this year, chances are that you will still encounter a veteran volunteer docent who was there decades ago and can relate, first-hand, what it was like to fly these great warbirds which won the war for freedom. Sadly, as each year passes, fewer of these folks are still with us who can pass on their memories and their realities to the next generation.

The B-24 Liberator, Witchcraft – the last one flying

The airplane in the background of the above picture is the very last of its kind still flying: The storied B-24, Witchcraft. The B-24 Liberator had the highest production run of any airplane in history – approximately 18,500 were built! Such a large number supports two facts: first, the importance of this, our largest, long-range bomber; second, the huge losses suffered during countless bombing runs over Germany. Given these facts, I deeply appreciate that the Collings Foundation does what it does to “keep ‘em flying,” as they say, while preserving this precious heritage for future generations to experience.

Go hear for yourself the sound of the B-24’s four piston engines coughing, smoking, and belching to life during engine startup. See for yourself that big bird lift off the runway, straining for altitude. Go crawl through the belly of the beast and see what its crews faced at thirty-thousand feet with freezing cold during six-hour missions into Germany and back (if lady-luck was with them that day)!

While you are at it, check out the signature, raspy/throaty roar of the twelve-cylinder, 1600+ horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as it catapults the P-51D Toulouse Nuts into the air on take-off. The P-51D was the greatest fighter of the war, bar-none! Its introduction to service as a long-range bomber escort in late 1943 saved countless bomber crews who would otherwise have gone down at the hands of German pilots. Aside from its unmatched ability to escort the bombers deep into Germany and back again, the P-51 proved superior to any fighter/interceptor in the German arsenal. Many nine and ten-man bomber crews developed a great fondness and admiration for their P-51 escorts – their “little friends,” as they called them.

Go catch the tour and see for yourself: you won’t be sorry that you did!

“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!