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Military Appreciation Month: WWII Bomber Tour Volunteer

Military Appreciation Month: WWII Bomber Tour Volunteer

Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour is a unique collection of WWII aircraft that are on the road for 10 months each year, visiting 110 unique airports across the United States. The B-17 (Flying Fortress “Nine 0 Nine”), B-24 (Liberator “Witchcraft”), B-25 (Mitchell “Tondelayo”), and P-51 (Mustang “Toulouse Nuts”) aircraft spend a few days at each stop, offering static tours as well as flying experiences. Old and young; pilots to passengers, all who visit these aircraft are fascinated and drawn to these ghosts, bringing them to life through their stories, photos and passion for warbirds.

The volunteers working on this tour include pilots, crew, mechanics, and ground / general personnel from all over the world; each committing their time from a few days to several months on the road with the bombers to support the core full-time crew. The full-time crew chief, chief pilot, flight scheduler, and primary mechanics follow an extreme work environment of 10+ hour days, every day, 10 months out of the year, as the tour moves around the country. They contend with a revolving door of volunteer’s schedules, faces, names, and expertise, and do it with amazing flexibility, while maintaining a flying 75+ year old aircraft fleet.

Being a volunteer on this tour starts early each morning, preparing a variety of stations for each day’s attendees; from moving boxes and setting up sales tables, to configuring cones around the static displays and readying the aircraft on display. The work can be physically demanding, requiring strength, flexibility and mental attentiveness, but gets a bit easier each day (and fewer ibuprofen at night). The typical uniform is a warbird-themed t-shirt, cargo shorts or jeans, and tennis shoes. Heels are best left at home, as the hours of standing and walking on concrete tarmacs exact a toll on body and mind.

The B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft” was my adoptee, and duties included fueling and adding oil from the top of the wings. Access to the tanks on top of the aircraft required stringing a series of awkward stances into a single fluidic motion, much like learning a new yoga flow. Once on the wing, there are places where access is gained only when on your belly or hands and knees, and there’s oil just about everywhere, due to the nature of these monster radial engines. Oil is measured in gallons, not quarts, and each bomber’s oil spatter required a good wipe-down after each flight.

One evening during this tour, I was invited to fly in a photo flight for the B-24. Two chase planes took photos while we flew over the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. Flying in tight formation, with varying speeds, attitudes, and altitudes took steadfast hands at the controls and coordination from all three aircraft in flight. The dramatic sunset and the fog-outlined islands provided the perfect backdrop for the event, and the results were breathtaking.

The sales/PX (PX is Post Exchange, loosely derived from a military term for a place to shop) area is strategically positioned as the gateway to/from the static displays, and is the best one to interact with veterans and visitors, and listen to their stories. It’s amazing the research that many have done to honor their loved ones; armed with photos, they share their findings, photos, medals and bomber jackets. Each story had a commonality; those that survived WWII, returned tight-lipped about their experiences and sacrifices, and rarely (if ever) spoke of them, leaving relatives to unearth details through military foundations and search engines. The living WWII visitors – from flying in the aircraft to working at the factories that built them – gave us a deeper appreciation of history and brought it to life.

Taking a flight in these grumbling, smoking giants is nothing short of thrilling. Up to 10 passengers can fly in the B-24, and sit on floor seats, belted in until the flight engineer gives the “ok” after take-off. The belts come off, and passengers can walk the aircraft’s catwalk nose to tail, exploring the available turrets and photo opportunities. The wind coming in from the open side turrets is exhilarating! The front nose turret is accessed below the cockpit, on your hands and knees, one person at a time. The 30-minute flight goes by in a flash, and everyone prepares for landing buckling back in their seats.

The P-51 flight is unique in that this dual-control mustang offers a single passenger the opportunity to fly acrobatics to straight and level, and receive a logbook endorsement for instruction in an iconic fighter.

My tour ended too soon, and as I waved the warbirds off for their next stop in Northern California, I was already planning my next volunteer service for this living, historical foundation.

For more information about the Collings Foundation, the Wings of Freedom tour, and volunteering:

Mariellen Couppee
Senior Customer Marketing Manager, BendixKing
Mariellen has spent her career weaving stories from movie trailers to corporate branding. She made the leap full time from big screen to head's up display several years ago, and now specializes in aviation and aerospace. Her own story includes flying aircraft with the latest in Honeywell technologies to warbirds, float planes, and her own classic aircraft.


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