When Mark Nickerson first approached me with an offer to fly on a vintage World War II bomber as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, I had very mixed feelings.
Make no mistake, I was thrilled at the offer. I consider myself to be a bit of a history nerd and the opportunity to fly on a B-24J bomber is something that simply does not happen to most ordinary 25-year-olds. After all, the B-24J which is showcased in the Wings of Freedom tour is the only airworthy B-24J left in the world.
However, the hesitation on my part stems from this: I'm not fond of heights. Call it a feeble constitution, call it anxiety, call it whatever you will. I've only been on an airplane a few times and those experiences took place over a decade ago. I found myself at a psychological crossroad.
Inevitably, I realized if I let this opportunity go by the wayside, I simply would not be able to forgive myself. With the exception of World War II veterans, only a select few people in this nation can say they've taken a ride on a World War II bomber.
I notified Mark of my decision, and after a few weeks of ambivalent waiting, the day of the flight, Aug. 10, arrived.
I woke up and made my way to the Jamestown Airport, where everyone going on the trip was to meet. We would take two vans to a small airport about 15 miles outside of Cleveland where the airplanes were waiting and fly back to Jamestown.
A view from the gun turret window of the B-24J as it flys over Ohio.
As we arrived at the airport in Ohio, the airplanes were sitting on the runway. The last time Mark was in town as a part of the final reunion of the Doolittle raiders, I had the opportunity to see a B-25J. However, this was the first time I've ever seen a B-17, B-24J and a P-51 Mustang, the three airplanes which make up the Wings of Freedom tour.
The plan was to board our airplanes around 1 p.m., be off the ground by 1:15 p.m. and land in Jamestown around 2 p.m. However, the best laid schemes of mice and men, as they say.
We were grounded due to inclement weather. Not only was it storming where we were, but it was also storming at points on our desired path to Jamestown and unfortunately the airplanes we were taking only fly in good weather.
However, I truly didn't mind. There was a dry hanger where I could wait out the storm, and I was introduced to two World War II veterans who would be flying with me. I decided to ask them about their experiences in World War II.
George Wisniewski and Richard Wynne both grew up in Erie, Pa., attended Catholic High School, graduated from the same class and subsequently joined the military at the same time.
In the war, Richard was a member of the 8th Air Force, 44th group and George was a member of the 7th Armored Division.
"I was a bombardier stationed in England for a while, then after that I did a few missions on submarines looking for U-boats, then I went into B-29 training," said Richard.
"After training, I ended up with the 7th Armored Division from right after D-Day until VE Day," said George. "I didn't have enough points to come home, so I transferred to the 2nd Armored Division until it was time to come home."
Despite serving during World War II, George had never flown on a military airplane before he was my equal in that aspect. However, unlike me, he had the calm demeanor of someone who has a lifetime worth of experience. I was still somewhat nervous.
"We went overseas and came back on a ship," said George. "I've been on commercial airplanes plenty, but this is a first for me."
Other than my great uncle George Elder, I can't say I know too many World War II veterans. I've often wondered what World War II veterans think of the nation's youth, considering the sacrifices my generation is forced to make is so minuscule compared to their generation. With nothing to lose, I asked George and Richard.
"To see how the young men and women in the military take their duty today, which is strictly a job they're in great shape, they take good care of themselves physically, mentally and many of them have families, which just amazes me," said Richard. "As opposed to my turn of duty, which was, 'let's fight the war and let's get it over with.' It's a different situation altogether with the (soldiers) today. I'm so very pleased with the our youth, and I would recommend military service to any young kid."
"Since I'm also a World War II re-enactor, what we try to do is teach history to young kids," said George. "We have displays (all over) that talk about the war front, but also the home front, the jobs they did and how they lived. They don't teach too much about World War II in schools, so we try to teach what kids don't know. The times are different, but as long as kids learn what the war was about, they're doing their part. We re-enactors try and help them."
I was pleasantly surprised with their answers. If everyone could practice the kind of patience with people of different ages that these men do, I think the world would be a much happier place.
I decided to stop pestering the veterans, so I went to ask Mark about the airplane I was flying on.
"Witchcraft was made by Consolidated Aircraft in 1944 and was shipped to the British as part of the lend-lease program," said Mark. "The British flew this in the Pacific theatre in 1945 anti-shipping missions and dropping supplies and such. The British had this plane in India, and when the British relinquished control of India in 1947, this plane was abandoned. In the late 1940s the Indian Air Force acquired this plane and flew it until 1968. It then sat in a boneyard until the early 1980s, when a British collector had it shipped in parts back to England. In the mid 1980s, the Collings Foundation acquired the plane and shipped it to Stow, Mass. where the foundation headquarters is. The initial plan for it was to have it restored for show, but several 15th Air Force B-24 veterans convinced the foundation to restore it to flightworthy condition. It started flying again in 1989 as part of the Wings of Freedom tour and this is the 23rd year that Witchcraft has been touring the country."
Shortly after talking with Mark, the rain ceased, but it was announced that we would be grounded for another two hours. In the style of photos I've seen of servicemen from World War II, I decided to take a nap under the wing of Witchcraft.
Finally, around 3 p.m., we were granted clearance. With what was perhaps false confidence, I climbed aboard the airplane. Around 3:20 p.m., we were told to strap ourselves in. This wasn't a commercial airplane and there were no seats. I sat on the ground, next to a side gun turret. The airplane started to taxi, and before I knew it, I was in the air.
To be frank, everything was too beautiful for me to be afraid. I unstrapped myself and climbed towards the gun turret at the very rear of the airplane. As Witchcraft climbed higher, I decided to simply enjoy that which was flying. The view was magnificent. The ethereal glow of Lake Erie was breathtaking. I had to remind myself to blink occasionally.
Unfortunately, George and Richard were riding on Nine-O-Nine, the B-17, however Mark was on Witchcraft with me. He suggested I go see the view from the cockpit, so I started moving toward the front of the airplane.
To get to the cockpit, I had to slink across the catwalk that went over the bomb bay doors. As I crossed the catwalk, I took a look at the faux bombs which the airplane was carrying. Written across the bombs in white paint were phrases such as, "To Hitler, from The Mighty," and, "You'll get a bang out of this one!" It just then hit me that despite staring death in the eye almost every single day, the soldiers of World War II were still just kids when they served. Men and women that could still be alive today had they not served instead fought and died for the principles of their nation. It was an overwhelming epiphany, however the catwalk I was standing on was the only thing separating me from a 2,000 foot fall, so I made my way to the other side.
The view from the cockpit was simply incredible, and I marveled as the pilots of Witchcraft handled the airplane with the same routineness that I employ when brushing my teeth. These men were meant to be in the air.
Content with the amount of photographs I had taken, I spent the rest of the flight near the open window of the gun turret that I had sat beside when the airplane took off.
Before I knew it, it was time to strap myself in again for our descent into Jamestown Airport. As the airplane struggled to make itself parallel with the runway, it began to undulate, and I remembered my aforementioned feeble constitution.
I began employing tricks I thought I had heard would help nausea, such as pressing my fingers tightly against my wrist and holding my breath. Needless to say, the tricks didn't work. I'm ashamed to say I lost my lunch as Witchcraft touched down in Jamestown. It was embarrassing, but it was worth it. The flight was spectacular and I will remember it for the rest of my life.
I exited the airplane, met my father, and went to the restaurant in the airport for a ginger ale. Once my stomach became less dyspeptic, I made my way to my car and drove home.
My flight on Witchcraft is something I can say I will always remain with me. My great uncle George reminds me often that there aren't too many World War II veterans left anymore, and fairly soon they will be all gone. Not only did I get to fly on a vintage B-24J bomber, I also met a handful of World War II veterans who proved to me they truly could not be better men if they tried. Far too many men and women died in World War II to preserve the freedoms that my generation sometimes takes for granted, however I am so very thankful that the men and women who survived continued to exhibit the same valor and gallantry in peace that they did in war. I'm truly humbled by them.
The Wings of Freedom tour will be on display at the Jamestown Airport until the airplanes depart on Aug. 13 at noon. Tours of the airplanes are scheduled to take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and tomorrow and 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Monday. Guests can view these airplanes inside and out for the price of $12 for adults and $6 for children. All World War II veterans will be given tours of the aircraft at no charge.
Additionally, visitors may also experience the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a 30-minute flight about the B-24J and B-17 for $425 per person. I can tell you from experience, the ride is worth the price.
I encourage you all to stop by the Jamestown Airport this weekend and support the Wings of Freedom tour. Very rarely do we as civilians get the opportunity to experience a piece of history such as these airplanes. To miss this opportunity would be a terrible shame.
I would like to thank Mark Nickerson, the Collings Foundation, Jamestown Airport, George Wisniewski and Richard Wynne, and all others who helped to make this possible for me. I will never forget your kindness.