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World War II comes alive on runway

August 7, 2018

Four still-living legends of World War II flew into Fort Wayne on Monday.

A B-25 Mitchell, a type of bomber best known for the 1942 Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, landed first, its twin propellers roaring before they came to a stop.

Next came a B-24 Liberator, a rare war bird indeed. Liberators saw service over Europe and in the Pacific theater, and were the most-produced bomber during the war.

But they were quickly decommissioned afterward, and the plane that touched down Monday is one of only two remaining airworthy craft and the only one fitted out as a battle plane, according to the Collings Foundation, sponsor of the Wings of Freedom Tour that brought the historic aircraft to Fort Wayne.

Not far behind it came a lumbering B-17, a bomber nicknamed “The Flying Fortress” for bringing back so many of its pilots and their crews, even though heavily damaged during raids over Nazi Germany.

Finally, though, came an aircraft many in the crowd of 100 or so people waiting to greet the planes didn’t have to see to identify.

When the distinctive sound of the P-51D Mustang fighter’s Merlin engine filled the sky over their heads, several called it out.

“It’s its own unique airplane. There’s nothing like it,” said attendee Greg Wheeler of Columbia City. “It’s the best fighter ever made, and that’s not just my opinion.”

So great is the 70-year-old’s admiration for the aircraft that he plunked down $3,200 for an ultimate bucket list experience : taking the controls of the dual-controlled plane during an hourlong flight and training session.

Many of the other onlookers at Fort Wayne’s Aero Center near Fort Wayne International Airport had more modest expectations.

Dominic Hines, 7, of Fort Wayne was brought to the airfield by his grandfather, Dan Wyatt, a retired tool-and-die maker who served six years in the U.S. Army Reserve.

The boy just wanted a good look.

“I’m a fan of airplanes. Well, all vehicles, too,” Dominic said. “I really like that they go up in the air really fast. I’m interested in how fast they go. And they’re really old planes.”

He listened intently as his grandfather pointed out the distinctive transparent gunner bubble atop the B-24 and the B-17. “They had guns everywhere!” Dominic exclaimed.

That’s because the planes “had to shoot in every direction,” Wyatt explained.

“Sometimes they got shot at from underneath. And they got shot down, too.”

Several area residents, including Steve Hosier of Fort Wayne, an Vietnam-era Army vet, boarded the planes for a tour, with one youngster, Evan Wulpi, 4, walking along a ledge next to a bomb carried by the B-17.   

Ryan Keough, marketing and development director for Collings, said that’s exactly why the foundation takes the planes on tour.

Not many of those who served in connection with the planes remain at this point. But their families do, he said.

“Being able to see this and touch this and know this is where Dad sat and this is what he flew and this is what it was like on these airplanes ... it’s special,” he said.

“Our goal is : we don’t want these to be in a museum. We want to bring the museum to the people.”

The planes do get a beating, he acknowledged, flying a full circle around the United States 110 days a year, starting and ending in Florida.

The foundation has been acquiring and restoring planes and taking them to the skies for 30 years, Keough said. Usually they make several flights a day while on tour : 30-minute B-17 and B-24 flights cost 400.

A 30-minute training flight in the P-51D costs 15 for adults and $5 for children 12 and younger.

For Wheeler, who said he flew Chinook helicopters for the Army between 1967 and 1970, logging 12,000 flight hours, the P-51D was a must-do.

“It’s go big or go home,” said Wheeler, owner of a plumbing, heating and air conditioning business.

Next on his bucket list: someone coming along and buying him out of the business.

“So I can go have fun and fly planes,” he said.   

rsalter@jg.net

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