Words & Photos by Jaime Fuller
When the B-17 flew toward the Corvallis Airport on a hot Wednesday afternoon, it appeared a menace in the sky. Its low height was unfamiliar to most and reminiscent of warplanes dropping bombs in the World War II movies we have all seen.
A crowd of people gathered on the grass and under a concrete shelter awaiting the arrival of three World War II bombers for the Wings of Freedom Tour. Dogs and children scurried between parents and veterans as the B-17 arrived first. It flew directly toward the crowd only to turn around for a gentle landing. An hour later the B-24 flew overhead.
Carl Gustafson, an 89-year-old World War II Air Force veteran, flew 27 missions from 1942 to 1944. He says the temperature in the planes would get very cold at high altitudes. His coldest mission was at 25,000 feet—the temperature was 70 below zero.
“It would get so cold up there, your breath would freeze inside the mask. You had to keep crunching the ice to get it out,” he recollects. “I was a nose turret gunner. I joined when I was 17. You had to get drafted and then you could get sent anywhere. I signed up early so I could choose.”
A Korean War veteran, Toni Siegienski spoke to the cold factor of these planes. “The planes weren’t air-conditioned like they are nowadays. They had electrically heated flight suits… I imagine people froze to death sometimes.”
He added, “World War II was largely fought by teenagers. They’d be flying around Europe. They would take off and didn’t know whether they’d come back alive.”
Both Gustafson and Siegienski are knowledgeable about the bombers. It’s clear that Gustafson is biased toward the B-24, and he knows it. The B-17 has a turret underneath that does not retract, whereas the B-24’s bottom turret must retract in order to land. The B-17 has a lot of acreage in the wings. Not so much with the B-24. Despite this, the two are pretty close in size. The gas tanks for these warbirds hold around 27,000 gallons of 100-octane fuel.
The B-17 is not as fast and doesn’t have as much range as the B-24. It has four engines called Wright Cyclones, which pump out 1,200 horsepower each. As for the bombs it carried, Gustafson says, “Sometimes you’d take a mixed load of bombs, depending on what your target was. High explosives, incendiary bombs.”
The Wings of Freedom Tour is a major event run by the Collings Foundation, a non-profit educational group. This year is the 25th anniversary of the tour. The Foundation’s mission is to support and organize educational events that allow Americans to better understand their heritage. It supports keeping the history of these planes going. The B-24 they brought in is the only operational one left in the world, and the B-17 is one of just eight that can still fly. The third plane to arrive was the P-51 Mustang, of which there are still quite a few. The tour’s stop in Corvallis ran from June 11 to June 13. Tours of the planes were available to the public, and were free for World War II veterans.
The fact that people can tour and take rides in these relics is extremely meaningful to some.
“I got this letter from Scappoose, and I thought, I don’t know anyone from Scappoose,” says Gustafson, relating one such meaningful tale. Upon reading the letter, he discovered it was from a woman whose father had been a pilot during World War II and died before she was born. She wanted to be able to sit in the plane that her dad had been in, the very seat that he had worked from. Gustafson was able to help organize such an opportunity for her.
On one of the flights in Corvallis, a middle-aged man brought an old black-and-white photo in a wooden frame that showed his father in a military group. During the 30-minute flight, he set the photo on the desk of the radio operator room and took a picture of it. He explained that his dad had been a radio operator. Experiencing that flight, for him, was priceless.
The Wings of Freedom Tour continues on to Seattle this weekend, followed by stops in Idaho and Montana before taking a little break. You can follow them on the web at www.collingsfoundation.org.