A flying museum of three World War II aircraft soared into Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling, unlocking memories for many vets while giving hundreds of visitors an up-close look at history.
"It's the first time I've been in one of those since 1958," said Roger Johnson, 84, of Oak Forest, of the B-24 "Witchcraft" bomber. He served 10 years with the U.S. Navy at the Glenview Naval Air Station during the Korean War, but remembers the vintage planes as if it were yesterday. "I'll be flying all night tonight."
In its 24th year, the Wings of Freedom tour opened the doors over the weekend to a restored Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a Consolidated B-24 Liberator and a North American P-51 Mustang for visitors to climb aboard, touch the guns and the bombs and crawl through the fuselage just as the young pilots of WWII did more than 70 years ago.
Managed by the Collings Foundation, the national tour makes 100 stops annually, and for $425 to $3,200, visitors and vets alike can even take a ride.
"They remember the old days with tears in their eyes and they remember the combat, wondering if they were going to come back alive," said Stu Eberharbt, 77, a retired U.S. Air Force and Delta Airlines pilot who captains rides for many WWII vets on the P-51 Mustang for $2,200 for a half-hour.
He's been flying since 1952, formerly at Arlington Field in Arlington Heights, which served as an auxiliary airfield and WWII prisoner-of-war camp and later a Nike missile site, and is now home to the Arlington Lakes Golf Club. Eberharbt now lives in Danville, Calif., and when he's not traveling with the Wings of Freedom, he air races in Reno, Nev.
"WWII was when the United States reached its peak as a world power and an important time to remember in our history," he said.
The P-51C Mustang "Betty Jane" was a long-range escort airplane designed to protect the B-24 and B-17 bombers from enemy attack. The Consolidated B-24J Liberator "Witchcraft" was built in 1944 and participated in the Pacific theater, completing 130 combat missions. The Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine" was made famous for its Daylight Strategic Bombing Campaign, according to the Collings Foundation, and for being the icon of the postwar movies.
"This really is a chance to take a tour of a flying museum," said Jamie Abbott, assistant airport manager.
Armed with his camera phone and tidbits of WWII history, Jimmy Riess, 11, of Norwood Park, said that because of his German heritage, he spends a lot of his free time learning more about this important part of history.
"This is actually pretty cool," Jimmy said. "I remember we used these planes a lot over Africa and they were used to drop the atomic bomb over Japan."
Although it was actually B-29 bombers that dropped the A-bomb, organizers like to see this type of historical discussion.
"These warbirds unlock memories," said Gary Dean, 53, a professional risk manager from Southampton, England, who volunteered the last two weeks to tour with the Wings of Freedom, recognizing many vets often keep their WWII memories quiet. "But here, they start talking and the stories come out. They went in as kids and came out as men. We're giving history a future."
Mount Prospect resident Jim Corman, 76, said this was the first time he's ever been in a B-24 bomber. The U.S. Army vet was glad he came.
"You don't want to miss something like this," he said.