Though Halloween is fast approaching, I haven’t had the chance to do much of anything spooky yet. That is, until I flew from Frederick to Westminster in a 74-year-old aircraft named “Witchcraft.”
At takeoff, I was perched just behind the pilot and co-pilot on a little metal seat with a canvas cushion. My feet dangled over the entrance to the catwalk between the front and back of the plane and right next to me a sign gave instructions for operating the bomb doors.
“Who lets some 23-year-old sit next to the bombs?” I thought to myself. That’s when it hit home for me that the men who flew this plane in 1944 could have been 18-years-old.
No one knew this better than another passenger on my flight, Harold Bennett, 97. He flew in B-24s as a radio operator in the United States Air Force. Friday was the first time he had been in the air in one since the 1940s.
I asked him if anything felt similar going up this time.
“It was still cold,” he said. “And rough.”
On long flights at the altitudes Bennett flew during the war, temperatures got low enough that crew members plugged in heated pads in their flak suits.
“Most of the time, that was shorted out, so it didn’t do much good,” he said. Crew members wore oxygen masks and goggles, but that left a small area of the upper cheek exposed. Sometimes, that area would get frostbitten, making bomber crew members instantly recognizable.
During his service, Bennett flew 37 missions.
“Witchcraft,” a consolidated B-24J Liberator, a B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine," a B-25 Mitchell “Tondelayo” bomber and a P-51 Mustang “Toulouse Nuts” fighter were part of the Wings of Freedom Tour. They travel throughout the country as a tribute to the American effort during World War II.
We set out from the Frederick Municipal Airport for the Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster on Friday morning.
Even on a weekday, the crowd of people who came out to tour the planes while they were grounded and watch them takeoff was a decent size.
One woman was wearing her father’s flight jacket.
“That’s my dad’s plane,” she said when she saw the B-17.
The Collings Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the planes, specializes in “living history events.” It was clear that the human history of these planes still resonated with the crowd, who were reluctant to leave the tarmac as we prepared for takeoff.
“Witchcraft” isn’t your everyday septuagenarian flying machine. It’s a B-24J Liberator. Though they were one of the more common bombers during WWII, with nearly, 6,700 made, “Witchcraft” is the only fully restored and flying consolidated B-24J Liberator in the world.
Built in 1944, it saw combat in the Pacific Theater before it was left to languish in a bomber graveyard in Khanpur, India, according to the Collings Foundation. It was eventually purchased by a collector and then the Collings Foundation who restored about 80 percent of its parts over five years of labor. It flew again for the first time in 1989.
Our flight to Westminster lasted less than 15 minutes. Through a window near my head, I could see and hear the right propeller chopping the air over Frederick and Carroll counties. People around here are observant. At least three people I talked to Friday afternoon said they’d seen us flying overhead.
The noise was what I imagine it’s like to ride inside a bumble bee.
I spoke to our pilot, Robert Pinksten, afterward about flying the WWII planes versus a modern aircraft.
“There’s really no comparison other than the fact that they have wings,” he said. “It’s just really unstable and requires a lot more attention.
“Modern airplanes have a lot of computers and advanced flight control systems that allow them to be pretty hands off. This airplane requires constant input.”
After Friday, I wish I knew more about flying. I also wish I knew more about my family history.
I know my grandfather, Ned Horne, served in the Air Force during WWII, but he died before I was born, and I don’t know much about his service. I wish I could interview him today or point out the model of plane he crewed. I felt the loss of that oral and family history today, but I was grateful to hear the rumble of an engine and see the world from the skies the way he did.
The planes will be on display in Westminster between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 13-14, off the ramp at 1210 Old Meadow Branch Road.
Tours inside and out of the planes are available at $15 for adults and $5 for children younger than age 12.
Visitors can also register to take a 30-minute flight for $450 per person or experience actual flight training in the P-51 fighter for $2,200 for a half-hour and $3,200 for a full hour. For reservations and information on flight experiences, call 800-568-8924.
More information about the Wings of Freedom Tour and the aircraft is available at www.collingsfoundation.org.