I watched in shock as the fierce wind sucked my neon orange earplug through a crack in the floor of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator.
As my earplug disappeared into the void below, the crew member's words echoed in my head: "Don't step on the red floor!" He had explained that it would easily flap open at the touch. So a slip of the foot and that earplug could easily have been me -- but it wasn't. I was still safely nestled inside the B-24 enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime flight between San Luis Obispo and Moffett Field in Mountain View.
The flight was possible because of the Collings Foundation's "Wings of Freedom Tour" that is scheduled to land at the Livermore Municipal Airport on Sunday, May 27, for Memorial Day. Everyone is invited to see, smell, feel and ride in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a Consolidated B-24 Liberator and a P-51 Mustang.
But last weekend I was honored to ride in the B-24 beauty, the only one of its kind in the world, which has been fully restored and is still operating. I spent Friday, three days before my college finals, with my head in the clouds. Just call me Amelia Earhart!
My day began in Livermore where I met happy-go-lucky Kevin Ryan, a 20-year volunteer for the Collings Foundation and a Pleasanton resident, and his 1976 Cessna 182.
With a tail wind behind us and a clear blue sky above, we easily made our way toward the San Luis Obispo Airport where two bomber planes awaited. The plane trip south was serene and resembled the flights my grandfather used to enjoy in his Cessna 210.
Once on the ground, I took in the sight of the rare treasures of aviation history. It didn't hit me until takeoff that young men my age flew them over enemy territory nearly 75 years ago during WWII as part of the Allied effort to free Europe.
The most difficult decision of the day, besides stepping onboard in the first place, was choosing in which bomber to take my flight-of-faith. I opted to fly in the beefy B-24 "Witchcraft" with trusty pilot 72-year-old Jim Goolsby.
During WWII, the original Witchcraft flew a record 130 combat missions and no crewmen were ever injured or killed. Hoping that record wouldn't end, I checked to make sure I was wearing my lucky socks.
Ryan and I figured we had time to refuel at the airport's restaurant but it turned out that the B-24 flight to Moffett Field was one that would not be delayed. I almost missed it by seconds, but with Ryan's assistance I crawled through the bomb bay while the engines rumbled, and I took a seat above a breezy doorway.
Aviation is in my blood, and in my name, but I was unprepared for the flight ahead. If I had ever been afraid of heights, small spaces and loud noises, I wouldn't be for long. When the bomber took off, I couldn't tell if it was the plane or my entire body shaking.
I waited for the sound of a "ding" followed by the pleasant message, "You are now free to move about the cabin," but that never happened. After a few minutes in the air, the man next to me confidently maneuvered himself from his seat to the wide open windows equipped with waist guns.
It was a few extra minutes before I cautiously left the safety of my seat, but I was pleased when I did. The hair-whipping wind forced me to take refuge in the nose gunner spot, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I soaked up the view and imagined the people 2,000 feet below pointing to the sky shouting, "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a B-24!"
For the first time in my life, I wished my head were shaved but I soon found a way to secure my long locks and enjoyed gazing out the window. I squeezed back through the catwalk (which seemed inches thinner the second time) and was careful not to step on the red floor.
A bell rang after about an hour, vibrating the floors and signaling that it was time to take a seat and prepare for landing. I tensed up anticipating the landing, but it turned out to be smoother than some commercial airplanes.
Everything seemed incredibly silent once the bomber had been taxied, parked and its four engines turned off. The five other passengers and I ducked under the open bomb bay to stable ground.
I stepped back and admired the amazing piece of history that had transported me in one piece from one part of the state to another and felt like the luckiest young lady in the world.
"You hang around these bombers long enough, some days you want to cry and some days you want to hold your sides laughing. It becomes a whole range of emotions," said pilot Goolsby, an 11-year Collings Foundation volunteer.
My hat is off to the Collings Foundation, Kevin Ryan, Jim Goolsby and all the other volunteers who make available to the public these incredible aircrafts that served our country so well. And to the airmen who flew in them so bravely. n
Wings of Freedom
Everyone is invited to see, smell, feel and ride in a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a Consolidated B-24 Liberator and a P-51 Mustang at the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour 2012, which will be at the Livermore Airport from Sunday-Tuesday, May 27-29. Tours are $12 for adults, $6 for children, and World War II veterans enjoy free admission. Thirty-minute flights on either the B-17 or B-24 are $425 per person.
The weekend revelries begin at noon Sunday, with '40s music from the "Big Band of Rossmoor" and several locally based airplanes such as a Yak 18 and C1A Tracker from the USS Hornet on display.
No reservations are need for walk-through tours at the following times:
* Noon-4 p.m. Sunday
* 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Tuesday
Flight Experiences take place before and after the walk-through tours. Call 978-562-9182 for flight reservations.