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World War II-era planes a hit at airport

Wings of Freedom tour brings bombers, fighter to Hagerstown

Wings of Freedom tour brings bombers, fighter to Hagerstown

August 19, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

Former WWII waist gunner recalls B-24 flights

HAGERSTOWN -- Aviation enthusiasts, veterans and history lovers young and old lined the fence around Hagerstown Aircraft Services Wednesday afternoon to watch the arrival of three rare World War II airplanes that are in town as part of a nationwide tour.

The Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang will be on display at Hagerstown Aircraft Services through Friday.

The planes are part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, a traveling exhibit by the Collings Foundation intended to honor veterans and educate visitors about World War II history.

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The B-17 and B-24 were the heavy bombers that formed the "backbone" of the American effort during World War II, while the P-51 Mustang was an escort fighter known affectionately as the bombers' "Little Friend," Collings Foundation Marketing Director Hunter Chaney wrote in a news release.

"After the war, many aircraft were scrapped for their raw aluminum to rebuild a nation in post-war prosperity and therefore very few were spared," Chaney wrote. "The rarity of the B-17, the B-24 and P-51 -- and their importance to telling the story of WWII -- is why the Collings Foundation continues to fly and display the aircraft nationwide."

The B-17 is one of only nine in flying condition in the United States, and the B-24J and Dual Control P-51C Mustang are the sole remaining examples of their types flying in the world, he said.

For a small donation, visitors are invited to tour the planes, while a larger donation will buy a 30-minute flight on board any of the three.

One of the first to take advantage of that opportunity was Edwin Sprouse, 92, of Boonsboro, who served as an Army Air Corps radio operator on a B-17 during World War II and flew in on the B-17 when it arrived Wednesday afternoon.

"It was different somehow," Sprouse said moments after being hoisted down from the plane after landing. "I guess the difference was me."

Sprouse was accompanied by his friend Gene Sansone, 73, who arranged the trip.

"We saw it in the paper and thought it would be pretty neat to get him in a plane again," Sansone said.

Sprouse looked at the radio operator's compartment, but wasn't able to fit into it because it was so small, Sansone said.

In fact, one of the most common comments made by people touring the old planes is that, though they look big on the outside, the inside spaces are surprisingly cramped, said Chuck Gardner, who piloted the P-51 to Hagerstown.

The small spaces were less of an issue during World War II because many airmen were slim from growing up during the Great Depression, Gardner said.

The crowd at Wednesday's exhibit included many whose nostalgia for vintage airplanes came from working at or having relatives who worked at Fairchild Aircraft during the manufacturing company's long history in Hagerstown.

Others were attracted by the planes' role in history.

"The B-24 probably won the war in Europe, I think," said Harry Himes, 83, who served in the infantry during World War II, but joined the Air Force after the war.

Andrew Mitchell, 17, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., said he jumped at the opportunity to see a B-17 after hearing his grandfather's stories from his 53 missions as a B-17 right waist gunner.

On his very first mission, Mitchell's grandfather, George Franklin Silver, 86, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., came back with 247 holes in his aircraft, Mitchell said.

"I'm just in awe," Mitchell said. "It kind of gives you a sense of respect."

If you go ...



What: Wings of Freedom Tour, World War II aircraft display

When: Today, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 9:30 a.m. to noon

Where: Hagerstown Aircraft Services at Hagerstown Regional Airport, 14235 Oak Springs Road

What else: Donations of $12 for adults and $6 for children are requested for up-close access and tours. World War II veterans may tour the aircraft at no cost.

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