The World War II veteran hadn’t spoken about his combat experience for years.
He was reluctant to see the aircraft that he had sat in seven decades ago let alone engage in a historical aviation tour geared toward WWII veterans.
But there, with his family at the Lafayette Regional Airport in Louisiana, the sound of one engine caught his ear. The roar of the B-24 Liberator seemed to call to him.
So he sat in the heavy bomber, this time as a passenger taking a 30-minute ride over a scenic route.
When the military aircraft landed and he stepped off, he cried.
The man in his mid-90s was back in 1945.
“It brought life back to him,” said Jamie Mitchell, a flight coordinator with the Wings of Freedom Tour who relayed the story of the veteran. “When you see something like that, you’re proud to make it real again.”
The Wings of Freedom Tour, presented by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation, is a traveling display of rare bomber and fighter aircraft that allows visitors to learn about the planes that served as the backbone of the U.S. effort during World War II.
The nationwide tour, which touches down Wednesday through May 8 at the Lyon Air Museum at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, serves as a tribute to the flight crews who flew them, the ground crews who maintained them, the workers who built them, and the soldiers, sailors and airmen who helped protect them.
At the Lyon Air Museum, four rare planes will sit on the tarmac, having arrived under their own power, still operational. Alongside the B-24 Liberator will be the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell and P-51 Mustang, the sole remaining example of its type in the world.
Retaining such planes to showcase has been a feat, Mitchell said, since many were scrapped for their raw aluminum after the war. The scarcity is the reason the Collings Foundation — a nonprofit education organization that recreates historical events — continues to fly and display the military aircrafts nationwide. The Collings Foundation also has Korean War, Vietnam War and other collections of aircraft.
In Orange County, visitors will be able to explore the aircraft for $12, or $6 for children 12 and younger. WWII veterans will be admitted to the ground tours at no charge. And $450 will buy a 30-minute ride on the B-17 or B-24; $2,200 covers a half-hour flight on a P-51.
The tour, now in its 27th year, visits an average of 110 cities in more than 35 states annually. Officials estimate that 3.5 million people have seen the display.
Mitchell said the tour’s primary goals are to honor the sacrifices made by veterans and to educate visitors, particularly younger Americans, about the country’s history and heritage.
“Our emphasis is to pass the future to children and get them interested in careers like aviation or mechanics,” said Mitchell. “This opportunity gives you a sense of freedom, and it’s all the more symbolic when you’re sitting in a military aircraft.”
Mark Foster, president of the Lyon Air Museum, has helped bring the tour to Santa Ana each year since 2010.
As part of the tour, Foster said, guests may also walk through the museum and study machines, operational aircraft and automobiles that helped define the 20th century.
He said it was important for the air museum to reconnect veterans to the past and tell the story of the planes’ role in World War II.
Despite the risks of anti-aircraft fire, the B-17s and B-24s safely brought the crews home, he said.
“It’s an intimate setting for visitors and World War II veterans to share historic experiences,” Foster said of the tour. “It gives any visitor a better understanding of the aircraft than reading about it in a book.”
What: Wings of Freedom Tour
When: 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until May 8
Where: Lyon Air Museum at John Wayne Airport, 19300 Ike Jones Road, Santa Ana
Cost: $6 to $2,200
Information: Call (800) 568-8924 or visit collingsfoundation.org
Kathleen Luppi, email@example.com