The Wings of Freedom Tour is a caravan of flying WWII-era planes that travel the country. They’ve made their Seattle stop on the hottest day of the year (whew!) and what better way to work up a sweat than climbing into these famous and perfectly restored war planes.
What sets these guys apart is that unlike the planes you’ll see in the Museum of Flight, these warbirds fly. The Collings Foundation is the group behind the restoration and operation of these planes. 75 years ago the mission was stopping the Axis Powers; today the mission is to educate a new generation on the heroism of the greatest generation.
To maintain these museums to flight-spec take a lot of money. To defray that cost ($4,000 per operating hour per aircraft) the Wings of Freedom Tour visits airports throughout the country to the tune of about 115 appearances a year. For $15 you can self-tour the four planes, actually going into the B-17 and the B-24 and viewing the TF-51 and B-25 up close.
For around $400 dollars you can take part with 6-10 others in a 30-minute flight of the B-17 or B-24! IF the TF-51 is your thing, that’ll cost you about $2,000.
I didn’t fly, but I did bring my camera along to explore the planes. Let’s go!
B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine”
First manufactured by Boeing in 1935, it was Seattle Times columnist Richard Smith who dubbed the plane the “flying fortress” after seeing its first flight.
In the Pacific, the planes earned a deadly reputation with the Japanese, who dubbed them “four-engine fighters.” The Fortresses were also legendary for their ability to stay in the air after taking brutal poundings.
Seventy-five years after the B-17’s first flight, an 88 year-old veteran sent The Boeing Company a letter. After explaining how he returned to England after a bombing raid over Germany with 179 flak holes and only two out of the four engines, he wrote: “I’m glad to be alive. Thank you for making such a good airplane.”
Gen. Carl Spaatz, the American air commander in Europe, said, “Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.”
While this aircraft livery shows Nine O Nine, this is not the actual combat Nine O Nine. Built in 1945, this B-17 did not see combat. It did, however support search and rescue and drop water on forest fires. In 1986, the Collings Foundation purchased it and restored it to WWII combat condition, reviving the Nine O Nine livery.
According to Wikipedia, she’s actually crashed twice since then (once in Pittsburgh and once in Nebraska). I’m not sure they’ll tell you that when you sign up for a flight experience, though!
B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft”
The B-24 Liberator was a four-engine, twin-tail heavy bomber designed by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego. A total of 18,493 Liberators would ultimately be built, more than any other aircraft in World War II.
The Wings of Freedom Tour B-24 is the only fully authentic B-24J model that still flies. It originally flew for the Royal Air Force as a bombing and resupply aircraft at the beginning of WWII. Eventually, this B-24 transferred to the Indian Air Force to fly a similar role. By 1968 the aircraft found itself scrapped and abandoned in a field after the IAF decommissioned and retired it.
The original “Witchcraft” was a B-24 assigned to the 467th Bomb Group, 790 Bomb Squadron that compiled an amazing record of 130 combat missions during World War II.
B-25 Mitchell “Tondelayo”
The North American B-25 Mitchell, a twin-engine bomber that became standard equipment for the Allied air forces in World War II, was perhaps the most versatile aircraft of the war. It became the most heavily armed airplane in the world, was used for high- and low-level bombing, strafing, submarine patrol, and even as a fighter.
The Wings of Freedom Tour B-25 didn’t see combat has the livery of the Tondelayo which did see combat.
On October 18, 1943 took off on a bombing mission over without fighter escort. Over the target, with one of its engines shot out, the bomber engaged in a seventy-five minute battle with fifty Japanese fighters.
The turret gunner was credited with five victories, plus four others that crashed into the sea, attempting to attack the bomber skimming the surface of the ocean, and misjudging their attacks. It successfully returned to base with heavy damage. They received a distinguished unit citation for this mission.
TF-51D Mustang “Toulouse Nuts”
North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang was the first U.S. built fighter airplane to push its nose over Europe. Mustangs met and conquered every German plane from the early Junkers to the sleek, twin-jet Messerschmitt 262s.
The Collings Foundation put tens of thousands of hours into rebuilding this fighter to ‘brand new’ condition. This TF-51D is one of three original survivors in the world. The livery is original, a West Virginia Air Guard 167th Fighter Squadron P-51 ‘Toulouse Nuts.’
The TF-51D model is a unique Mustang variant with a full dual cockpit. This allows the Flight Experience participants to actually have some stick time (which is why you pay over $2,000).