Clank…… Clank……… Clank… Clank… Clank. Clank clank … VROOOOOOM!!
That’s the sound Pratt & Whitney R1830 engine starting up on the Collings Foundation B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft”. And guess what? I was in it, and the best part - with a very cool WWII vet!
But now, let me tell you how I got there in the first place. My dad and I were going for a ride with the Collings Foundation, and with 2 WWII bomber aviators! We picked up our friends Jack Burke, who flew 27 missions in a ball turret under a B-17, and Bill Getz, who flew 31 missions as a pilot in a B-24 and then another 175 hours in Mustangs in the Scouting Force. My mom drove all of us to Hollister Municipal Airport, where the Collings Foundation bombers where going to take off for Moffett Field.
I'm inside the ball and Jack is getting me checked out.
.50 calibers on each side
Jack showed me the ball turret and I got to sit in it! I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like inside that tiny ball, 30,000 feet over a country full of people trying to kill me. At 1300hrs, the pilots called us together for the do’s and don’ts of the bombers. I was flying in the B-24 with Bill, and my dad was flying in the B-17 "Nine-O-Nine" with Jack. Now back to the story…
The sounds, the smells, the feel, were totally overwhelming. When Bill and I were strapped in behind the cockpit and the engines started… all I can say is WOW. The first engine to start up was #3. It coughed and belched smoke, and it roared with power. It was just what I needed. The plane jumped and jiggled each time one of the four 1200 hp engines started, which only added to the excitement of it all.
Engines churning, the pilots ran her up and checked the magnetos for each engine. The plane trembled and shook with all 4800 hp trying to thrust it into the sky. Bill and I were sitting across from each other behind the cockpit while we were taking off, but when we were off, I scampered all around the plane taking pictures. Bill hung out where he wanted to be the most, in the cockpit of a B-24. Once a pilot, always a pilot, I guess!
Bill Getz - in his element
During the 40 minute flight, I couldn’t see the B-17, but my dad could see us. He rode with Jack who had a great time. Jack hadn’t been in a B-17 since his last mission, May 13th 1944 …. 65 years and two days! Can you imagine? He faced terror and death each time he flew – and here he was, going back in time to when he was 20 years old again. As Jack climbed around in the B-17, he took a long look at the ball turret. This one had ammo cans attached to the top so when a gunner would run out of ammo, someone above could get him a fresh load. When Jack flew, he couldn’t do that. He had 600 rounds in one gun and 500 in the other. He’d load different color tracers in each belt that would tell him where he was. He had several hairy missions where he ran out of ammo. Can you imagine? Helpless in that ball with ME109’s and FW190’s coming at you? All he could do was swing the ball around furiously to make it look like a threat. He sure looked longingly at those ammo cans. My dad stuck his head out of the radio operator’s gun hole into the wind’s blast to get photos of us in the B-24 behind him.
The scenery outside was gorgeous! The 4 engines where running perfectly. The airplane felt exactly like it must have felt in combat, except it wasn’t 40 ° below zero, I wasn’t wearing an electric flight suit or a flak vest, I wasn’t slipping around on piles of empty .50 caliber shells, and anti-aircraft guns on the ground and pilots in fighter planes weren’t trying to kill me.
But suddenly, I found myself on a bombing raid deep in occupied France in 1944. I was in the co-pilot’s seat, and next to me was Bill Getz, 20 years old. I looked down, and was wearing a flak vest and oxygen mask. I was in 1944! Flak was exploding all around us. The bomber behind us was incinerated as its engines and fuselage caught fire. Ahead of us, the B-17 ‘Nine-o-Nine’ dropped its payload. I found myself with a camera. Over the noise, I scrambled around the plane, taking pictures for the press and looking for fighters to get. I couldn’t go in the ball or top turrets, but I could go just about anywhere else. Looking for bandits, I aimed the waist guns, the tail guns, but didn’t see any. They knew not to mess with us!
looking down my .50
Then I realized that we weren’t in 1944, or on a bombing raid. Bill was going back in time to being a 20 year old kid. Thinking about all those missions he flew. I was in 1944 too, in a way, but I’ll never know what Bill and Jack went through.
The Collings Foundation was founded in 1979. Their mission - “…organize and support ‘”living history”’ events that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation.” The Collings Foundation is a very cool organization and we are fortunate to have them. Hunter Chaney, their director of marketing, and my editor Richard Porter at Atlantic Flyer set the whole thing up, so I couldn’t have done this without them!
It was an extremely powerful experience, and I was getting a better education on this history than in school (No offense Cabrillo School). I really had a great day, and special thanks to my friends Bill and Jack who took me back in time.
5/21/09 Evan Isenstein Brand
photos by me and my dad