By Fred “Crash” Blechman,
Three Collings Foundation aircraft recently visited Bob Hope Airport’s Mercury Air Center. The four-engine B-17G Flying Fortress Nine-0-Nine, the four-engine B-24J Liberator Witchcraft and the twin-engine B-25J Mitchell Tondelayo were at the airport from April 28 to May 2.
Arriving in cloudy skies from its previous stop at Brackett Field in La Verne, Calif., on this year’s Wings of Freedom Tour, these three WWII bomber legends were met by several members of the B-17 Combat Crewmen and Wingmen, the sponsoring organization for this tour stop.
For over 20 years, The Collings Foundation, whose main facility is in Stow, Mass., has recovered and restored many of the true landmark aircraft that built world aviation history. Aircraft from the very roots of aviation up to the supersonic jets of modern day are represented in the collection, from the 1909 Bleriot Type XI to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II. Nine-O-Nine and Tondelayo are just two of the 16 aircraft that are flyable from the total of 20 aircraft in the collection.
Rob Collings, the owner’s son, has piloted all the propeller-driven aircraft in the collection, and was flying the B-24 on this stop. During the course of the tour, he will fly all three of these bombers.
“We do about 135 stops annually, and have about 30 pilots for these three planes that we rotate out,” he said. “I’m on the tour for about eight months of the year.”
Collings said that this year, the organization is honoring the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
“We’re having a lot of those women fly along with us,” he said. “It’s been really great for us to meet them and for many of them to get back onboard a B-17, B-24 or B-25. People can come out and meet these ladies who made so much history and paved the way for future generations of female pilots.”
Although no WASP members were on location at the time this reporter was there, several veterans were in evidence. For example, Roy Test was there in full uniform. From May to nearly August 1944, he was a B-17 copilot in the 398th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force.
“Our crew flew 32 missions—same crew, same positions—in 77 days, over Germany, occupied France and Poland, yet none of our crew was ever injured,” he recalled. “We picked up holes in the plane, but luckily, no holes in the crew!”
Also in uniform was Roy Hon, a former tail gunner on B-17s and B-24s. He got hit while on his fourth mission in a B-24 over Germany. He was in the hospital while his crew transitioned to B-17s and flew 15 more missions. When he got out of the hospital, he flew practice missions in a B-17, but never got back on a crew.
Al Olivari, now 87 years old (although he only looks 60!), can usually be found wearing his bright blue B-17 Combat Crewmen and Wingmen jacket around any B-17 that comes to the Los Angeles area. He was a staff sergeant, nose gunner-togglier in a B-17, and completed 26 missions with the 8th Air Force over Europe. Although he didn’t have a bomb sight, Olivari said the togglier on the plane was one of the most important functions.
“On the bomb run, the bomb bay doors would be open,” he recalled. “When the lead plane in the formation dropped its bombs, I toggled mine. If something happened to the lead plane, there was always a deputy, with a regular bombardier, to fill that slot.”
“Mac” McCauley has been with Collings for eight years and is rated to fly any of the three bombers on the tour. He reportedly has 3,000 hours in the B-17, which he was flying on this stop. McCauley has been flying since 1965.
“I own a Stearman, and have flown T-6s, D-18s, DC-3s—just about anything with a round engine in it,” he said of his flying experience.
Mike Walsh, also with Collings for eight years, was piloting the B-25. He has about 5,000 pilot hours.
“I’ve flown just about everything there was to fly for about 33 years, including a Mustang,” he said.
For complete tour information, including flight reservations, visit [http://www.collingsfoundation.org], email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (978)562-9182 or (978)568-8924.