About 50 silver haired observers gaped up at the sky through BluBlockers and held on to their caps as the 60 year-old bomber eased down to the sizzling tarmac.
Like a scrappy little brother catching up with his grumpy older siblings, the ancient warplane slid up alongside his two larger companions and nonchalantly hushed the chugging of his roaring twin props.
It's not everyday you see a B-24, B-25 or even the classic B-17.
“These things are time machines,” said Captain Bob Oehl in front of the half-naked woman on the side of his B-25 named “Tondelayo.”
And they really are rare links to the past. The B-17 Flying Fortress
is one of only nine still flying, the B-25 Mitchell
is one of only a of a handful, and the tough-looking B-24J
is the last of over 18,000 produced that still flies.
Sponsored by the Massachusetts based Collings Foundation, these three World War II bombers roared through two Portland area airports last Friday on their 130 city, nationwide Wings of Freedom Tour
The flying relics stopped in at the McMinnville Municipal Airport near the Evergreen Aviation Museum and brought old-timer pilots and airplane geeks together for a close look at the bomb-bay doors, belly turrets and all the nuts and bolts.
We all watched as the crew replaced a giant tire on the B-17. Pilots and veterans swapped stories and lore. The sun beat down between puffy clouds in a perfectly blue sky.
Like me, a lucky handful would step aboard for a quick but eerie flight over to Betsy Johnson's stomping ground
of Aurora Airport. I now had the unique problem of selecting which time machine to ride.
The volunteer pilots and crews of the B-17, B-24J and B-25 all seem to have a healthy rivalry about their particular aircraft's special place in history.
“You can always tell a B-24 pilot by his big biceps,” said one airplane enthusiast partial to that plane. “The B-17 guys didn't want to arm wrestle with them because their planes were so much easier to fly.”
“Hearing the sound of a B-17's engines is like going on your first date,” said another fan. “You never forget it. They'll do that to a guy.”
“The B-17 got all the glory, but these guys did all the work,” said Captain Jim Gools, pilot of the B-24J Liberator named "Witchcraft." “They went faster, stayed up longer and carried more bombs.”
But it was an 84-year old Yoda (pictured above) with a hat that read “Hillsboro, OR!” that sealed the deal. Sam Barber, told me in his Oklahoman drawl that he had flown 18 missions over Germany as a bombardier on a B-24 like the "Witchcraft." He had lost hydraulics, a couple engines, considered bailing out over the North Sea and even had a pilot hit by shrapnel. It seemed this old master had seen it all and made it back in one piece.
“When you go up in that black sky full of flack and everything all boom, boom, boom—life gets really serious!” he said before his signature wise and infectious chuckle.
“But it's amazing anyone could live [in Germany] after all that bombing,” he added with a note of regret. “We bombed those poor people all day long!”
The nasty purpose of these aircraft doesn't outweigh the undeniable beauty of these graceful machines from a bi-gone era.
So I climbed through the open bomb-bay doors of the last flying B-24 in the world, stepped up on the catwalk and took my seat about midway down the plane.
“Don't step on the doors when in flight,” said the flight engineer. “You'll go right through!” I nodded and kept that advice very seriously in mind.
My hands started to shake as the four engines roared to life. I sat beside a young volunteer above the retractable belly turret near the two waist-high slits open to the blue sky and all of God's creation. I shook so much he had to help me with the seat belt.
As we taxied down the runway all communication turned to mime and the roar of the bomber seemed to come from inside our skulls. Within minutes we were up in the sky, looking down at the Oregon countryside.
A bell rang, signifying the all-clear for a turbulent walk to all the stations and turrets. I avoided the bomb-bay doors as best I could and stuck to the narrow catwalk. The words of the flight engineer echoed through my head as I imagined the famous scene from Dr. Strangelove.
The wind howled through the gun slits behind the wings and I watched the Willamette River pass beneath us as we circled the 1000 ft. or so back down to earth at Aurora.
We slid up beside the "Tondelayo" and waited for the flashy B-17 still showing off in the sky.
We'd made it back to the 21st Century and not a single Messerschmidt had blocked our path. I thanked my lucky stars and joined the crowds scanning the sky.