In which a tiny air force has an impact far greater than its numbers suggest.

In a chilly New England drizzle, they press against a chain link fence, scanning the skies. There's a curious cab driver on his day off, a sweater-clad four-year-old perched on her father's shoulders, and a computer programmer shivering despite the embrace of a boyfriend in a surplus flight jacket. And there are many old men wearing ballcaps and windbreakers, which are adorned with embroidered patches and enameled pins that depict the aircraft their lives once depended upon--Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators.

Their patience is soon rewarded by the sight of two incoming bombers: Nine-O-Nine, one of a handful of B-17s still flying, and All American, a fully restored B-24J. Together the two warbirds make up a self-contained airshow that will stop in 137 towns in 35 states. The 10-month, coast-to-coast tour has been organized by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts, a non-profit group that has been flying the World War II-era aircraft since 1987.

Founder Bob Collings originally envisioned the B-24 as a static exhibit, but friend and B-24 veteran Don Sparks observed, "If you do that, two or three thousand people will see it a year. If you fly it around the country, two or three million could see it." Both bombers required extensive and costly restoration. "People told me they would never fly, and if they did, it wouldn't be economically feasible to keep them flying," says Collings. "Fortunately, I wasn't smart enough to know that." A retail computer systems entrepreneur, Collings feels that bringing these old airplanes back to life is one way to show his appreciation to World War II veterans. "We can never pay them back," he says, "but if people can get inside these planes, see them fly, and fly in them, they'll get some idea of what these men went through."

The Allies flew thousands of B-17s and B-24s--perhaps most famously in daylight bombing raids over Germany--and though losses were high, many crew members survived the war because the aircraft were built to take punishment. Assigned to every theater of the war, the B-17 in particular was known for withstanding battle damage and safely returning its six- to 10-man crews. The B-17G flown by the Collings Foundation (serial no. 44-83575) was manufactured late in the war and never served in combat, though it did fly as part of the Military Air Transport Service before beginning a 20-year stint as a fire bomber. But the B-17 it was named after, the original Nine-O-Nine, was deployed on February 25, 1944, and flew 140 missions without an abort or loss of crew before being scrapped.

The foundation's B-24 (serial no. 44-44052) flew in the Pacific theater from October 1944 until the war ended. The bomber was named All American after a B-24 that was part of the 15th Air Force's 461st Bomb Group. On July 25, 1944, the original All American shot down 14 enemy fighters; two months later the aircraft was lost over Yugoslavia, though all of the crew survived.

The foundation's B-24 is still flying thanks to a $1.3 million restoration that required nearly 100,000 hours of work, much of it volunteer. The old bomber had to have over one-third of its aluminum skin replaced, as well as 400,000 rivets. Restorers also replaced 5,000 feet of hydraulic lines, a mile of control cable, and all of the electrical wiring. The foundation is still paying off loans it took out for the restoration; much of the expense is offset by private donations. (The aircraft earn enough money on tour--through souvenir sales and contributions from visitors--to cover the cost of maintaining them.)

Organizers set the route and schedule typically four to six weeks ahead of the airplanes, relying on local coordinators to organize publicity, secure ramp space at the airport, and arrange for crew lodging and transportation. Coordinating the tour in transit is the job of Phil Haskell, the operations and supply officer of the two-plane air force. A 61-year-old ex-Army aviation crew chief, Haskell became involved in 1986, when he volunteered to help restore the B-24. He is the team's answer man. Whatever the question--How many hours on the number-three engine? What's the price of fuel in Burbank? What state will we be in a week from Tuesday?--Haskell can pull out a spiral notebook and find the answer.

He also schedules the rides, a responsibility complicated by cancellations due to weather, unexpected maintenance requirements, and last-minute no-shows by riders. With operating costs for each bomber averaging $2,000 an hour, the foundation requires a minimum of six people paying $300 each for a 45-minute ride. "We're not an airline," explains Haskell. "If we only have five, we don't go."

Those who do get to go are rarely disappointed. Ken Virchow, 48, of Bolton, Connecticut, savored every sensation of his ride on Nine-O-Nine from the moment the Wright-Cyclone R-1820-97 engines kicked over and coughed out a charcoal gray cloud. "Exhaust smoke seeps up through the bomb bay and ball turret opening," says Virchow. "There's lots of vibration as they run the engines up, but once those propellers bite the air and you start to move, it's tremendous." Robert Hardy of Worcester, Massachusetts, who flew 71 missions in B-24s for the 456th Bomb Group, enjoyed a 75th birthday ride on All American courtesy of his grandson. "Haven't been on one since 1945," Hardy shouts over one of the still-running engines. "It was fantastic!"

Two full-time mechanics, Mike Nightingale and Bill Strawn, keep the bombers running. Nightingale, 28, is a wiry Californian who grew up restoring P-51 Mustangs. His toolbox looks like one that could be found in any home garage. "Usually we can borrow anything else we need from somebody at the airport," he explains. When a rainstorm in Hartford, Connecticut, cancels all flights and drives everyone else indoors, Nightingale is up on a ladder, shoulder-deep in the B-17's number-two engine, trying to locate a malfunctioning cylinder. "This is a chance to do real field maintenance," he rhapsodizes. "To be able to work on these airplanes and fly in them--that's absolutely fabulous."

Strawn, 42, was a Chevrolet mechanic in Florida before getting his airframe-and-powerplant license and joining the tour. When he volunteered to help replace an engine on All American during a stop at Clearwater, Florida, he was hooked. Of the foundation's two bombers, Strawn believes the B-24 is the greater maintenance challenge. "Every engine has two banks of seven cylinders and there's more cowling to take off," he says. He points at the engines, nine feet above the runway. "You get up on a ladder on a windy day, you'll know why this one's tougher," he continues. "You sure get attached to it, though." With a new B-24 tattoo on his upper back, Strawn is now a dyed-in-the-skin Liberator man.

Sticking to the tour's schedule is a high priority, but safety comes first. Though both airplanes get thorough overhauls during an eight-week winter hiatus in Florida, while on tour they are inspected after every 25 to 50 hours of flight. When an unexpected repair grounds one bomber, the other keeps the schedule. "If we need something big, like a new engine, the foundation ships one out," explains Haskell. (Foundation members hunt continually for spare parts, scavenging from parts distributors, private collectors, and junkyards.)

Keeping Nine-O-Nine and All American airworthy is a full-time job, but only part of what it takes to keep the tour on track. A diverse group of volunteers travels with the aircraft, taking donations, loading and unloading gear, organizing riders, assisting the mechanics, and manning the souvenir tables (referred to by the team as "the PX"). Dee Brush, 31, is a plainspoken native of Boca Raton, Florida, who might have inspired some engaging nose art in the heyday of the bombers. When a carpal tunnel condition ended her career as a court stenographer, she left her hometown--for the first time--aboard a vintage bomber. "I'm single," she says. "I've got no kids. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. My friends think I'm the luckiest girl in the world."

Richard Ziel, 19, has been with the tour for seven weeks. His parents called the foundation, explained their son's fascination with warbirds, and arranged for him to join the tour as a high school graduation surprise. "Most of my friends don't even know what these planes are," he says.

The bombers are flown by a team of pilots on vacation from day jobs. Jim Sheehan, 35, a DC-10 and MD-11 pilot for American Airlines, once flew DC-3s, DC-4s, and Constellation freighters in the Dominican Republic. "I could fly 'em and I could fix 'em when they broke in the jungle," says Sheehan, who calls the B-17 "the most pleasurable airplane I've ever flown.

"I'm used to flying at 35,000 feet from ugly airport A to ugly airport B," he continues. "Here, you're down low enough to enjoy the scenery. Flying down the Columbia River gorge and looking up at waterfalls, you feel real lucky." There's another sensation Sheehan doesn't get in the jumbo jets. "In the MD-11, you're in a pressurized cabin," he says. "Here you can slide open the window and smell that 60-weight oil burning off the engine. That's yummy."

Bob Lowenthal, 59, a 747-400 captain for Northwest, has just joined the tour. "Ever since I was a boy I've been reading about B-17s," he says. "When I first started flying with the airline, all the captains were World War II bomber pilots." One of the pilots Lowenthal is now learning from is Rob Collings, Bob Collings' 23-year-old son and an experienced warbird pilot. "When I first got here," remembers Lowenthal, "I thought, Who's this cocky kid showing me how to fly? Then I thought, back in 1943, that's exactly who would be sitting in the left seat--a 23-year-old hotshot."

Some 50 years ago, that's exactly what tour member Dick Dinning was. A tall, lean, soft-spoken veteran of the 351st Bomb Group, Dinning flew 33 missions as a B-17 pilot. He has a warm smile, a sympathetic ear, and the deep respect of everyone on the team. Even mechanic Strawn, whose merciless impressions of crew members spare almost no one, addresses the veteran pilot as "Mr. Dinning." Dinning flies chase in his single-engine Mooney 252, ferrying pilots and spare parts and using a Stormscope lightning detector to lead Nine-O-Nine and All American around rough weather.

When the three airplanes land at a stop, everybody pitches in, including the pilots. Folding tables have to be unloaded, along with chairs, crew luggage, tools, spare parts, canopy covers, souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs, books, videos, photographs, patches, and inert .50-caliber ammunition (a big seller). Ladders have to be lowered, and signs displayed to guide visitors through the aircraft. Fuel and oil levels are checked, oil wiped off of engine cowlings and wings, and Plexiglas windshields cleaned with Lemon Pledge. Yet the first visitor steps aboard less than 15 minutes after the propellers stop turning. "These people have been waiting a long time," explains Haskell, waving his arm at the assembled crowd. "We have to move fast or we lose them."

With riders scheduled from first light to dusk and a constant stream of visitors, there are few idle moments. The team set a record of 21 local flights during a 1996 stop in Fort Collins, Colorado. "After a day like that, you shut down, get supper, go back to the hotel, and do a spin into the mattress," says Sheehan. "Then get up at six the next morning and do it all over again."

Team members usually salute the end of the day with a cold beer, then follow their own preferences. If there is mechanical work to do and the ramp is equipped with lights, Nightingale and Strawn go back to work after dinner. Phil Haskell spends evening hours on the phone, scheduling riders for the next day's flights. As for the others, "some go dancing, some to movies, some just crash," says Dee Brush.

Ask anyone on the team what makes the rigors of the road worthwhile and you'll get the same answer: the veterans. Michael Garemko of Hartford, Connecticut, a top turret gunner from the 100th Bomb Group, approaches the B-17 tentatively. "Just let me touch it," he whispers, running his fingers across the underside of the wing. Robert Bogue of Norwich, Connecticut, an ordnance handler for the 392nd Bomb Group, listens to the B-24's 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-65 radials throttling up. "Oh, what a sound!" he exclaims. "You can't put a dime on me right now without hitting a goose pimple."

Some come to stare in silence, taking the trip back in time alone. Others come with comrades to reminisce. Often Nine-O-Nine and All American bring together men who haven't seen each other since the war, as well as strangers who discover they were in the same outfit and greet each other like long-lost friends. There are tears and smiles, and many, many photographs. From meticulously arranged scrapbooks, well-worn leather billfolds, and tissue-soft envelopes come surprisingly sharp black-and-white snapshots of young men in uniform, standing proudly in front of the mightiest warplanes of the day.

If there's a time and place veterans will talk about their experiences, it's in the presence of these airplanes. Bob Collings can't forget one tour stop when a young boy, his father, and grandfather, a wartime B-17 pilot, showed up for a visit. "The grandfather had suffered a stroke eight years before," remembers Collings. "He was still sharp and alert, but his speech was completely garbled." Yet when the veteran pilot got up to the cockpit and began to tell his son and grandson about his experiences, "all of a sudden he was very articulate, describing flak hitting the cockpit, the airplane on fire, bailing out with his crew," says Collings. "It was the first time his grandson had ever heard him speak clearly, and he told them the whole story."

As the crew members load their gear and prepare for takeoff, their visit suddenly feels all too brief, but there's another crowd at the next airfield, and the team doesn't want to keep them waiting. The bombers climb into the sky, leaving behind two kinds of people: those who wish they could go along, and those who've already been there.

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