Wings of Freedom takes flight: Moffett Field ground zero for World War II experience

Wings of Freedom Tour - Images by Los Altos Town Crier

My assignment was to photograph and observe the B-25 Mitchell’s passengers, but as we bumped and dipped along the runway, I noticed my three companions photographing and observing me; they seemed amused by my bugged-out eyes and the embarrassing, involuntary curses I uttered under my breath.

“My husband told me I should ask to shoot the machine guns,” I shouted over the deafening whir of the propellers, a sorry attempt at masking fear with humor.

I’ve clenched my teeth through barrel rolls in a single-engine kit plane and peered through the cockpit of a twin-propeller Dornier as it aimed for a stone wall (the terrifying termination of the infamous Lukla Airport runway in Nepal), but this 30-minute flight over San Francisco Bay had me sweating. Perhaps it was the age of the World War II-era plane – 71 years by my calculations. The naked panels within the B-25D Tondelayo’s fuselage still contained sockets for gunners to plug in heated clothing.

Despite my misgivings about vintage aircraft, Pilot Syd Jones proved exceptionally capable, and my companions and I were among the hundreds of passengers who landed safely at Moffett Federal Airfield during the national Wings of Freedom Tour’s Mountain View leg. Proceeds from the tour benefit the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization committed to preserving aviation history.

Preserving history

This year marked 26 years Los Altos resident Kory Stendell has organized the tour’s local stop. He estimated that 500 people a day visited Moffett Airfield May 15-23 to view the B-25 Mitchell, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine-O-Nine” heavy bomber, the P-51 Mustang fighter and the consolidated B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft” heavy bomber positioned near the skeletal remnants of Hangar One.

The B-25’s claim to fame is the Doolittle Raid, the first American attack on the Japanese mainland after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although engineers did not design the heavy warbird to launch from aircraft carriers, 16 B-25s took off from the USS Hornet’s flight deck and buzzed toward military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya April 18, 1942.

As many as 200 WWII veterans attended the local Wings of Freedom event and shared their experiences when Stendell first began volunteering with the tour. With each passing year, however, increasing numbers of these Greatest Generation heroes pass away – Stendell knows of only three WWII vets who attended this year. They stood beside the planes and related their favorite war stories for visitors of all ages.

“Young children will sit and listen to those vets for hours because they don’t really realize what these airplanes meant to America,” Stendell said. “Without the men and women who served our country, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we do today.”

Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars were in notable attendance this year, including on my flight. Vietnam vet Chris Thompson grinned throughout the flight’s duration and delighted at the opportunity to visit the plane’s domed tail-gunner position. During my turn, a painter’s palette of red tones – the evaporation pools of Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge – filled the turret’s Plexiglas windows. It was with great reluctance that I retreated along the narrow catwalk to return to my seat. We climbed as high as 1,400 feet and soared over rush-hour traffic along the Dumbarton, San Mateo and Bay bridges before banking to the right to take in the Oakland shipyards and the USS Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda.

“I got to fly right over Alameda and the Hornet, where the Doolittle raiders had their last landing in the United States before they went off for the first retaliatory raid,” said Jones, a traveling volunteer from Central Florida. “So, pretty amazing. Got to do that in the B-25. How appropriate.”

Although this year’s Wings of Freedom Tour marked Bill Euchner’s inaugural B-25 flight, the Redwood City resident attempts to experience flights aboard vintage warbirds whenever possible. His only obstacle is the price tag – between $400 and $450 for the flight.

“I try to do it every year, but I’ve got to justify it with my wife,” Euchner said. “She gets to buy $400 worth of shoes.”

The Wings of Freedom Tour travels next to Santa Rosa (today through Friday) and Concord (Friday through Sunday) before continuing to Nevada. Tickets to view the planes and explore inside are $12 adults, $6 children under 12 and free for WWII vets. Thirty-minute flights are priced from $400 to $450. Inflight training aboard the P-51 costs between $2,200 and $3,200.

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