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War birds of history: Vintage World War II aircraft come to local airport

By Glenn Evans
March 27, 2012 at 11 p.m.

Imagine climbing on board one of the bombers that won World War II - and somebody straps you in.

"You look at the passengers in the aircraft, there's a look of amazement and fright," Hunter Chaney said, launching into a description of an historical opportunity coming next week to the East Texas Regional Airport. "It's at this point you realize: this is the real thing."

The real thing is the one way the nonprofit Collings Foundation connects Americans with their World War II heritage on its "The Wings of Freedom" tour.

Landing Monday at the airport outside Longview, the three-day moving museum offers a peek inside a celebrated facet of the Greatest Generation's success - the aircraft that wrested the skies from Japan and Germany.

Visitors can tour the P-51 Mustang, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. A UH-1E "Huey" helicopter brings Vietnam into the hands-on history museum.

Visitors can tour the aircraft or take a ride.

"The breaks squeak, everything in the plane is shaking, and you see wires moving. People are trying to look at the windows, trying to see outside because you're sitting on the floor," Chaney said about take-off. "And then, the breaks squeak to a halt at the end of the runway. All of a sudden, the engines power up. And, you look around, and there's not a closed mouth in the aircraft. It's at that point you get that 'aha' moment."

A flight engineer appears about then and gives a thumbs up - the signal you may move about the cabin freely.

"They can explore all the positions of the aircraft," Chaney said. "It's something that's forever engrained in your life experience."

All the flights require phoning ahead for reservation, and the bomber experience requires six to sign on to the mission.

It's doubtful everyone who comes to see the vintage airplanes next week will drop $425 for that flight. Quadruple that for the chance to fly what Chaney said is the world's only dual control P-51 Mustang fighter in the world, at $2,200 and $3,200 for a half or full hour at the controls.

But 'aha moments' are promised on the tarmac as well, Chaney said.

"It's like walking into a time machine," he said. "You can see the technologies right there in front of you ... we discovered years ago just how effective it is, this interaction with historical aircraft - especially this historical, World War II aircraft. When people are excited about something, they want to learn more."

The museum, which pays for its exhibits' $4,000 hourly operational expense with the paid flights and gate fees, is coming to Gregg County for the first time.

Fixed Base Operator KRS Jet Systems invited the 23-year-old traveling exhibit, which Chaney said is seen annually by 4.5 million people as it travels from its home field in Florida.

KRS Manager Ryan Kidder said the show offers the public a rare experience.

"They're just planes that a lot of people don't get to see anymore," Kidder said. "There's not a lot of them around, and it's pretty rare to be able to see all three of those aircraft at one time ... we hope to have a lot of people show up to see them."

Chaney added the era the planes recall is too important to limit to books.

The gate fee is waved for World War II veterans, and Chaney said many have visited and shared stories that might otherwise be lost to time.

"Particularly in Longview, you have a very strong World War II veterans community," he said. "You'll see a couple of the guys come and share their personal experiences ... the memories that we've left are starting to fade. It won't be that long before we won't have the opportunity to hear these stories and see these aircraft.

"This tour is so much more than flying old airplanes around. We engage people in this, in a way they cannot get in a standard classroom setting."



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