Keep Them Flying

“How old is this kid?”

“Older than my grandfather was in 1944.”

I didn’t intend to be a wiseass to the reporter, but these things happen, and it was also true. Standing in front of us was Rob Collings, 25, our pilot for the day, taking us on a shuttle flight between Hartford and Oxford, Connecticut in the Collings Foundation’s B-24 Liberator bomber. He is the son of Bob Collings, founder of the organization, and is, today, very likely one of the highest-hour rated B-24 pilots alive.

But this was 20 years ago–this week–standing on the tarmac at Hartford’s Brainard Airport, after a dismal, rainy Saturday had turned into a gorgeous fall Sunday. I was a new dad, an aspiring writer, and I was knee-deep in establishing a relationship with my paternal grandfather, who’d flown 50 missions over fascist-occupied Europe in a B-24. We’d almost never talked until 1999, when, meeting my daughter for the first time, he saw the news on TV and said, “Huh. We’re bombing Yugoslavia again. Some things never change.”

The following months, and later years, turned into a family history project, perfectly merging my love of words with my love of history with my love of aircraft, and that October day seemed an alignment of stars, taking a flight on the only B-24 left flying as a bomber of the more than 18,000 made.

Bob Collings had been a kind soul, hearing my story and offering a seat on the shuttle flight. I was planning to write a freelance article about the experience, and the rainy Saturday the day before had moved me to tears, connecting with dozens of veterans and families who braved the elements to see Collings’s magnificent flying machines and talk about what the aircraft meant to them.

At the time, the flight, and the overall experience of that weekend, was second only to the birth of my daughter as the most moving experience of my life.

Along with the reporter covering the planes’ visit for the local paper, I was flying with a wonderful vet named Walt, who is a volunteer for Collings and was taking his family on the flight to show them a bit of what he did over the Pacific in the war. The Collings Foundation B-17 Flying Fortress, “909,” flew in formation with us from Hartford to Oxford. It was stunning.

Soaking up the experience of men like Walt, I’d recently joined an online community of WWII bomber crew and their families, led by a kindred spirit from Texas who was also knee-deep in the connection to his own grandfather, a B-17 crewman over Europe.

Dear friends we became and remain, and also friends with dozens of “bomber boys.” Gene, John, Jim, Lloyd, and so many more. Young men who climbed into their imposing but fragile machines, gathered over their bases into metal storms of a thousand planes, and hurled themselves into a frozen hell at 25,000 feet.

Death and dismemberment greeted them at every turn, from the savagely random flak, fierce, slashing attacks of enemy fighter planes, mid-air collisions with damaged planes, bombs dropping from above, collisions in fog over their runways, mechanical failure, hypothermia, fire, smoke, falling, and more. Their pilots nursed damaged planes home for hours, missing engines, smoke trailing behind them, gashes in their metal skin, fuel leaking, cursing pain and loss around them, alone in the sky over an angry enemy. If they were lucky, they saw the next morning, but it also brought empty bunks, empty chairs, around them.

The young men, in machines made by young women, rained war onto the cities, the citizens, the machinery, the soldiers of the Third Reich, Italy, and Japan, in a way not repeated since. It was as raw and brutal combat as has ever existed in mankind’s perpetual history of combat. A total war we could not and would not replicate or tolerate today.

This mighty generation–Depression babies and young builders and warriors–today rapidly slipping the surly bonds of Earth, leaving nothing but legacies and memories.

Oh, Lloyd.

The online conversations frequently veered into politics, and into debate. Lloyd was a sharp debater, a good man, and a passionate advocate for his beliefs. He left us in early 2002.

———

Fast forward nearly two years from that day in Hartford, and to the first anniversary of 9/11.

It was a brutal time, a gut punch. So raw. So real. You randomly burst into tears during the day.

I was home in my kitchen, thinking about cleaning up after dinner but really thinking about writing something for the anniversary. I cleared the table, and my two kids were running around underfoot, doing kid things.

I wondered how I would explain this crazy world to them, and worried what they’d have ahead. Who their heroes would be. I know who mine had been: astronauts and pilots. I started thinking about how the events of the past year would look, say, 20–25 years from then. I couldn’t help but think that the guys who fought WWII came home victorious, built this country in good ways and bad, committed the whole post-war world to rebuilding, and watched 25 years later as the nation seemed to rip apart. Would my kids look back at 2001–2002 as some bygone era they never really felt? Just a chapter in history, as distant as the Romans? Would they find strength and purpose? Did we understand, as a nation, what was ahead? Could we?

I was thinking about these things, and also specifically about Lloyd and what a decent man he always seemed to be. What his generation went through. I hoped that we would be as strong and give our kids as much of an example. His death, still raw, hurt.

And the house shook.

I ran to the front door and looked out. Then up. The Collings Foundation bombers were in town, soaring low overhead, eight magnificent radial engines roaring, skin shining in the setting sun.

Lloyd was with me. So were all the bomber boys. It would be OK. We’d been through this before. We knew these times. We knew worse.

———

I don’t know any of the people on Wednesday’s doomed flight of the Collings B-17. I may have spoken to some, as I’d often seen the Collings birds on their annual stops in the fall. Got my dad to do a flight like mine. Ran in similar circles. The loss was personal and real and raw when I saw the headline and the photo of the black smoke. I checked in with people I knew close to Collings. My friend in Texas checked in with me.

I also don’t know what happened on that emergency approach to Runway 6, although I have a theory. But I can guarantee that the crew was doing what the bomber boys were doing in 1944 when their planes were hurt: everything in their power to fight Newton’s damned laws. Flying the plane through the crash, to the end. No computers. Just strength, cables, metal, and thousands upon thousands of accumulated hours of experience with their baby. There would have been no one better in the cockpit than the crew that was there. You can’t understand the passion of organizations like Collings in maintaining and flying these aircraft until you see it for yourself.

There have been calls to ground warbirds like “909” for years. They will get louder in the wake of the crash; some already have. They are misguided.

These birds are pieces of our complex history, flying museums, touching thousands of lives a year, connecting generations, connecting a nation to its past. There is no static display that can replace them. Flying on them is a visceral experience. Feeling their engines near you, imagining the two bombers times 500, to imagine what a raid looked like, to see what we did, leaves you awestruck, in the literal sense of the word.

There is a cost to keep them flying, of course. Wednesday showed us. But risk has cost. So does knowledge. So does freedom. So does laying waste to concepts like fascism. It’s worth paying.

Keep them flying.

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