There I sat. Squeezed in with other intrepid travelers in a World War II-era bomber, about to take off from Ramona Airport. I was told it was the only restored B-24J in the world that was still flying and I hoped things were in working order.
A gentleman sitting — like I was — on a thin, khaki cushion on the floor behind the cockpit, crossed his legs in order to allow me to stretch mine out. As he scrunched, I felt bad.
“Go ahead and stretch,” I offered. “You can stretch your legs out over mine. I don’t mind. Get comfortable.”
Looking at the cramped quarters around me, I finished, with a chuckle, “I expect we’ll all get intimately acquainted on this flight.”
Little did I know that the considerable wind flowing through the plane at altitude would later whip my shirt up around my neck, just as this gentleman prepared to take my photo for me. I say “gentleman” because he never batted an eyelid and pretended it never happened.
I, on the other hand—embarrassed—felt the need to say, “I told you we’d all get intimately acquainted on this trip.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the beginning.
The story starts with me sitting, with sweaty palms, tweeting messages for readers: “Ready for take off in the B-24.” The juxtaposition of me fiddling with my iPhone while sitting in a plane that sent young men over the ocean all those years ago wasn’t lost on me. How out of place. But I was tweeting because I was excited. I was also tweeting because I was nervous.
You see, as we began taxiing toward the runway, I couldn’t help but notice that the undercarriage of the bomb bay was still open. Open! In other words, I was seeing the tarmac and I happened to be the one sitting closest to it.
I began to realize why I was the only media person from Ramona who had taken the Collings Foundation up on their offer of a flight at the end of this non-profit group’s visit to Ramona Airport. What was I thinking?! I felt sure now that bomber flights weren't every woman’s “cup of tea,” and maybe I was one of them.
I felt sure the pilot had forgotten to close the bomb bay. I felt sure that he wouldn’t hear me if I screamed, “Hey the bottom of the plane is open!” at the top of my lungs. I felt sure I’d made a giant mistake.
While all this was going through my mind, a teenager was sitting on top of the plane, spotting the end of the wings for the pilot. In other words, both the top and bottom of the plane were open above and below me and we were getting ready for takeoff.
“I must be mad,” I thought. I tried not to let it show but my palms continued to sweat.
Then, we took off.
Oh, my God.
We were free of the ground.
We all beamed at each other.
A flight in this historical behemoth is nothing short of exhilarating. It’s a “two thumbs up” experience, a must-do on the bucket list.
I will say that, at first, I didn’t want to move. I thought I’d be the only person on the plane who would remain in a seat belt for the entire trip to John Wayne Airport, the next stop on the national Wings of Freedom Tour.
But, seeing the look on my face, one passenger motioned me to follow him to see the nose turret. I didn’t want to go. It meant I would have to walk, hunched over, past an area that said, “Warning. Do not step here,” and into a narrow area at the front of the plane, under the pilot.
“You go first,” I said with my eyes. You see, in a B-24 bomber, I can now say with experience, a person has to communicate through gesticulation, expressive eyes or a tap on the shoulder. The alternative is to yell at the top of your lungs directly into a person’s ear canal, which apparently wasn’t preferable to any of us.
I motioned to my tour guide to lead the way, wishing I hadn't been so polite and wanting to be back in my seat belt. I felt sure that I would step on the aforementioned spot and plummet out of the plane and someone else would be writing Ramona Patch.
But, as you can see from my big smile on the video accompanying this story, when I looked through the nose turret at the landscape below, I understood why I’d been invited up front.
“Now you see, don’t you?” the other pair of eyes looked back at me with a smile. He’d obviously taken this ride before.
“Yes,” I beamed back. I was so grateful that he’d taken me out of my comfort zone to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I tried to be brave from then on, though I felt a bit shaky. He went back to be with his brother to share the ride together. Their father had helped build and fly these aircraft and they were taking the trip in memory of him. It was one of many touching father-son stories I encountered while covering the tour.
I negotiated the 10-inch-wide catwalk through the bomb bay — carefully — because, as we were warned pre-flight, stepping on the undercarriage on either side could drop us out of the plane. I felt like I was walking through a mine field and I was a bit of a nervous wreck.
Then, I made it to the center of the aircraft, which houses the ball turret. Inside the “ball,” a gunner would sit, hanging beneath the plane. He would be lucky to live through the experience because of his vulnerable spot. I can’t imagine the fear that must have run through those young men’s minds.
The center of the plane is the widest, most comfortable spot to ride in and the views are amazing. Each side of the plane is open because of the guns — the rush of fresh air on our faces was thrilling. On the video, you'll see one young man pretending to fire on enemy aircraft.
Undulating hills gave way to the beach and then the ocean as we made our way to John Wayne Airport. The sparkling sea was mesmerizing. Here and there, we saw a tiny sailboat far below.
I wondered what it was like for young men in the 1940s heading over a vast Pacific or Atlantic to foreign countries, not knowing what would happen there. I imagined them with a blend of adrenaline and testosterone, mixed with trepidation and the worry of possibly never seeing their loved ones again. I felt grateful for my own life.
One of the passengers told me that these young men had to sit for 10 or 12 hours, cross-legged like I described, in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero because they sometimes flew above 9,000 feet. On the video, you'll see the big yellow oxygen tanks and the small, personal, green ones.
“That's why they wore those bomber jackets,” the passenger said.
I thought about how I don’t like the cold. I would have been shivering miserably.
It was only partly a joke I made about getting to know each other intimately while on the plane. It isn’t just the close proximity to each other. It’s also the shared experience. The reliance on each other for safety.
How much more of a shared experience the war must have been by comparison to our short flight. I considered how people must have learned to get along as best they could in small confines, with all their different personalities and the mixed emotions of being sent into battle.
After the flight, I talked to a veteran pilot whose B-17 was blown up during the war. He was the only survivor. You can see his interview on the video.
I was impressed by what seemed to be genuine interest in each veteran’s story shown by the B-24 pilot, Jayson Owen, of Kodiak, Alaska. He and his father have volunteered for Collings for many years. Owen flew for Northwest Airlines, he said, for more than 20 years. He has worked around planes all his life and does maintenance on the Collings aircraft as the group travels on the Wings of Freedom tour. (By the way, yes, he did shut the bomb bay before we took off, and the flight engineer did climb back in and shut the hatch — and neither happened too soon for me!)
I was also impressed by Owen's skills taking off and landing that plane. I was told by another volunteer that the monster B-24 is “unforgiving” to anyone with less skill. I was amazed that I didn’t even know we had landed, it was so smooth.
I want to thank the Collings Foundation for the trip. I realize that there are people who would have given their back teeth to have gone on the excursion I was offered.
The foundation extends flights to the media so that the public can be made aware of the tour and the experiences it offers. I know there will be many people hoping the tour returns to Ramona.
As Memorial Day lies ahead, I am offering this story and video for veterans to share memories and for the rest of us to appreciate what they went through. There are so few World War II veterans left. The Wings of Freedom tour provides an opportunity for us to connect with them and to honor their service.