Wings & Water: Ghost Story

The origin of the phrase “have your ass in a sling” is a matter of debate. In his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson suggests that the expression derives from “have your arm in a sling,” although how the wording shifted from one’s arm to one’s buttocks remains unclear. Nor is it clear how such a situation could relate to being in serious trouble, unless you were a tail gunner for the earliest versions of the B-24 bomber. Those young men had their asses in slings, literally and figuratively.

As do I, aboard a B-24 Liberator, which, on this hot July afternoon in Texas, roars a couple hundred feet over an aircraft hangar, its left wing tipping in greeting to the men jumping and gesticulating below. I had made my way to the rear of the plane, after stepping gingerly over a hole in the floor cut for a tunnel gunner, and taken a seat in the canvas sling that sways a foot or so from another gun opening, in the aircraft’s tail. Now I grip a .50 caliber machine gun, trying to hold myself steady.

The bomber banks sharply to the left, and the sling moves with it. I feel certain I am about to topple out the back of the plane, but the craft rights itself. Feeling only slightly more secure, I peer through the tail gunner’s hole at the fast-receding hangar as pilot Bill Goeken propels us over several miles of desert scrub.

The men who originally served in craft such as this one experienced real danger every moment of every mission. During the early years of World War II, engine malfunctions caused more B-24 crashes than did enemy fire, but enemy planes and artillery were a constant threat. Until 1943, the Allies’ fighter planes had a shorter range than the B-24, so they could escort a mission for only a few hours, after which the men inside the bomber were on their own. If they were fired upon, the fuselage, made of thin aluminum, provided scant protection. Some 18,000 B-24s were built during the course of the war, and by its end, in 1945, perhaps 8,000 remained. Crew members referred to the plane as a “flying coffin.”

But the B-24 was critical to the war effort. It served in every theater: Europe, the Pacific, North Africa. It proved especially deadly to U-boats and is credited with making the Atlantic safe for Allied convoys. In their sheer numbers, the Liberator and its sister, the B-17 Flying Fortress, did much to tip the scales against the Axis.

This afternoon, I am flying in one of only two remaining B-24s that are operational. I have the group on the ground to thank for this flight. They are members of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), a nonprofit organization based here in Midland, Texas, that restores old warplanes and teaches people about U.S. military history. (The Collings Foundation in Massachusetts flies the other operational B-24. See “Saving Mussolini,” at the end.) Over the past nine months, the CAF has returned its Liberator, known as Ol’ 927, to its original configuration, a version called a B-24A, and this is the refurbished aircraft’s maiden flight.

Shorty, one of the CAF members at the hangar, had a few tears in his eyes before the flight. Now 73, Shorty joined the Air Force at age 17 and served in the Korean War, during which he worked as an engineer on a B-29 Superfortress. Many of the men who served on bombers had nicknames like Shorty’s, because they were, in fact, small. (Shorty, also known as Richard DeWitt, stands 5 feet 4 inches.) Every pound counted on bombing runs.

Men who flew in bombers in World War II and Korea often cry when they see the planes airborne again. “You just don’t forget the experience,” Shorty explained. “We all felt this tremendous duty to our country. Plus there was the closeness, the camaraderie with the other guys. The missions were tough, but at the same time, you never experience anything like that again, ever.”

At the back of the CAF’s hangar at Midland International Airport sits the type of plane in which Shorty flew. The B-29 Superfortress, named Fifi, is waiting for new engines. The CAF purchased her in 1971, and she quickly became the group’s most popular attraction at air shows. But the engines failed in 2006, and it will cost some $3 million to customize and install new ones. “I just hope they get her going again,” Shorty said. “Before I’m too old to fly.”

In early 1966, a pilot flying over the California desert spotted what appeared to be about three dozen Superfortresses outside the Navy weapons center at China Lake. He reported his find to the CAF, which learned that the planes had been assigned to the center in 1954 to be used as targets for missile tests. They were the last B-29s owned by the Air Force, which had forgotten that they existed. A CAF member named Victor Agather convinced the government to part with one of the planes, and in 1971, using only hand tools and working in the open desert, he and other members repaired the bomber and flew her away. The Air Force scrapped the rest of the planes.

Agather’s son Neils watched his father finish restoring the plane in Harlingen, Texas, where the CAF had its headquarters at the time. Victor, having put his own money into the restoration, earned the right to name the plane. He called her Fifi, after his wife.

Beginning in 1967, when Neils was 10 years old, he also watched while his father restored an old B-24A acquired from the Mexican oil giant Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. The B-24A, called Ol’ 927 after the identification number AM927 painted on its tail, was one of the earliest versions of the Liberator. (The lettering proceeds to M.) During the war, Ol’ 927 served mainly as a transport plane.

These days, Neils serves as the CAF’s finance officer. An outgoing man of 50, he has inherited his father’s love for warplanes. He was as crestfallen as Shorty was when Fifi’s engines failed—possibly more so, because his father had poured so much time and passion into the plane. But he has a plan that might enable her to fly again.

“Fewer than a dozen pilots in the world have a type rating for a B-24,” he said before Ol’ 927’s flight. (When the Federal Aviation Administration authorizes a pilot to fly a particular kind of aircraft, it issues a document called a type rating certificate.) “Fewer than 20 are allowed to fly a B-29. What would someone invest to gain a type rating for the only flying B-29 in the world, or for a B-24? Especially if they had regular access to the bomber afterward?” The CAF recently acted on Agather’s plan, launching a program in which pilots can receive flight instruction in a bomber. The group requests a donation of $290,000 for training on the B-29 and $240,000 for the B-24.

In the hangar, Shorty patted Fifi’s fuselage, peering up through the open bomb bay doors. “I’m rooting for Neils,” he murmured.

In 1957, Lloyd Nolen, a former flight instructor for the U.S. Army Air Corps, convinced four friends to help him scrape together $2,500, the cost of a P-51 Mustang. These planes, which the Air Force had begun selling as surplus in 1951, were among the fastest and best-performing fighters of World War II. Nolen and his buddies kept the plane, called Red Nose, in a hangar near Nolen’s home in Mercedes, Texas. CAF lore holds that one morning, several of the pilots entered the hangar to find three words painted on the Mustang’s fuselage, beneath the stabilizer: “Confederate Air Force.” (Texas had sided with the Confederates during the Civil War, and rebel sentiment still ran deep there. Six years ago, the group changed its name to the Commemorative Air Force, retaining the acronym CAF but abandoning the word confederate. “We’re an international organization now,” Neils Agather says simply.)

Having been called an air force, the five men felt obliged to live up to the moniker. They soon acquired and restored two F8F Bearcat fighters for about $800 each. After that they codified their organization’s objectives. One was to preserve in flying condition as many types of military aircraft as possible, particularly those that played important roles in World War II. Another was to “use all the group’s political influence to have the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., turned so that it faces south.”

They had more success with the former goal than with the latter. By the end of 1960 the CAF had found and added six more types of World War II craft to the fleet, including an FM-2 Wildcat, a P-38 Lightning, and three T-6 Texans. Within a year, it had 52 members paying annual dues of $25 each. In keeping with the group’s egalitarian spirit, the founders decreed that every member would be addressed as “Colonel.”

The CAF now has more than 8,000 colonels, in 86 different units, in 28 states and four foreign countries. Over the years, the headquarters has moved around Texas a bit: from Mercedes to Harlingen, and then, in 1991, to its present home in Midland. At the Midland airport, the CAF maintains a museum that holds a vast collection of World War II–era artifacts, including nose art on fragments of the original warplane fuselages. This American art form almost always depicts a young woman in a provocative pose, accompanied by the name bestowed on both the woman and the plane by the crew: Flamin’ Mamie, Yellow Fever, Lady Luck, Mission Completed, Double Trouble, Surprise Attack.

The CAF funds its restorations mainly by bringing some of its planes to air shows, where spectators pay to fly as passengers: $425 for 30 minutes in Ol’ 927, say. The air shows also help the group educate young people, which it considers an important part of its mission. Membership rates range from $160 for a year to $2,000 for a lifetime (children can join for $45). Many members donate equipment for the planes and work on restorations on a volunteer basis.

The CAF’s aircraft now number more than 150, including the world’s only flying Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, a carrier-based dive bomber. Other planes in the collection are one of only two or three of their type still in the air. These include a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra. A Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero is among the CAF planes that Axis pilots flew. Some of the aircraft have appeared in movies, including The Battle of Britain (1969), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and Enola Gay (1980).

CAF members refer to their planes as the Ghost Squadron.

OL’ 927 shrieks as she taxis across the tarmac. In the cockpit, pilot Bill Goeken, copilot Mack Deeds, and flight engineer Gary Austin communicate with each other and the control tower, running down a predeparture checklist.

Austin: “Boost pumps.”

Deeds: “On.”

Austin: “Strobes.”

Deeds: “On.”

Austin: “Cowl flaps.”

Deeds: “Trail.”

Austin: “Flight controls.”

Goeken: “Unlock them.”

Deeds: “Unlocked.”

Goeken: “Controls free.”

Tower: “Liberator 24927 cleared for takeoff; fly runway heading.”

In modern aircraft, cockpit personnel read digital checklists from a monitor. But of course this was not the case during World War II. Like bomber engineers then, Austin refers to a piece of paper. In addition to serving as the engineer on today’s flight, he is Ol’ 927’s chief mechanic, and for nine months he has been working almost nonstop to prepare her for this moment. A short, muscular man, he displays a huge grin as he shouts the checklist items into his headset.

Using whatever documentation he can find—old photographs, engineering diagrams, oil-stained manuals and spec sheets—Austin has restored this plane to a state that would be familiar to a bomber pilot of the 1940s. Ol’ 927 still is missing bomb bay doors, but Austin expects to install them at some point. (He will not install turrets, however, because these were not added to B-24s until the D series.) The plane’s cockpit has no advanced radar, no GPS, just switches and knobs and banks of gray equipment, all with hard edges and sharp corners. The cockpit holds four metal seats, but Austin is not using his: Enormously excited, he practically dances on his toes as the plane advances toward the runway.

Goeken, a 6-foot-4-inch, rough-hewn man with powerful-looking arms, flew nonstop from Alaska to pilot this plane. He arrived this morning. Neils Agather is relieved that he made it, because Goeken, at this moment, is the only CAF pilot with a type rating for a B-24; type ratings must be renewed on a regular basis, and the other pilots’ ratings have expired. Accordingly, Goeken’s primary mission today is to accompany pilots as they take turns flying the bomber. Once each pilot takes off and lands—or “bounces”—three times, he will have met the FAA’s requirement for a rating renewal. By the end of the day, the CAF will have at least a half dozen pilots qualified to fly Ol’ 927 to air shows.

Before the first flight, the pilots had gathered in a presentation room for a brush-up. Several men, including Shorty, addressed the group. “This aircraft is freshly painted, so try to avoid banging it up,” Shorty said. “Think of it as an old woman: It’s very fragile, and it needs a kiss once in a while.”

The pilots chuckled at this, but it was a rare moment of levity. Each pilot understood how badly a flight could go if he did not know his job. Indeed, a few CAF warplanes have crashed in recent years, including a German Heinkel He 111 bomber, in 2003, and a Grumman US-2B Tracker, last May. The Heinkel crash killed the pilot and copilot.

Experts stood to discuss different aspects of the plane: the hydraulic system, the fire suppression system, emergency procedures. Finally Goeken stepped to the front of the room. “Keep in mind,” he said, “we don’t fly this aircraft enough. When you get inside, use common sense. Don’t go pulling a lever until everyone agrees it should be pulled. Remember that an emergency is usually a manageable problem that the pilot has made unmanageable.”

The first flight is the most dangerous, of course—which is one reason why Austin has insisted on being on it. As the bomber screams down the runway, he wants to be sure that every base is covered.

The Liberator rises into the sky.

Austin: “Landing gear!”

Deeds: “Up and neutral.”

Austin: “Flaps!”

Deeds: “Up.”

Austin: “Cowl flaps!”

Deeds: “Closed.”

Austin: “Looks good on top, Bill.”

Goeken (grinning): “Thank you, sir. Set cruise power and cruise check, please.”

Once the plane reaches its cruising altitude, I make my way from the cockpit into the rear of the craft. It is an aluminum cavern, empty except for some stark metal benches, the machine guns, and the sling at the back. This plane carried a crew of 10 or so—pilot, copilot, engineer, radio operator, navigator, gunners—but it had few accommodations for them. If a crew member did not find a place on one of the benches, he stood.

Back in the cockpit, Goeken prepares to land Ol’ 927. His biceps bulge as he wrestles with the yoke. “This is like driving a Mack truck,” he says into his headset. Indeed, Shorty earlier had said how he always could recognize bomber pilots during the Korean War: “They’re the ones built like a brick shithouse.”

The plane lands fairly smoothly and comes to a stop. Goeken switches off the engines, and the four propellers go still. The spectators cluster around the plane, cheering, bantering, shouting insults at the occupants. A few of them, I notice, have tears in their eyes.

After the crew has rested a bit, Goeken takes a pilot up in the bomber. Meanwhile, Neils Agather leads a stroll through the group’s headquarters. A poster on the wall shows Fifi, Ol’ 927, and other warbirds and announces, “The Confederate Air Force Presents the World’s Greatest World War II Air Show! October 28, 1973!”

The organization has changed its name since then, but it continues to stage a great air show. During a weekend each fall in Midland, the CAF assembles more than 100 aircraft to reenact battles such as those at Pearl Harbor and Midway. It also names inductees to the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame. These include World War II aces such as Col. “Tex” Hill, on whom the John Wayne character in The Flying Tigers is based. Another inductee is George “Bud” Day, who occupied a cell with Sen. John McCain in a Vietcong prison camp. (Four years ago, the CAF expanded its educational mission to cover other wars, including those in Korea and Vietnam.) Another is Gen. Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Agather enters the museum and passes a “blood chit,” a red banner carried by a warbird’s crew that contains text in both Japanese and German. In the event that the airmen were shot down and captured, the text would explain who they were. The museum’s holdings also include a Samurai sword, a .45 caliber M3 submachine gun (the famous “grease gun”), a glider that transported a jeep to Normandy on D-Day, and three-quarter-size replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy—the latter being the atomic bomb dropped by Tibbets and his crew.

Agather passes through a door leading back to the museum’s entrance. On the wall above is a sign that delivers a tribute to the Ghost Squadron’s original fliers. It reads, “Through these portals pass the most dangerous men in the world.”

Commemorative Air Force, 432.563.1000, www.commemorativeairforce.org

Saving Mussolini

The German Storch warplane did not keep Benito Mussolini alive for long, but by September 1943 the dictator undoubtedly was grateful for any help he could get. With the Allies approaching from the country’s south, the Italian government had arrested Mussolini and imprisoned him in the Alps. Adolf Hitler selected commando leader Otto Skorzeny to lead a rescue attempt. The mission, called Unternehmen Eiche (Operation Oak), would not be easy: The Campo Imperatore hotel, where Mussolini was held, sat atop a high mountain range that had no large, flat areas suitable for landing a plane.

But Skorzeny knew of an aircraft that might be up to the task. On September 12, he and an SS team flew gliders to the hotel and crash-landed them in the mountains. They freed Mussolini without firing a shot, bundled him into the Storch, which had landed on a small, sloping patch of rocky ground, and then flew him away.

A year and a half later, Italian Communist partisans executed Mussolini. After the war, Skorzeny escaped from a prison camp, found refuge with the Fascist Spanish leader Francisco Franco, and lived to age 67.

One late-October afternoon, Rob Collings demonstrates how the Storch accomplished the mission. He is flying over central Massachusetts in one of the few remaining operational Storches. It is a black, lightweight craft with a swastika on the tail. “This aircraft can take off in less than 250 feet,” he explains through his headset, “and it can land in about 125 feet. The wings have a fixed leading edge that provides incredible lift, and the landing gear is highly flexible to absorb shocks from rough terrain.” He presses a pedal with his foot, and the plane turns sharply and hovers. “The Storch was perfect for reconnaissance,” Collings says. “The Nazis would take her with their tank columns, stop in a field, and send her up for a look around. And on the ground, you could fold back her wings and hide her in a barn.”

The Storch is one of 20 aircraft owned by the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit group in Stow, Mass. Like the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), the foundation restores and preserves warplanes and educates the public about American military conflicts. Bob and Caroline Collings, Rob’s parents, founded the group in 1979, and Rob is its chief pilot.

Also like the CAF, the group partly supports itself by offering rides on some of its planes. At more than 110 air shows each year, its Wings of Freedom Tour takes visitors aloft in a B-24 bomber, the only one flying besides the CAF’s. (The Collings Foundation’s Liberator is a late-model B-24J, the CAF’s an early-model B-24A.) The foundation also flies a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-25 Mitchell, as well as Vietnam-era planes that include the only civilian-owned F-4D Phantom II fighter-bomber. The group offers pilot training in the Phantom, the B-17, the B-25, and a TA-J4 Skyhawk attack aircraft at a facility in Houston, Texas.

Collings lands the Storch on a grass field. The airplane rolls quickly to a stop, and he switches off the engine. “Check out these gauges,” he says, pointing at the instrument panel. They are labeled in German: Fahrt (for air speed), Hangt (for turn and bank), Stekt Sinkt (for vertical speed). “This sweetheart is as authentic as they come.”

The Collings Foundation, 978.562.9182, www.collingsfoundation.org

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