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War birds reborn

Wings of Freedom Tour showcases historical aircraft

Created date

November 23rd, 2010

The smooth roar of the P-51 Mustang s Rolls Royce Merlin, the rumble of the B-24 Liberator s four Pratt and Whitney engines their combined 6,000 horse power produced a sound that filled the skies of Europe more than half a century ago, as an air war raged over the countryside and cities of England, France, and Germany. For years, the power and magnificence of these aircraft endured largely in the memories of the men who flew them during World War II. But thanks to a living history organization in the small town of Stow, Mass., younger generations have the chance to experience these planes for themselves. Since the late 1980s, the Collings Foundation has devoted its resources to restoring the war birds of nearly every conflict from the First World War to Vietnam. To date, the foundation has amassed a collection of 22 aircraft, including a German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet, one of only two still flying today. What started as a living history venture to exhibit historic automobiles at fairs and car rallies soon evolved into a leading military aviation restoration program and an air show called the Wings of Freedom Tour. Now on its 21st annual run, the tour, which showcases World War II aircraft, visits roughly 110 cities around the country each year. From the beginning, it was our intention to make Wings of Freedom an engaging, tactile experience that accomplishes two things, says Hunter Chaney, the foundation s director of marketing. First, we want to give visitors an appreciation and understanding of what happened between 1941 and 1945. Second, we want to foster an appetite for history among the nation s youth. Each plane has its own story. The foundation s B-24 Liberator Witchcraft, for instance, went to the Royal Air Force (RAF) for action in the Pacific Theater, where pilots used it to conduct dangerous supply drops for troops behind enemy lines. The RAF later sent Witchcraft to the China-Burma-India Theater and into the possession of the newly formed Indian Air Force, which flew the plane for years before retiring it to an East Asian bone yard. Finally, in the 1980s, the Collings Foundation purchased the veteran aircraft from a British aviation collector and shipped it back to Stow in pieces for the painstaking restoration process that two decades later is responsible for a pristine fleet of planes. Any time you discuss the prospect of aircraft restoration, you re not just talking about rebuilding a single part, explains Chaney. You re restoring the entire airplane, and on something like a heavy World War II bomber, that can mean everything from the nose glass to the radio components. The work starts with a meticulous search of military archives, old photos, and period production schematics to achieve maximum authenticity in look and functionality. Next, a team of paid and volunteer experts goes through the aircraft with a fine-toothed comb and inspects every rivet, elbow junction, and wire that, together, give the plane its signature look and keep it in the air. In place of those parts that are beyond repair, the foundation has brand new ones custom manufactured.

Authenticity the goal

After tens of thousands of man hours and millions of dollars, the planes are reborn to the condition in which pilots and gun crews found them on the airfields of Europe and the Asian Pacific. We go to such great lengths in our restorations because we want to immerse people in genuine World War II history, says Chaney. When you get on the plane and look through the Norden bombsight, it s a real Norden bombsight. The machine guns minus the inner workings are all real, and the radio equipment in the B-24 is operational. The work is difficult, expensive, and the ultimate tribute both to those who risked their lives in these aircraft and to the 88,000 young men who never made it home. To learn more about the Collings Foundation, visit online atwww.collingsfoundation.orgor call 978-562-9182.

Collings Foundation Aircraft Collection

Early Aviation
  • 1909 Bleriot Type XI
  • 1911 Wright Vin Fiz
  • 1917 Fokker DR-I Triplane
World War II
  • Boeing PT-17 Stearman
  • Fiesler FI-156 Storch
  • Grumman TBM Avenger
  • Cessna UC-78 Bobcat
  • North American A-36 Apache
  • North American B-25J Mitchell, Tondelayo
  • Boeing B-17G Flying
  • Fortress, Nine O Nine
  • Consolidated B-24J
  • Liberator, Witchcraft
  • North American TP-51C Mustang, Betty Jane
  • Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, White 1
Korean War
  • North American AT-6F Texan
  • Douglas A-26 Invader, My Mary Lou
  • Vought F4U-5NL Corsair
  • Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star (Static display incapable of flight)
  • Lockheed T-33
  • Shooting Star
Vietnam War
  • Bell UH-1E Huey
  • Grumman S-2F Tracker
  • Douglas TA-4J Skyhawk
  • McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom