Wayne Norman and Morrissette fly on a World War II B-24 -- October 6, 1998

8pm Wednesday

WOW! I just had an incredible experience. Took about a 45 minute ride around Willimantic in an actual WWII B-24 bomber - the only B-24 left in existence.

Background: Non-profit group based in Massachusetts, The Collings Foundation, has restored a B-17 and a B-24, and they tour the country, letting the general public see and fly in them. For the public, flights are expensive ($300, or $500 to ride shotgun in the co-pilots seat). They claim it's just to cover expenses and fill the restoration coffers, and I believe them. The aircraft aren't that big inside. They took 8 sightseers on our flight. They could have fit close to 20, but you would have been rubbing shoulders all day, and the experience would have been less special. As it was, we could hang out the (open) window all we wanted and didn't have 19 others waiting their turn. So they could have lowered the price at the expense of a more crowded experience. Of course (WILI News Director) Mike Morrissette and I were invited to fly for free, but they know what they are doing. The positive publicity will probably be worth much more than the $600 we would have paid. Still, all the others on our flight said it was well worth it, and knowing now what it was like, I would have paid for it. Flight costs also offsets the expensive fuel.

The planes arrived Tuesday around 2:30. I was at home and immediately knew when they were overhead. I live near the airport, but the two large 4-prop planes circled the area several times. They were available for free ground inspection during the day, then they offer dawn and dusk flights for $$$.

My experience today started with arrival at Windham Airport, where I have been many times. I never expected to see so many people. Cars were parked back to the entrance on Route Six, with several hundred people watching the planes on the tarmac. They ran two series of flights. One just after I arrived, around 5pm, and the other - ours - left around 5:30. When the first round left, it was majestic watching these two vintage planes slowly lift off westbound (over my house). The second one - my B24 - lifted off very slowly. It looked like it was grazing the treetops as it climbed. They circled the area a few times then landed and returned to the terminal area.

Weather was cloudy and about 55 degrees.

We entered the plane thru a belly hatch -- no jetways here! We climbed over some rails and support struts and headed a few feet toward the rear. Three of us sat on the floor of the plane with our backs on the belly turret and fastened rather primitive but effective seatbelts, which were required for take off and landing. Once we were airborne, we were free to move anywhere. Mike and I never went forward past the belly gun position. Unlike commercial aircraft, we were told it is an obstacle course to get to the cockpit and the nose gun. That walk included an 8 inch walkway next to a hatch which will open downward if you just look at it hard.  All ground below. Some of us bigger guys avoided that! So Mike and I explored the tail end, including the tail gun position, which is in the direct rear center. The large wings don't give him much peripheral vision. And there's not much leg room for him.

Looking back to the tail gunner position.  The green in the center is the ground below.

Then back to the center area near our seatbelts, where we spent most of our time. To me, the most incredible part of this flight was that center section. Because of the mobility needed for the 4 foot machine guns (which are still in tact) to have full range of motion, there is NO glass in the 4 foot by 3 foot window openings. I fly a lot - small and large planes - but other than last year's hot air balloon flight over Windham and Lebanon, I have NEVER experienced the feeling of flying at 170 mph at 1300 feet elevation and being able to stick my head and upper torso outside the plane.

Mike was worried about airsickness and brought a bag. Never a problem. There was no turbulence and the motion was powerful and steady, even the slow gentle banking. He brought a cassette recorder for interviews, which I used for a "live" running play-by-play describing the experience. Of course the ultimate irony was that while flying in a 55-year old plane, a 1998 microphone cord had a short in it, and some of the comments and interviews with passengers were lost. Still, I described the sights inside and outside the plane in my very best "theater of the mind" fashion.

Because I fly out of Windham Airport often, I am very familiar with the local geography and landmarks from the air - which for some first-timers is difficult to recognize. We took off westbound, banked to the south and did a 180 back east over Chaplin and Hampton, then 180'ed back over the airport and over Willimantic. Great views of Mansfield Hollow Dam Lake, Big Y Plaza, Eastbrook Mall, my house, ECSU's new basebll field, the new Windham Middle School, Brand Rex, then another 180 to go east. We flew between our FM towers on Gates Hill (Lebanon) and Hosmer Mountain (Willimantic), over Southridge Drive, with downtown on the left/north. Rec Park was interesting - all the baseball and softball field had been lined for this weekend's huge youth soccer tournament. Past the Willimantic Country Club for a bank north into final approach.

We had to sit down and buckle in again for the landing. We couldn't see anything on takeoff and landing because we were sitting on the floor. But upon landing we smelled the distinct aroma of burning rubber - tires - which I assume happens when most planes land, but with sealed windows you don't notice. Here we were about 20 feet away from the landing gear. Four person crew. I was told one was a woman, but I didn't see her. While the organization is based in Stow, Mass., they told me they don't have a home, traveling 10.5 months per year.

With the open window it was breezy, but not windy unless you stuck your body out the window and felt the propwash. It was a little cool, thanks in part to wind chill, but no one noticed! Trees showed some color, especially in the heavily wooded areas, but still, foliage not great yet anywhere.

Upon touchdown, there was hooting and hollering from the 8 (all men) aboard. Everyone was thrilled with the once-in-a-lifetime experience. And at times, while at the open side windows with the machine guns and at the rear tail gunner position, I gave thought to what it must have been like for those young guys to be shooting live rounds at an enemy who tried to shoot them first. No sightseeing flights then! The price of those flights could have been your lives.

We saw the B-17 on the tarmac, but never got a close up look at it. The interview tape that survived will be played back on my show Thursday morning. Some of it is very hard to hear because it was so noisy on board - particularly takeoff. But that's part of the experience. It got better once we were airborne, and when I got away from that open window. In this litigious society, while we did have to sign waivers before takeoff (no one asked for mine, so I didn't turn it in), it was amazing that we were allowed unsupervised to hang out the open window of a plane at 1300 feet!

My flying experiences have been many - from large commercial jets, to smaller commuter prop planes, to single and twin engine aircraft (I have actually flown three of those), to a hot air balloon, but this was indeed unique.

If I sound excited about what happened, well....I AM!

Regards to you land lubbers...WN

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