Supposedly, a British Airways pilot was flying into Frankfurt Airport, where the air traffic controllers are notoriously cranky. Pilots are expected to know their gate location and are derided if they ask for assistance.
Once on the ground, the BA pilot paused on the taxiway, and the ground controller radioed him and said, “Do you not know where you’re going?”
The pilot said, “Stand by, Ground, I’m looking up my gate location.”
Ground impatiently asked, “Have you never been to Frankfurt before?”
The pilot radioed back, “Yes, a couple of times in 1944. But it was dark, and I didn’t land.”
I have literally been waiting years for a chance to put that story in a column. Now, because Bob Terrell recently invited me to ride on a B-24 bomber from Temple to Austin with WWII pilot Bill Brollier, I finally got to use it. If Bill had decided to become a commercial pilot after the war, he could have been the pilot in that story.
Bill may not have bombed Frankfurt, necessarily, but he did plenty of bombing during his 33 missions with Jimmy Doolittle’s Eighth Air Force. Pilots were supposed to get a ticket home after 25 missions, but when Bill’s group got to that point, Doolittle told them, basically, “Well, fellows, I lied to you. You’re going to have to keep flying.” And, being the kind of men they were, Bill and the other pilots kept flying. Risking their lives daily, some of them giving their lives, to win the war.
The term ‘hero’ has been used rather loosely lately, but my definition of a hero is someone who risks his life for others. Bill, and men like him, who have faced America’s enemies to protect the rest of us, definitely fit that description.
The Collings Foundation, based in Stow, Massachusetts, travels around the country with a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator, at least two P-51 Mustangs, and a copy of a Messerschmidt Me 262 fighter jet, allowing people like me to find out what it was like to ride in the planes that guarded our freedom 70 years ago. And allowing veterans like Bill to take a glance back into the past and remember what it was like to answer a calling higher than some of us ever know.
During the flight, while I was sitting in the bombardier’s seat in the nose of the B-24, named ‘Witchcraft,’ we were jumped by the German jet fighter. Which would have been cause for concern in 1945, since the Me 262 was the world’s fastest fighter, and the allies had nothing that could hope to catch it. Fortunately for American bomber pilots, the Germans never managed to build enough of them to make a difference. And fortunately for me, the one off our starboard wing wasn’t trying to shoot us down.
Bill, in the navigator’s section of the B-24, enjoyed seeing the Messerschmidt, but he got a bigger kick out of the two Mustangs that escorted our flight. The Mustang was the first allied fighter with enough range to guard our bombers from friendly bases all the way to targets in Germany and back during the war. That protection made a huge difference in the success rate of the allied bombing campaign, and in the morale of the bomber pilots who flew them. The Mustangs quickly obtained the nickname ‘Little Friends.’
Since I wanted to try to get some pictures of the escort planes, I crawled back under the pilot section of the plane, carefully avoiding the red ‘bailout’ trapdoors in the floor, and squeezed my way between the bomb racks in the bombay. One of the dummy bombs in the racks had a message painted on the nose, which was a popular pastime for armorers and loaders during the war. It said, “You’ll get a bang out of this one!”
I wanted to go all the way to the rear and sit in the tailgunner’s seat, but the area just aft of the bombay, where the belly turret and waist gunner sections were, was pretty crowded. Besides Chris Dyer and myself, there were three photographers in there, plus a crew member. The photographers spent the whole flight taking pictures of the escort planes, and trying not to fall through the huge waist gunner doors.
Those doors were about three feet square, and the bottom edges came to about mid-thigh on me, so taking a nosedive if the plane hit an air pocket seemed pretty likely. We all wore earplugs, and with the noise of the plane I doubt anyone would’ve noticed if I’d fallen out. Well, I would have noticed, but no one else, except maybe the Mustang pilots, who flew about 20 feet away the whole trip.
If you ever get a chance to take a flight with the Collings folks, I highly recommend it. And if you ever fly into Frankfurt Airport, park wherever you want. We won the war . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who jumped out of a perfectly good airplane once. Once. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org