WWII history to come alive
By Lou Fancher
Bringing living history to people nationwide, the Wings of Freedom tour pays tribute to the men and women who engaged in the war effort through aviation and other activities during World War II.
This year marks the 24th year the Collings Foundation has brought the tour to Livermore. It includes opportunities to climb aboard or fly in the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine," Consolidated B-24 Liberator "Witchcraft," North American B-25 Mitchell "Tondalayo" or the P-51C Fighter "Betty Jane." The tour will also land in Mountain View, Sacramento, Concord and Napa during its Bay Area visit.
Kevin Ryan is one of two volunteers who coordinates the Tri-Valley stop. The 66-year-old Pleasanton resident has been flying for a hobby for 41 years and admits he knew very little about World War II planes when he began volunteering 24 years ago. He offered to help and after being told by co-stop organizer Mick Hanou to just show up at the airport, he says "the rest is history."
Having now flown the iconic aircraft and led countless tours, Ryan says kids most often ask if the guns on the planes are operational -- they aren't -- and adults are amazed at the small size of the bombers.
"Hollywood (movies) made them look big. Many people are glad to see the type of plane their relative flew, where they were on the plane or what they worked on or built," he says.Although most of the World War II veterans he has met over the years have died, their stories never disappear from memory. One year, a B-17 pilot and his navigator brought their wives, children and grandchildren to take a flight. "The last time those two were on a B-17, they got shot down over Germany," Ryan said.
In 2008, a woman in her 90s and her daughter went whole-hog: flying on the B-25 in memory of how their husband/father had flown the same model aircraft to pick up his wife, right after they were married. The next day, they flew in the B-17, the plane he flew during the war.
That afternoon, the daughter flew in the P-51 but before she took off, her mother handed Ryan a photograph of her husband and said, "He's never been on one of those. I think he needs to go. What do you think?" Ryan hopped up on the plane's wing and handed the daughter the photo to carry along during the ride.
Perhaps the sweetest story came at a tour stop in Pennsylvania, when Ryan was part of the crew. "Two World War II vets started talking, turns out the last time they saw each other was in POW camp and they only lived about 100 miles apart. They never knew all these years what had happened to the other guy," he said.
Like Ryan, Danville resident and pilot Stuart Eberhardt, 79, has had many experiences during his nine years with the tour. Eberhardt will be flying the TP-51C, a dual control, early model plane that was reconstructed in 2002 and 2003. Its features a second seat with a full set of controls and instrumentation.
"Because of FAA regulations, you're not allowed to give rides in a P-51 for hire," explains Eberhardt. "But you can give instruction."
The former United States Air Force and commercial airlines pilot is well versed in training pilots. Years ago, realizing that without proper training his two sons couldn't be certified to fly his single-seat P-51, "Merlin's Magic," he purchased a T-6.
"It was the universal trainer for any of those versions of fighters," he says.
The family for years raced its aircraft in Reno: Eberhardt "retired" in 2011, but still gets into the air about four days each week.
"My planes are kept in separate hangers and can't talk, but if I take one of them up without taking the other one up the same week, they communicate and give me bad landings," he joked.
The tour allows him to travel all over the country. One highlight, he says, was flying Chuck Yeager in 1997 to get him current in the T-6 in order to fly the P-51 in the 50th anniversary celebration of breaking the sound barrier. But so also was going airborne with a Midwest farmer who wanted to see his cows from above; a former pilot who wanted to do acrobatics; a woman in Virginia who every year takes a lesson because she just loves to fly.
Asked how long he thinks he'll be able to climb in and out of a P-51 -- not a simple task -- Eberhardt says, "I'll be 80 in July, but I'm a product of modern medicine. I had better health care than people of the World War II era, so I expect I'll continue for quite a while."