Wings of Freedom Tour brings WWII history soaring to life

By Matthew Pedersen | DFW Newsflash | April 2017

Collings Foundation, an educational non-profit dedicated to supporting living history, is working to ensure that future generations can experience a taste of the World War II era. Their Wings of Freedom Tour, which displays the interior of a refurbished aircraft and allows visitors to fly in operational models, visited the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas from March 22 through 26.

The Foundation pursues its mission through special events showcasing expertly repaired and refurbished vintage aircraft.

“We started in 1989,” said Jamie Mitchell, flight coordinator for the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour.  “All the aircraft are privately owned by Mr. Bob Collings. In the beginning we just toured the country and the entire thing was to reconnect veterans with the aircraft they served on.

“It transformed over the late 90’s and the early 2000’s into a flying memorial for family members to honor their loved ones who served during the war on these aircraft. If you notice the names on the sides of the aircraft, there are sponsor names from families who sponsored the aircraft in a relative’s name.

“Now, it’s about giving the past a future,” she said. “We tour the country, probably 30 to 40 states, 120 cities. What we want to do is connect the Greatest Generation and the Next Generation, so these kids can learn to appreciate the sacrifices that were made to give them the freedom we have now, before we lose the last of the veterans.

“Texas has always been a great stop for us and for warbirds in general. There are a lot of enthusiasts here, and people who are passionate about their history.”

With authentic WW2 planes and visits from veterans, Mitchell said it gives kids an opportunity to relive history.

“A lot of people record the veterans’ stories and just file them away,” Mitchell said. “We want to make sure we get the veterans out with the kids. We get them to hear their stories so that they can appreciate them and tell their own kids in twenty or thirty years. That’s what it’s about.

“We go from city to city, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to a new town from January to November,” she said. “We fly people, we do walkthrough tours, and we do flight instruction in some of the aircraft as well. We just really love these planes. We’re really passionate about them. We’re passionate about the veterans. The youngest vets who will be getting out now are in their 90’s.”

Trey Carroll, a volunteer working with the foundation, spoke about his involvement with the Wings of Freedom Tour.

“I grew up around warbirds. My dad flies B-25s, T-6s, Mustangs, and all sorts of stuff,” Carroll said. “I grew up with it. It’s just sort of like this fishhook; it keeps pulling me back. The next guy who walks through this door, maybe he flew a Mustang in the war, or maybe he shot someone down. You get to hear these people’s stories, and they would’ve been younger than I am when they did it. No history book is going to give you this kind of lesson, no Xbox game is ever going to really teach you how it felt. You can see it in the guy’s eyes when he talks about the war.”

Working with kids, Carroll hopes to inspire youngsters to become pilots in the same way he was inspired as a child.

“Some little kid that’s out here, playing with his little toy plane, he might be the next guy giving someone a ride in ten years,” Carroll said. “I can look at this kid and think, ‘yeah, I was that kid.’ Every guy out here, flying, working on it, turning wrenches, and busting their knuckles, we were all that kid. If you can get that kid, set him in a cockpit, and get his picture taken, he’ll never forget it.”

This year’s tour welcomes a new addition to the Collings Foundation collection, the TF-51D Mustang. Many of the Mustangs were built locally in Grand Prairie during WWII. Carroll talked about how a restoration crew went about bringing their aircraft into a flyable condition.

“From what I know, it was a project,” he said. “They had another Mustang, a two seat, dual controlled P-51c, which is an earlier model. They took it down to Florida and made this thing better than brand new. If you look inside it, it’s got new avionics so you can fly in this busy airspace. They went through every system with a fine-tooth comb. It takes a lot of love and work to get something like that going.”

The Collings Foundation includes a number of other unique historic aircraft that saw use throughout U.S. military conflicts besides the recently added Mustang, among them the B-24, which Mitchell explains is the last of its kind still in operation.

“Our B-24 is actually the only one left flying out of over 18,000 built,” she said. “It was the most produced military aircraft of all time, and ours is the only one that can still fly. There are only 12 or 13 airframes left in existence, and the rest of them don’t fly.”

Mitchell also explained how impactful this experience can be for children who visit the Wings of Freedom exhibit.

“I want to inspire kids to be pilots or mechanics or to get into aircraft restoration,” she said. “The kids come out here and it just blows their minds when they see a plane that is 70 years old. Then, when they see our pilots, who are quite young, getting out of the planes after they’ve done a flight, they think that they can fly too. Maybe they’ll realize that they’re 16, they’re in high school, and kids just a couple years older during the war were going off wondering whether or not they were going to come home, so maybe they’ll get a greater appreciation of that too.”

Austin Harkness, a flight enthusiast who participated in one of the flights, talked about his experience.

“We had the opportunity to fly up in a B-17,” Harkness said. “They warned us to watch our heads, watch the spacing. You get into this flight, and it’s a really unique experience. It’s not something I think people are used to. It takes you back in time when a bunch of 18 and 19 year olds were flying around in 1945 protecting the country. It’s just an unreal experience.”

“It was exhilarating. They kept the machine in unbelievable condition. The ability to explore different aspects of the aircraft while you’re flying was really a treat. You actually got to go into the different turrets, see the nosecone, and go through the cockpit and the fuselage.”

The tour is a culmination of many people’s differing goals and ideas coming together to serve one purpose.

“For me, it’s about the next generation,” Mitchell said. “For other people out here, it’s about the veterans, and for others, it’s just about the planes. This is one of the most important events in world history, not just in our own history. I just want people to connect with everything that came before them, whether they had family there or not, and to realize that this wasn’t a video game, it wasn’t a movie, it wasn’t a TV show, it was real life. If we appreciate that now, hopefully we won’t repeat it again in the next couple of decades.”

“Right now, in the political climate of this country, we need to look back on a time when people were really proud to be Americans and there wasn’t all this inner fighting amongst people,” she said. “I think that’s what this represents to a lot of people. This was a time that we can aspire to be just as good as again.”