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World War II bombers land in Bremerton

Nearly 200 people awaited the arrival of the only flying B-24 Liberator bomber in the world today, named “The Dragon and His Tail,” and the B-17 Flying Fortress dubbed “Nine-O-Nine,’’ as the antique aircraft touched down at the Bremerton National Airport Wednesday.

Both restored WWII planes are the stars of the non-profit Collins Foundation’s annual “Wings of Freedom’’ tour, which touched down in Bremerton for three days this week, departing yesterday.

Walking tours were conducted each day and those with the cash to make a $400 tax-deductible donation were able to take a 30-minute spin in either bomber.

The planes are staffed primarily by volunteers, a handful of whom spend 10-and-a-half months out of the year touring with the planes.

Gary Thompson is one of the die-hards. He visits 150 towns in 32 or more states every year to showcase the bombers. In many, former pilots come to relive their glory days.

“It’s a real traumatic experience for these guys,” Thompson, the crew chief for the bombers, said. He’s watched these old war heroes, now in the twilight of their lives, cry during a flight on the B-17 or B-24 as their memories and emotions come flooding back.

The B-17 is a rarity in the realm of old planes; of the 36 left, only 10 are flyable. It sports a 103-foot wing span, four 1,200-horse-power Wright engines and 13 M2 .50-caliber Browning machine guns. The model on this tour was built in Long Beach, Calif. by the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1945, just as the war was ending. The plane was used as part of the Air/Sea 1st Rescue Squadron, and later in the Military Air Transport Service.

The plane was subjected to three nuclear test explosions in 1952. After a 13-year “cooldown’’ period, an aircraft specialties company bought it in a scrap metal sale and restored it. The plane was restored again after it rolled down a ravine just after takeoff at an airshow in Pennsylvania in 1987.

The B-24 is one of only nine Liberators in existance. All but “The Dragon ...” with the tour are grounded in museums.

That particular plane, too, has also experienced its ups and downs. Built in Texas in 1944, the B-24 that year was transferred by the U.S. Army Air Force to the British Royal Air Force. Under the British flag, the bomber saw combat in the Pacific, bombing targets and resupplying troops.

After the war, the plane was abandoned in a bomber graveyard in Khanpur, India. The Indian Air Force restored it in 1948, and used it until 1968.

After another 13 years on the ground, the plane was purchased by a British aircraft collector, who shipped it home. Collings Foundation founder Robert Collings bought the bomber in 1984 and brought it to Massachusetts.

— GORDON WEEKS

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