Living history lands on Martha’s Vineyard

Wings of Freedom Tour flies people back in time to WWII with historic planes.

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Some of America’s most influential aircraft, which helped shape the world we live in today, touched down at Martha’s Vineyard Airport on Monday to provide a living history lesson to visitors. 

Made possible by the Collings Foundation, the Wings of Freedom Tour honors the sacrifices made by men and women in the armed forces, and educates folks on America’s national history and heritage.

The Wings of Freedom Tour visits more than 120 cities nationwide, offering in-depth tours, flights, and even “stick time.”

At noon on Monday, a B-17 Flying Fortress named Nine-O-Nine rumbled onto the runway of the airport. The plane was the first to arrive, followed by three other World War II planes, including a consolidated B-24 Liberator, a North American P-51 Mustang, and a B-25 Mitchell.

Nine-O-Nine was built at Long Beach, Calif., by the Douglas Aircraft Co. Although it was entered into service too late for combat, the B-17 served as part of the air and sea 1st Rescue Squadron, and later on in the Military Air Transport Service. The fully restored plane has more than 600 patched bullet holes in it.

After the aircraft experienced three nuclear explosions, it was stored for a 13-year cooldown period, at which point it was sold as scrap to Aircraft Specialties Co. 

The company restored the plane, and used it as a fire bomber to extinguish massive forest fires by dropping thousands of gallons of water.

In 1986, the Collings Foundation purchased Nine-O-Nine (originally called the Yucca Lady) in honor of a 91st Bomb Group, 323rd squadron plane of the same name.

The consolidated B-24 Liberator named Witchcraft is the world’s only restored and flying plane of its kind. Witchcraft saw combat in the Pacific Theater in anti-shipping and bombing operations.

The plane is named Witchcraft in honor of the 8th Air Force, which flew in the European Theater during WWII. The original plane flew 130 missions.

The North American P-51 Mustang named Toulouse Nuts is one of three planes of its kind in the world, and is painted in its original markings as a West Virginia Air Guard, 167th Fighter Squadron plane.

Wings of Freedom Tour flight coordinator Demi Bamber said the central goal of the tour is to share an educational experience “that offers something you just can’t get out of a book.”

“This is something unique — it’s an all-sensory experience, and one of the greatest ways to share historical knowledge,” Bamber said. 

For the crew on the tour, honoring veterans and their stories is another ambition that takes center stage. “We want to honor veterans, and we always hope that some show up. But we want to honor the ones who do show up, and the ones who can’t, and have passed on,” Bamber said.

She said on each day of the tour she hears the appreciation of veterans and descendants of veterans who say, “Thank you for keeping this alive.”

Educating and inspiring children is another goal of the Collings Foundation, according to Bamber. She said the more kids who are interested in this history, the more it will be preserved for future generations.

“A lot of the time, after the kids are done exploring the planes, the first thing they do is buy a book,” Bamber said. 

With few WWII veterans left to tell the incredible stories of the past, Bamber said now is the most important time to be sharing this kind of information. “There are still veterans with us, but in five or six years or more, those opportunities will be lost to us,” Bamber said. 

Although it’s a lot of work for the foundation to keep the planes in the air and in tiptop shape, Bamber said it is a worthy initiative so long as people learn from what they see. “We are all on a very important mission to keep history alive with these planes,” Bamber said.