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Into the wild blue yesterday

Witchcraft, the last flying B-24J Liberator, on display at the San Marcos Municipal Airport. Photo by Sean Wardwell

By SEAN WARDWELL
Managing Editor

From the rear-facing seat of a 50-year-old WW II bomber, the very last flying example of its kind, one is situated just above and behind the bomb bay. Situated, not seated. Calling it a seat would be generous. It is barely a bench. Comfort is not a concern here. It is a stark, utilitarian place. Everything has a purpose, and there are no frills.

The props of the four engines roar outside of the aircraft’s thin Aluminum skin. The wind whips through the several open ports in the fuselage. Trying to hear anything is an exercise in futility.

Underneath the rear-facing seat is the mount for the ball turret, a cramped steel and Plexiglas sphere hanging beneath the aircraft. It is armed with two of the ten .50 caliber machine guns that protrude from the fuselage at various angles. If this were a mission, a man would have been strapped and trapped inside, looking out for enemy fighters.

Feet braced against the ball turret’s frame, one sees straight down, 1,000 feet straight down, thanks to sizable uncovered spaces in the floor that allow the turret to rotate freely. Underneath is nothing but fast-moving ground.

It’s a very long drop from a very small, very shaky, seat.

The ride on Witchcraft, the last airworthy B-24J Liberator, from Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio to San Marcos, is part of The Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour, which is in San Marcos until March 20. On the ride this time are Wally Bludworth and his wife. They live in Kyle.

Bludworth, now 84, flew 35 missions over Nazi Germany in a B-24 much like this one.

“I was young then, 20 years old,” Bludworth said, “We bombed factories. We bombed naval yards. I bombed Berlin when I was 21.”

Bludworth won the Distinguished Flying Cross for those missions, but he didn’t get the medal until this year. He recounted some of the more notable incidents he encountered in the air.

“I had one engine shot out four times,” Bludworth said. “I had two engines shot out twice. My plane caught fire. ”

One particularly harrowing event came when his tail-gunner, who was ill with a stomach virus, briefly left his post to relive himself.

“When he got back the turret was full of holes,” said Bludworth.

Bludworth’s flight engineer had a very close brush with death on another mission.

“He (flight engineer) stood about 5-foot-6,” Bludworth said, “and he came to me in the cockpit with a hole in the top his helmet where a bullet had went straight through. He said, ‘I’m glad I’m not taller.'”

Time is doing what the Axis couldn’t accomplish.

“I had a crew of nine,” Bludworth said. “There’s three left.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,000 per day. However, thanks to the work of The Collings Foundation, some of the planes they flew will live on.

“We’re honoring the people who flew in the plane, not the plane itself,” said Larry Abston, pilot of Witchcraft.

Abston served as an aircraft crew chief in the military, but didn’t take up piloting until he got out of the service. He’s been with The Collings Foundation for six years. This is his first year as lead pilot on Witchcraft after serving for five years as co-pilot. His son also volunteers on the aircraft.

One of the best parts of his job, he said, is seeing people realize what these planes mean.

“A child growing up today has no appreciation for what these planes mean,” Abston said. “Here they can see it and touch it. It becomes more meaningful.”

Reaching out to children with one of the premier weapons of mass destruction of its time might seem an odd endeavor. However, glorifying war is not the purpose of the tour, according to Collings Foundation Director of Marketing, Hunter Chaney.

“Why did we do all this?” asked Chaney. “It’s important to remember these things. If people understand how we got to this point, maybe we can avoid it in the future.”

Chaney was also adamant about this not being just another aircraft display.

“This is not an airshow,” Chaney said. “This is a living history event. We want to provide a real tactile and memorable history lesson.”

This was evident as the public was allowed to explore not only Witchcraft, but a B-17G Flying Fortress named “Nine O Nine,” which is only one of nine remaining in flight condition.

Nine O Nine was almost luxurious compared to Witchcraft, yet no less utilitarian in design. However, where Witchcraft is all business, Nine O Nine is sleek in its design, with more room to move around.

However, on Witchcraft, one crawls on hands and knees through a very small tunnel to get to the nose turret. Next to the tunnel are red doors below the nose wheel. Passengers are warned, repeatedly, that neither these, nor the bomb bay doors, would support their weight. Fall on the bomb bay doors or the nose landing gear doors, and one falls for a long time.

The warnings are especially sobering, considering that one must walk across the bomb bay on a narrow rail before even reaching the tunnel. Somehow the phrase, “watch your step,” understates the challenge.

While the B-17 enjoyed greater fame, the B-24 was the bigger workhorse of the two in the skies of WW II.

“This was a stronger plane,” Bludworth said. “We were faster. We carried more bombs.”

Even though Witchcraft is the last of its kind able to take to the air, the B-24 remains the most produced aircraft in U.S. military history. The Consolidated Aircraft Corporation built more than 18,000 Liberators, usually at a rate of 1,000 per month, between 1940 and 1945. Many of them were built in Fort Worth. Stories are told of pilots sleeping in cots at the end of the assembly line, waiting to fly new planes off to the front as soon as they were finished.

“I don’t think people realize what these planes were,” said Bludworth.

After the flight circled San Marcos, a crowd greeted it at the San Marcos Municipal Airport. Not all of them were locals.

“It’s incredible,” said Corrine Hall, who came down from Austin. “I’ve never been around aircraft like this before.”

As Bludworth showed his wife around the aircraft, he reflected on the day’s experience.

“It’s a thrill,” said Bludworth. “It brings back many memories.”

The Wings of Freedom Tour will be at the San Marcos Municipal Airport, next to the Commemorative Air Force hangar, until March 20. For information regarding rides in the aircraft, and about The Collings Foundation, check this previous story.

Wally Bludworth talks about his war experiences. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

San Marcos from the air, seen from the left waist-gunner position on Witchcraft. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

Witchcraft volunteer Ruben Trevino looks out over Central Texas. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

Nine O Nine, a B-17G Flying Fortress, taxis after landing at the San Marcos Municipal Airport. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

Witchcraft and Betty Jane, a restored P-51C Mustang. Betty Jane is the only dual-seat mustang still in flying condition. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

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#1 Comment By Steve Harvey On 03/19/2009 @ 7:54 pm

It was really something to hear and see these fly in our skies today!

#2 Comment By Jason Samfield On 03/21/2009 @ 11:31 am

I second that! I saw the bomber flying by in a circle by my apartment and I was surprised to look up into the sky to see such a huge aircraft in my neighborhood making quite a noise with the roar of it’s engines.

#3 Comment By Mark A. Bartlett On 05/12/2009 @ 1:35 pm

…What a gallant thing that these men/women still do…first they actually did the”deed” and then they came back 40 to 50 to 60 years later and showed us all just how the “deed was done!”. Heroes and patriots, all. Fine article. Thank you. It still makes me proud when our citizens still volunteer their time and efforts in the name of American Freedom. I love you all!

Mark A. Bartlett
USAF 1970-1974

#4 Comment By Mark A. Bartlett On 05/12/2009 @ 1:36 pm

…What a gallant thing that these men/women still do…first they actually did the”deed” and then they came back 40 to 50 to 60 years later and showed us all just how the “deed was done!”. Heroes and patriots, all. Fine article. Thank you. It still makes me proud when our citizens still volunteer their time and efforts in the name of American Freedom. I love you all!

Mark A. Bartlett
USAF 1970-1974