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WWII veterans turn out to greet vintage aircraft at Florida airport

The P-51 Mustangs saw action in almost every combat zone of WWII, escorting bombers in the Pacific and destroying nearly 5,000 enemy aircraft in the air, according to an Air Force fact sheet. During the war, 14,855 Mustangs were ordered for production, most of which carried six .50-caliber machine guns and up to 2,000 pounds of bombs.

MANATEE, Fla. -- It was touch-and-go for three World War II aircraft attempting to make the short hop Monday from Venice, Fla., to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

A weather front moved into the area and settled over the airport with San Francisco-like fog, which kept a P-51 Mustang fighter, a B-24 heavy bomber and a B-17 heavy bomber grounded in Venice.

Not until about 1:45 p.m. was there enough of a break in the weather for the B-17 Flying Fortress to slip into Rectrix Aviation at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport as an appreciative crowd watched along a fence.

Even so, B-17 pilot Mac McCauley said the crew had to make an instrument landing. The P-51 fighter and the B-24 lacked instrumentation needed to fly under the low ceiling, which delayed their Bradenton-area arrival.

Several World War II veterans turned out to see the vintage warbirds fly and they aroused almost as much interest as the planes.

"It was 70 years ago that I flew in these things," said 89-year-old Howard Haas of Longboat Key.

As a bombardier, Haas flew 50 combat missions in a B-24 between June and December of 1944.

"We finished and came home. Three members of our crew of 10 are still alive. It is pretty amazing," Haas said. "This was a great airplane -- the B-17 flew about 3,000 feet higher than the B-24 and a little faster."

Paul Kovitz of Sarasota, a veteran of the 390th Bomb Group, said he was a maintenance officer helping to keep B-17s flying during the war.

"I spent two years with the B-17. This was a good airplane," Kovitz said.

Jim Adams, 89, served in the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean off Italy and southern France. He recalled a B-24 base nearby on Corsica.

"We had a good friend who was a pilot of a B-17," Adams said. "Another good friend was a B-29 tail gunner. We lost him over Japan."

Also coming out to look over the B-17 was John Walker, 88, of Bradenton.

Based in Scotland as an U.S. Army Air Forces radio mechanic in a traffic control tower, Walker remembered watching B-17 formations returning from bombing runs, stacked up like a "stair case" as they approached the landing field.

Finley Allen, 86, of Bradenton served in the Navy during the war. "It's wonderful that they got the B-17 here. It's a shame that they didn't keep more," he said.

Several WWII vets also turned out to see the warbirds in Venice, and were hoping to catch a ride on one of them.

But as the scheduled takeoff time came and went several times, one of them uttered the immortal words familiar to any military veteran: "Hurry up and wait."

One of the Venice vets, Len Gurley, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, had been slated for assignment in Europe as a glider pilot but was seriously injured in a stateside glider crash.

"That's probably why I am still alive," Gurley said.

McCauley, a B-17 pilot for 16 years, was asked what it is like to fly one.

"It's like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track," McCauley said. "It's heavy on the controls, but it's nice and stable. It's a lot of fun to fly, especially when you have a lot of World War II vets who come out. Meeting those veterans is my favorite thing."

By the end of the day Monday, the B-24 and the P-51 were able to join the B-17 at Sarasota-Bradenton International.

The Collings Foundation will have the three aircraft from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday at Rectrix Aviation, 8250 15th St. E., Bradenton.

Tours of the planes are available for $12 for adults, and $6 for children 12 and younger.

A flight on the B-17 or the B-24 heavy bomber costs $450 a ticket. A half-hour flight on the P-51 Mustang costs $2,200, or $3,200 for a full hour.

For reservations, call 800-568-8924.

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