Wings of Freedom Tour returns

By AMANDA CHRISTMAN | Standard-Speaker | Published: August 13, 2017

HAZELTON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) -- Four relics will fly into Hazleton Regional Airport this month telling significant stories which place a part of World War II in perspective.

The Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour, now in its 28th year, will land and stay at the airport Aug. 21-23.

The four airplanes the tour brings are a WWII Vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell and North American P-51 Mustang.

The event will also feature a car show Aug. 22 displaying classic, military, custom or collectible street legal vehicles and "Lady Lois," a WWII Stuart tank built in nearby Berwick.

The tour, touting rare and fully restored bomber and fighter aircraft, has stopped in Hazleton for more than two decades as part of its national tour which begins in Florida in January, said Hunter Chaney, director of marketing at the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation.

Chaney said the tour loops its way through the United States, visiting 110 cities while flying into the lives of millions.

The B-17 is one of eight in flying condition in the U.S., according to the foundation, and the B-24 is the only plane of its type flying in the world, while the B-25 is best known for being used in the daring Doolittle raid. The trio were the backbone of the American effort during the war from 1942 to 1945 and were known for their ability to sustain damage and still accomplish the mission, the foundation states.

The P-51 Mustang was awarded grand champion for restoration at EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Oshkosh AirVenture and was affectionately known as the bombers' "Little Friend," saving countless crews from Axis fighters, according to information supplied by Chaney.

Though their history is rich and deep, many aircraft were scrapped for aluminum used to rebuild post-war America, making surviving planes rare and their roles in telling the story of World War II important, which is why the Collings Foundation continues to fly and display them, a press release states.

"It's like an interactive flying memorial for our World War II vets," Chaney said during an interview.

People can get a good understanding of World War II-era aircraft by reading a history book, he said, but to see them in person is a totally different experience, engaging people in history and in the sacrifices made by veterans with something tangible.

The aircraft, he said, is a catalyst which honors veterans in a "deep" and "lasting" way. On a personal level, guests also remember their loved ones who served in the military when they peer into the pieces of history on display and hear veterans recall their duty. They reflect on the importance of serving in any war, he said.

Hazleton was always a fun stop, Chaney said, in part because of the local World War II veterans and those who simply appreciate the aircraft. They preserve the program with their interest, as does local stop organizer and volunteer, Alan Dick of Sugarloaf Twp., who grew up in the area and acts as the liaison between the organization and the community.

Dick has been involved for about 25 years and he's been making attempts at drawing more attention to the event each year.

It's working, too. Last year the Hazleton stop ranked in the top five weekday stops nationally with close to 3,000 attendees.

A variety of things bring people back each year, Dick said. One of them, of course, is the history. People acknowledge that the aircraft won't fly forever, as with any machine, eventually they won't be able to be repaired as parts become obsolete. So people want to see them now, let their kids see them and appreciate the living history.

Others look at the planes and it reminds them of how the United States overcame its enemy in World War II. Dick sees that when he looks at the flying pieces of history but he also sees the complexity of restoring them, the hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and dedication that goes into reviving the military planes.

"There's a lot of love in that aircraft," he said.

The Liberator was the most mass-produced aircraft, he said, but only one still flies and the Collings Foundation has it.

Dick said he eventually hopes to garner enough interest to secure donors that can pay for the transport of an especially special aircraft, the P-40 Warhawk. It is the only airworthy American fighter aircraft that survived Pearl Harbor. When the attack happened, it was in a repair hangar, Dick said.

Stories like that and events like the Wings of Freedom Tour, he said, allow history to be passed on and give locals a chance to see and do something they may not otherwise experience so close to home.


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