World War II aircraft showcase aviation’s storied past

Historic planes on display at Altoona-Blair County Airport

Bonnie Summer of Hollidaysburg lines up to take a photograph of the tail section of a World War II B-24 bomber at the Blair County Airport on Friday.

MARTINSBURG — History touched down at the Altoona-Blair County Airport this weekend as the iconic aircraft of World War II arrived for a weekend that gives the public a chance to experience a piece of combat aviation’s storied past.

Greg Trebon, a retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General who spends six weeks off from his job each year flying the Collings Foundation’s B-24J as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, said the planes stir emotions in people, bringing generations together as veterans who once flew and served on these bombers have had the chance to share some of that experience with their children and grandchildren.

Trebon recalled an encounter a few years ago where one of the visitors, dressed in his father’s uniform, handed him a piece of metal — a piece of flak that had gone through his father while he was piloting a B-24 during the war in 1943.

“It dawned on me at that moment the history was not the machine but the boys who flew them,” Trebon said.

He said it’s a privilege to fly the B-24, and he considers himself a caretaker of this piece of history — the last of its kind flying in the world.

“The Collings Foundation doesn’t believe in parking them in a museum,” Trebon said, noting the planes are on tour 300 days each year. “Kids touch them, kids will crawl on them and that’s what we want.”

Trebon said the flights, which cost a few hundred dollars, leave people with tears in their eyes.

On display through 5 p.m. today are a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell and North American P-51 Mustang fighter.

For the price of admission, visitors can explore the aircraft up close, with flights scheduled in the morning and afternoon.

The B-17 is one of only eight in flying condition in the United States, the B-24J is the sole remaining example of its type flying in the world. The B-25 is best known for the famous Doolittle raid, and the P-51 Mustang was just awarded Grand Champion for restoration at Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh AirVenture.

Trebon pointed out the P-51 is remarkable because the time it took to go from a black sheet of paper to a built plane was 120 days, as the U.S. was desperate to find a plane that could escort its bombers all the way from England to their targets in Germany. Bomber crews were expected to make 25 runs, with some missions losing as much as 10 percent of their bombers. In all, the Army’s Eighth Air Force lost more men on bombing runs than the entire Marine Corps lost in the Pacific, Trebon said of the dangerous nature of the missions.

“Everything is original in the planes,” Trebon pointed out, adding that the only new components are modern radios. Once a year, they even take the planes on a bombing run — dropping concrete bombs at a specially designated place in California — and fire the machine guns, just to make sure everything remains in working condition.

Jeff Sprouse, 67, of Altoona, visited Saturday with his three children: Jett, 7; Jenna, 10 and Giavonna, 14.

Sprouse said he’s a pilot and his father was a paratrooper in World War II, so he makes a point of visiting the tour each year when it comes to the airport.

“They mean a lot,” he said of the planes. “They mean freedom.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.