Getting to fly one of the few remaining operational World War II aircraft still in existence is more than just a thrilling opportunity.
"It's like flying a piece of history," says pilot Rick "Thug" Kelly of San Antonio, who flew a World War II-era B-17 Flying Fortress plane into Love Field on Thursday. "When you figure that there's only a handful left of these still flying, the ability to fly them across the U.S. is incredible."
The B-17 is one of four aircraft from WWII and the Vietnam War that are on a flying tour of American museums and airfields as part of the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour. The planes landed at the Love Field runway behind the Frontiers of Freedom Museum on Lemmon Avenue and will be on display until Sunday before they depart for their next tour stop.
The exhibit includes authentic working aircraft from WWII, including the sole remaining B-24 Liberator, a P-51 Mustang and a Huey helicopter flown by U.S. Marine Maj. Stephen Pless. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Pless the Medal of Honor for efforts in rescuing three wounded American soldiers during the Vietnam War in 1967.
Crowds of aviation enthusiasts and military veterans gathered around the fence surrounding the airfield Thursday to watch the magnificent machines make their final descent on the runways. Some also paid for the opportunity to ride in an aircraft.
The experienced pilots flying these planes faced a few challenges.
"There's no computer, so everything is hand set," Kelly says. "There's nothing that tells you when you're out of your parameters. You have to see it for yourself."
Rob Collings, executive director of the Collings Foundation and a pilot from Massachusetts who flew into Love Field in a P-51, says the foundation has been showing the majesty and history of these aircrafts for the last 29 years. Its fleet of 40 military aircrafts spans back to before World War I. Collings says it's a perfect way to show the public the innovation it took to make them and the bravery required to fly inside them during times of global conflict.
"It's just been growing ever since," Kelly says. "It's remarkable outreach and a living history event. You're not going to a museum and just seeing something that's static. You can smell it. You can feel the rumble of the planes. It's indescribable."
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Former NASCAR racer Carl Edwards II went for a ride in the two-seater P-51 and even got to fly the plane. He says he's been flying planes since he was 17, but flying a historic aircraft like a P-51 was an "unbelievable experience."
"You're in a P-51, and when you look out of it, you see you're flying next to a B-24," Edwards says. "I didn't expect to have that feeling. It's just surreal and when you think of how many people fought wars in them. It's just amazing."
The Wings of Freedom tour is on display through Sunday at the Frontiers of Flight Museum, 6911 Lemmon Ave. in Dallas. For more information, visit collingsfoundation.org.