It’s one thing to go to a classroom to learn about history. But this weekend, history is coming to Zephyrhills. In fact, it’s landing at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport Wednesday afternoon.
Touching ground are three planes straight out of World War II: The B-24 Liberator, the P-51 Mustang, and the B-17 Flying Fortress.
“It’s one thing to see a plane behind a rope collecting dust, but to be able to physically crawl through one and have a close look at all the various compartments — it’s hard to imagine how these young men were able to do any of this to start with,” said Hunter Chaney, the director of marketing for the Collings Foundation, which hosts the annual Wings of Freedom Tour. “These are bare bone minimalist aircraft made to carry and drop bombs, and spread a lot of lead all over anyone trying to stop them. Crews would have to sit in these planes for hours at a time, and if you lost a glove, you’re automatically facing frostbite.”
The tours at Zephyrhills Airport are much different than a trip to the Smithsonian. These are fully restored — and operational — planes, some of only the few remaining from World War II. Visitors can crawl right through the plane, sit in the cockpit, and for a little more money, actually ride on the plane. Tour tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children (free for World War II veterans), while flights start at $450 for the B-24 or B-17, and $2,200 for the P-51.
Chaney acknowledges the cost to fly is steep, but it’s not cheap to fly planes that were built decades ago. The B-17 itself costs about $4,500 per hour in flight, and requires about 10 hours of maintenance work for every hour it’s in the air.
Every dollar raised goes back into the continued maintenance of the planes, all operated by the nonprofit Collings Foundation. The organization started in 1979 in Stow, Mass., with a focus on preserving history. While Collings began with antique cars, in the 1980s, it really began to focus on airplanes, and have been touring these restored planes around the country for the last 25 years.
Zephyrhills will be the 2,831st stop of the tour, which usually hits more than 100 cities each year, connecting with up to 3.5 million people.
“It really appeals to the curiosity of people from all walks of life,” Chaney said. “It’s such a rare opportunity to touch and experience and interact with this history, particularly when we come into areas like Zephyrhills.”
This is the second time the Wings of Freedom Tour has made a stop in Zephyrhills, and it might not have happened this time if it weren’t for airport manager Mike Handrahan, Chaney said.
“He has been in aviation for years now, and he’s helped us bring the tour into all the various airports he’s worked at,” Chaney said.
The B-24 coming to Zephyrhills was built in 1944 for the U.S. Army, and saw combat in the Pacific Theater with the Royal Air Force. The Liberator is the last of its kind still flying, which is surprising considering it also was the most mass-produced plane in history.
The B-17, known as “Nine-O-Nine,” was finished too late to see actual combat, but it was subjected to the effects of three nuclear bomb detonations. Soon after it was restored in the mid-1980s, the “Nine-O-Nine” had an accident in western Pennsylvania. No one was killed, but the plane was not expected to fly again. It took thousands of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars in donations, but the plane was fully restored and has flown without incident now in nearly 2,400 stops.
The P-51 was designed as a one-seater, but it was Collings that not only restored the plane, but added additional seating so that even passengers without a pilot license could experience the Mustang in flight.
The planes will be open to the public Jan. 22 from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Jan. 23 at 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Jan. 24 from 9 a.m. to noon. Flights usually take place before and after ground tour times.
For more information, call (800) 568-8924.
“We call these guys part of the Greatest Generation,” Chaney said. “What they did and what they endured is incredible. However awful World War II was, we would not have been able to win it without them.”
If you go
WHAT: Wings of Freedom Tour with the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator and P-51 Mustang
WHERE: Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, 39450 South Ave., Zephyrhills
WHEN: Jan. 22 from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Jan. 23 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Jan. 24 from 9 a.m. to noon
COST: $12 for adults, $6 for children under 12; World War II veterans free
INFO: (800) 568-8924
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