Old bombers draw people like magnets draw steel.
Maybe it’s the opportunity to see things so aerodynamically ungainly by 21st century standards that they seem as unlikely to fly as a bumblebee. Yet like a bumblebee, they actually fly quite well, if a bit noisily.
Maybe it’s the chance to connect with a piece of history that is both global and local.
Maybe it’s their ability to bring back memories more than a half-century gone.
“Gosh, I like those old airplanes,” Ken Evert, of Richland, said as he leaned on his walker and looked at the B-24 Liberator and B-25 Mitchell on the tarmac in front of him at Spokane International Airport.
The two World War II bombers had wafted out of the West Plains sky a few minutes earlier, touched down with hardly a bounce and taxied gracefully to their assigned spots at XN Air. Before their engines had shut down and their propellers stopped, their friends and admirers were being drawn in.
“I’m a prop man myself,” said Evert, who built B-25s for North American Aircraft Co. before joining the Army Air Corps in 1942. During World War II he worked on fighters, P-47s and P-51s, but occasionally a banged-up bomber would have to put down at his base northeast of London.
Evert makes regular trips to see historic planes when they tour the Northwest. He said he agrees with a sign he saw in the bay of a restored World War II-era bomber a few years ago: “Jets are for kids.”
In their heyday, the old bombers filled the skies over Europe and the Pacific to help the Allies win World War II. They also filled hangars on the West Plains, where the federal government built the Spokane Air Depot to repair hundreds of war-damaged B-24s and B-17s and return them to service. The depot, known locally as Galena, is now Fairchild Air Force Base, just a few miles down the road from where the Liberator and Mitchell were parked.
Jim Worsham had two careers around airplanes – one in the Air Force and one as head of security at Spokane International Airport – and recalled that Fairchild had several B-25s when he arrived there in the early 1950s. Their bombing days long eclipsed by the much bigger and faster B-29s, they were used to haul personnel and cargo.
“When I was growing up, these were the kind of planes that we had,” said Worsham, gesturing toward Tondelay, the B-25, and Witchcraft, the B-24. “It’s nice that somebody takes the time to put ‘em back together and keep ‘em going.”
For Witchcraft and Tondelay, that “somebody” is the Collings Foundation, a Stowe, Mass.-based nonprofit that locates and restores historic planes and flies them from city to city to generate memories in one generation and teach history to others.
But operating a flying museum is expensive. Mark Henley, a Birmingham, Ala., pilot who flew Tondelay from Boeing Field to Spokane on Monday, said the twin-engine bomber costs from $2,500 to $3,000 an hour to operate, burning about 120 gallons of aviation fuel an hour while it is cruising at about 180 mph.
The plane has a rated top speed of about 270 mph, but with aviation fuel between $4.50 and $5 a gallon, the planes usually cruise at their most economical speed when they move from city to city.
Tondelay made the flight from Seattle to Spokane in a little more than an hour – not much more time than the standard commuter flight, but considerably lower and noisier – and far more scenic as the Cascades and the Columbia Plateau passed under the bubble of the nose turret.
The foundation’s bigger but slower B-17, Nine-Oh-Nine, costs about $4,000 an hour, running fuel through its four engines at about 50 gallons an hour each.
To help defray costs, the Collings Foundation sells tickets for half-hour rides. The tickets, ranging from $325 to $425 depending on the plane, are tax-deductible.
And when flying planes that are older than Presidents Bush or Clinton, stuff happens.
The Collings Foundation flew out of Boeing Field on Monday morning with three bombers, but when Tondelay and Witchcraft rolled to a stop at Spokane International shortly before noon, the Nine-O-Nine was nowhere to be seen.
“Blew a jug,” said one of the ground crew from XN Air, which is hosting the visit. It blew out a cylinder in one of its four 1,200-horsepower engines and made a detour to Everett for repairs.
Losing a cylinder is not uncommon, and the crew had a spare.
Other parts are harder to find, and some have to be manufactured from original drawings. “You can get anything made, for enough money,” Hartley said.