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Wings of history

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The view from the cockpit of the B-24 Liberator Witchcraft, which is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation. The plane stopped Wednesday at Troutdale Airport for a three-day visit that is open to the public. The plane is the last remaining airworthy example of its kind.

The sight and sound of American fighter planes and bombers in the air brought joy to the crowd of veterans and civilians at Troutdale Airport on Wednesday afternoon.

Once used for rescues and firebombing missions, the antique aircraft of the Collings Foundation “Wings of Freedom Tour” now serve as time machines through aviation history.

“Wings of Freedom” is a traveling showcase of the most famous artifacts of World War II.

Troutdale is the most recent city to host the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation and its fleet of fully-maintained and operational warplanes, before the tour departs for Pasco, Wash., on Friday. For 10 months out of the year, these historic bombers and fighters visit 40 states and 120 cities.

The tour’s arsenal, comprising the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine O Nine” heavy bomber, B-25 Mitchell “Tondelayo” heavy bomber, Consolidated B-24 Liberator “Witchcraft” heavy bomber and P-51c Mustang “Betty Jane” fighter — as well as a dedicated cast and crew of volunteers, mechanics and pilots — were on hand at the airport this week.

“If we’re not flying the planes or sleeping,” said flight coordinator Jaime Mitchell, “we’re working on them.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Mason Rolofson, 11, of Corbett, takes his turn behind one of the .50 caliber Browning machine guns in the waist position onboard the Witchcraft as it flies over the Columbia River.

At each stop, visitors can take self-guided tours through the planes’ interiors. If the price is right, lucky passengers can experience a 30-minute or hour-long flight.

While Hollywood has made icons out of warbirds like the B-24 and B-17, the reality that the young pilots and crews lived was far from romantic. The insides of the planes have a spartan configuration, designed for heavy bombing, not luxury.

“They’re no creature comforts,” said B-17 pilot Mac McCauley.

The gangway on the Flying Fortress is so narrow that it seems only volunteer Caio Goolsby, 14, can slip through.

But 3,000 feet above the Columbia River Gorge, the B-17 is a long way from the enemy fields and fire of the past. Instead, passengers marvel at the natural beauty of Oregon’s emerald forests and rivers, waterfalls and islands from a birds-eye view.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Aircraft enthusiasts photograph and enjoy the B-17G Nine-O-Nine at Troutdale Airport Wednesday, part of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour.

Bridge to the past

The tour began in 1989 with one plane and a mission to reconnect veterans with the aircraft they served on.

“We do this for the veterans,” said McCauley, who has flown the B-17G for 18 years. “That’s one of the reasons why a lot of us stay out here so long, to talk to the vets, listen to their stories … take them for rides. They’re the greatest people you’ll ever meet.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ELIZE MANOUKIAN - Retired air force veteran James M. Rise said he's seen thousands of P-51c planes roll off the line.

While veteran engagement is a major aspect of the project, the real heart of the tour is “giving the past a future,” the de facto motto of the Collings Foundation. Mitchell noted that in K-12 public education, schools spend about one week on World War II history. Through direct participation in the interactive displays, and providing a space for children to interact with knowledgeable crews, pilots and veterans, kids learn more “in an afternoon,” claimed Mitchell, “then they might that whole week.”

As collective memory of the war dims, Mitchell believes the gap between history and younger generations must be bridged.

“They realize that this is not a video game, or a movie,” Mitchell said. “This really happened.”

Aviation “herstory”

Mitchell became involved with aviation as a volunteer at airshows across Southern California. In those days, Mitchell was working as a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

“I stayed in a cubicle all day, crushing rocks and crunching numbers,” she recalled.

One weekend, she was invited to the Reno Air Races as a representative of the Interstate Cadet, the plane type flown by aviatrix Cornelia Fort, one of eight civilians flying the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese air fleet bombed Pearl Harbor.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This is the gun sight for the nose turret on the B-24 containing a pair of .50 caliber machine guns.

Mitchell relayed a story about a group of less-than-enthused schoolchildren that came to the races.

“They would say, ‘I want to go eat pizza, I hate this,’ and I asked, ‘Do you want to hear this amazing story about this girl? She wasn’t much older than you’.”

The story of Cornelia Fort’s chance encounter with the Japanese air fleet won over the children, and helped realize Mitchell’s passion for inspiring others with the real history of aviation.

The parallels between Mitchell and Fort are notable: Mitchell is also a pilot (in training), and both encountered the difficulty of breaking into an “old boy’s club.”

An experienced pilot, Fort was giving flying lessons the morning of the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. The next year, Fort became the second member of what soon became the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Onlookers examine the Witchcraft on the tarmac at Troutdale airport Wednesday.

According to Women of Aviation, less than 6 percent of for-hire pilots are women. The number of female mechanics is even lower — at 2.2 percent.

Mitchell says it is a challenge for many of the older generation to welcome the presence of a woman in the cockpit or on the tarmac.

“You have to fight against it,” she said. “But they’re accepting it.”