Vintage World War II-era planes touch down in Bakersfield, offer flying history

A crowd of aviation enthusiasts and history buffs filled the reception area at Bakersfield Jet Center to welcome a small squadron of vintage warplanes that landed at Meadows Field on Monday afternoon.

“There’s romance in those planes,” said Dr. John Close, a retired physician who was there with his wife, Susan, to see the World War II-era warbirds.

Indeed, as they lined up on the tarmac, the planes almost seemed like time machines, not just war machines — here to carry enthusiasts back to another era in the nation’s history.

It’s all part of the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom Tour, a nearly three-day educational stopover in Bakersfield that includes a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-24J Liberator nicknamed “Witchcraft,” a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber and a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, a plane made famous by the Flying Tigers, a group of American volunteer pilots who worked within the Chinese Air Force before Pearl Harbor officially brought America into the war.

A fifth plane, a P-51 Mustang, had been expected, but organizers said Monday it may arrive Tuesday, or more likely will have to be scratched from the lineup.

“Fighters are a little bit more fussy,” said Mark Murphy, a pilot who flew the P-40 into Bakersfield.

Murphy had a Monday afternoon appointment already in place to take a paying guest up in the P-40, which isn’t normally a two-seater. However, about 30 of the fighters were modified for instructional purposes, he said, and the nonprofit foundation was lucky enough to get one of them.

“This is a rare opportunity to visit, explore, and learn more about these unique and rare treasures of aviation history,” organizers said in a news release. “The B-17 is one of only nine in flying condition in the United States. The B-24J Liberator is the sole remaining example of its type flying in the world.”

Visitors are invited to explore the aircraft inside and out — $15 for adults and $5 for children under 12 provides access to up-close viewing and tours through the inside of the larger planes.

Ted Arbolante, of Bear Valley Springs, drove into Bakersfield on Monday for a chance to experience the vintage aircraft.

“Oh, I love planes. I’ve been to Lemoore (Naval Air Station), China Lake (Naval Air Weapons Center) and Edwards Air Force Base,” he said.

He can see test flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo from his backyard.

“It’s an exciting time for avionics,” he said.

Jamie Mitchell, flight coordinator for the tour, said she’s seen how children begin to grasp the importance of the history of World War II through these hands-on experiences. And she’s witnessed World War II veterans whose memories blossomed after climbing aboard an old B-17.

The foundation calls it “living history.”

Close, who later became a doctor, was an 8-year-old boy when the attack on Pearl Harbor woke America, the “sleeping giant,” from its slumber.

Those were dark times early in the war, he recalled.

“Everyone in America made a commitment,” he said. And everyone made sacrifices.

“These planes represented the commitment we made as a nation,” he said.

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