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Aircraft enthusiasts take a trip back in history at Long Beach Airport

A P-51 Mustang, B-24 and B-17 are still flying and telling the story of WWII's air mission to a new generation. The bombers, owned by the nonprofit Collings Foundation, move to Camarillo on Monday.

May 10, 2010|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

Amid the sleek private jets and small propeller planes taking off from a side runway at Long Beach Airport on Sunday, two giant relics from a time long past stood out.

On the tarmac sat a pair of World War II-era bombers that were part of a flying history lesson that has been traveling around the country for years and is in Long Beach until Monday, when it heads to Camarillo.

The two dozen or so aficionados who turned out on the chilly, overcast morning were a slice of the few hundred people who have come in recent days to climb inside the bomb bays and cockpits of the metal birds. The hulking B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress are among a handful of vintage military aircraft restored to their original look and made flight-worthy again by the nonprofit Collings Foundation. They are among the last of their kind still flying.

In a nearby hangar, the nose of a P-51 Mustang fighter that was undergoing repairs could be glimpsed.

Several visitors spoke of the importance of keeping such aircraft in working order as a way of maintaining a connection to the war and the Greatest Generation that fought it.

"If you destroy everything from your past, what can you ever expect to know about it?" said Bruce Abbot, an amateur pilot and court bailiff for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Real enthusiasts have been shelling out the $425 for half-hour flights on the bombers or $2,200 for a 30-minute ride in the Mustang. The money, organizers said, helps to cover the costs of keeping the aircraft working.

The B-24's journey from factory to history prop has been a long, circuitous one. The aircraft, with gun turrets on the nose and underbelly, was built in 1944 in Texas and given to Britain's Royal Air Force for bombing and resupply missions in the Pacific theater. It was abandoned after the war in northern India and was used by that country's Air Force for many years and was eventually purchased by the Collings Foundation.

The Flying Fortress, which was built a few months too late to see any combat in the war, has a slightly less romantic past, but was still a major draw Sunday.

Beneath one of its wings, a few people stood reverently around Wilbur Richardson, 87, who flew 30 missions over Europe seated in the underbelly gun turret of another B-17. He recalled a bombing raid in which German anti-aircraft guns put 400 holes in the plane and about how, on his final mission, he was badly injured by a piece of shrapnel.

"These planes were our lives," he said.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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