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Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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Restored bomber gives Winter Haven veterans chance to fly

WINTER HAVEN - As the plane rumbled through the skies over Winter Haven, John Touchet sat on the floor of the big bomber, his slight body shaking with the vibrations of flight. The noise of the four Wright-Cyclone 1,200 horsepower radial engines deafening, he couldn't shout loud enough to express his joy. So he formed a circle with his forefinger and thumb and smiled broadly. His last time aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress was during WW II. Touchet, now 89 and living in Winter Haven, flew in B-17s over Germany as an Army Air Force photographer. On most of the missions, Touchet said, the Luftwaffe, or German air force, was nowhere to be seen.
"But a couple of times, we were attacked," he said. On Monday's flight out of Winter Haven Municipal Airport, Touchet was joined by several other WWII veterans who were given the chance to take a short jaunt by the Collings Foundation. The foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to "living history" through its "Wings of Freedom" tour of WWII aircraft like the B-17, a B-24 Liberator bomber and a P-51 Mustang fighter. The last time Foster Bond was in a B-17 was more than five decades ago. He sat up in the cockpit as a pilot. This time, like Touchet, he was sitting on the floor in the radio room. "I love the B-17," said Bond, now 81 and living in Winter Haven. "Very smooth plane. Easy to fly." The men who made the flight weren't the only ones with an interesting history. The plane they were in, the Nine-0-Nine, has a fascinating back story of its own. It rolled off the assembly line in April 1945, too late for combat, but it did see time in an air/sea rescue squadron. Though it was never fired upon by the enemy, our own government did a number on the plane, subjecting it to the effects of three nuclear explosions during the atomic bomb testing days, according to the Collings Foundation. After a "13-year cool down period," the plane was rehabbed and flew for 20 years as a fire bomber, helping douse forest fires. In 1986, the Collings Foundation purchased the plane, had it restored and began flying it on living history tours. A year later, the bomber crashed during a landing in Pennsylvania but was rebuilt. Since then, the plane has made more than 2,500 tour stops, "giving millions who would otherwise never have seen the Flying Fortress" a chance to see one fly, according to the foundation. Danny Vega, 85, served in the Army during WWII but didn't leave the ground until years later, when he got his pilot license. Sitting in the bomber's Plexiglas nose, with a clear view of the lakes and urban congestion below, he looked down in awe. A few minutes later, the flight crew ushered everyone back into their seats on the floor. As the plane came to a halt, Bond, with some help, eased himself off the plane. "This was a great flight," he said. "It was just as noisy as I remember." To learn more about the Wings of Freedom tour, go to www.Collingsfoundation.org.

haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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