I visited the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport for a rare visit by a working B-24J Liberator, still flying seventy years after it was built. I pay for the walk through and thoroughly enjoy it but since I can’t really afford the flight fee, I have to settle for the ground tour. It is the same model plane my dad flew for the 8th Air Force in World War II. He completed thirty-five missions over Germany and was shot down twice, crashing once in Belgium and one other time back at the base at Wendling.
After the tour which is a moving experience by itself, I exit the plane through the bomb bay and step to the sunlight side, temporarily blinded by the bright afternoon Florida sun. I feel a breeze and a gust of cool wind. The crowd is gone but the plane is still there. Confused, I look around.
Walking up to me from the other side of the number two engine comes a young man, a kid almost, wearing a new-looking but obviously original A-2 jacket with green-tinted Ray-Bans covering his eyes. His face is narrow and taut. He walks with a confidence you just don’t see from most young men these days. He comes up to me and offers his hand.
“Henry Holmes,” he says. “Hank to my friends. I’m the pilot of this beast.” He smiles an easy smile as he nods towards the plane.
In disbelief, I cock my head slightly as my jaw drops. It is a Field of Dreams moment come to life. I have met my father when he was young, just twenty-two years old and a veteran combat pilot of a B-24. My breathing stops. I mumble a couple of incoherent words.
“You wanna go up?”
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to breathe. I look over and see his crew, all nine of them, in flight clothes, smiling. One of them gives me half a wave of his hand. I look back at Hank, my dad, and just nod yes.
“Well, let’s go.” He turns and clambers aboard so I follow. The rest of the crew follow and assume their stations for takeoff. The co-pilot waves me towards his seat. I look at my father, already busy with pre-flight checks and he just nods towards the seat, so I climb in. He hands me a headset for the interphone. I hear him and Johnny the flight engineer run through the endless pre-flight check list. Hydraulic fluid levels, star valve, fuel selector valves OK; gas tank caps checked, flight controls checked, fuel valves checked, generators off. There is a dizzying array of unfamiliar steps taking place with the smooth assurance of a highly experienced crew. I look out the window and see a couple of ground crew, one with a fire extinguisher. I hear more checklist items being called out. Ignition switches all on! Throttles cracked!
The engines start and the unmuffled sounds of forty-eight hundred horsepower is deafening. I can hear OK through the interphone though, and I’m so impressed by the smooth cadence of these very young men. My dad waves for chocks clear and he explains about cylinder head temperatures and so on, and my head is just spinning. I’m sitting next to my father when he was young! And he’s going to take me flying!
My dad maneuvers the old B-24 deftly using throttles only and soon we’re making our take-off run. We reach about 120 miles per hour and I feel us lift gently and slowly off the runway. My dad and Johnny are checking the gauges constantly as we gain altitude. Wheels up, my dad coolly powers us into a climbing turn towards the beach, only a few miles to the east. Before long, we’re over the Atlantic and he turns north a couple of miles offshore.
“You wanna give it a try?” I look at his bulging forearms, the result of hundreds of hours of piloting the stubborn B-24. I take the yoke (while he continues to hold on to his side) and gently try to get a feel for the big plane. Having no real flying experience, I simply try to hold it true to course. He tells me to gently turn left and apply slight left rudder. There is nothing gentle about handling this plane but I give it a try and we slowly turn back towards the beach.
“Not bad for an old guy,” he jokes. I forgot. I’m sixty-four and he’s just a kid. He knows it’s me; I can feel it, but I haven’t yet been born in this time. Yet, he knows and gives a slight smile. It is the most comforting feeling I’ve had in my life.
“You take it,” I say. “I’ll just ride along.”
My dad steers us back towards the coastline and heads south, flying just a few hundred feet over the beach. The crowds of beach-goers look, point and stare. They wave wildly; I wave back out the co-pilot’s window. The engines roar to the delight of the masses below. It is heavenly.
Before I know it, we’re back on the ground, as smooth a landing as you could want and my dad guides the plane to a stop, back in front of the hanger. I close my eyes, wondering how I can tell him exactly how I feel about what just happened. I am overwhelmed. I am humbled, too. I have missed him so since he passed way back in 1981. The war took its toll way after the flak bursts ended and the last bomb was dropped. I decide to explain to him exactly who I am and open my eyes.
A sharp poke on my shoulder alerts me to an older man wearing a CAF ball cap. He has a gruff expression on his face.
“Hey, you can’t be up here! You can only look; you can’t sit!”
Confused, I look around me. There are men and boys behind me looking at the bomb bay and the flight instruments. Outside, I see people lined up for their chance to tour the plane. I miss a breath. What just happened?
“C’mon, let’s go.” The man’s voice is gentler now, even understanding. I breathe deeply. I guess it was a huge daydream. I smile meekly and get up, making my way back and out to the tarmac, trying to gather my thoughts.
Off to the left, a few hundred yards away, I see an old jeep loaded down with a bunch of guys in brownish green clothes. They’re hanging on to every flat surface of the jeep, driving away from the hangar. The one sitting in the front passenger seat, the one wearing green-tinted Ray-Ban sunglasses waves heartily. I smile and wave back.