Wings of Freedom brings history to life

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Just imagine sitting in the cramped, narrow space of a rumbling aircraft, flying thousands of miles into war with a young pilot at the helm.  In front of you is open space enclosed in a dome, with nothing but a gun standing between you and an enemy.

Take a ride on a World War II era plane, and imagining the conditions faced by members of the Greatest Generation on their way to war is not difficult.

That's the mission of the Collings Foundation.  It's a non profit, education group dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of our veterans.

The group restores and flies WWII aircrafts all over the nation to allow people to get up close and personal with a piece of living history.

"You crawl through the plane and you see the environment they [WWII soldiers] were set up in, and they tell you, 'We had to do it,'" said volunteer pilot Fred Lewis.  "They were fearless."

Lewis is just one of the many volunteers who run the foundation, and take care of the planes.

Three planes of its fleet are currently sitting at Atlantic Aviation on Hewes Avenue in Gulfport as a part of the Wings of Freedom Tour.

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine" WWII Heavy Bomber, Consolidated B-24 Liberator "Witchcraft" WWII Heavy Bomber and P-51 Mustang all sit, waiting to share stories of war and valor.

"Not a lot of people can travel to museums, so we come to your hometown and set up the planes.  We offer rides in the aircrafts. We offer to tour the aircraft," said Lewis.

Volunteers now fly these planes, and they carry passengers, not bombs or loaded guns.  However, once hey were flown by soldiers like 92 year old John Haines who piloted several different style aircrafts.

"I never was scared of flying. I never was scared. I took my first flying lesson in Kingston, New York," said Haines who flew throughout his 20s.

Richard Nesossis was another veteran who piloted B-24 bombers.

"I was a pilot in the 13th air force in the Southwest Pacific, and I flew 52 missions and 452 combat hours," said Nesossis.

The volunteers are quick to say that the best part of their museum in the sky is reuniting veterans with the machines they relied on.  According to Lewis, watching veterans share their stories with family members is why he continues to work with the Collings Foundation.

"This is just wonderful to be out here to see these airplanes and to see these pilots and everything. It's just fine," said Haines.

Wings of Freedom will be on display at Atlantic Aviation through Friday.

Hours of ground tours and display are:

9:00 AM through 5:00 PM on Thursday, March 8

9:00 AM through 12:00 PM on Friday, March 9

The cost for a tour is $12 for adults and $6 dollars for children.   

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