‘Wings of Freedom’: World War II fighter planes, bombers to fly above Humboldt County airport

People line up to tour the inside of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber during a visit of restored World War II-era warplanes to the Humboldt County airport in 2015. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard)
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Dan Freitas, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, isn’t usually one for nostalgia, but occupying a B-17 heavy bomber plane all these years later is inevitably a flight down memory lane.

“It does bring back a lot of memories,” Freitas said. “I was a radio operator in a B-17 at 28,000 feet that flew above Germany. It was six degrees below zero, so we wore electric heating suits and gloves so your bare fingers wouldn’t stick to the metal.”

For the past 26 years, Freitas has found other opportunities to fly in a B-17, though without the intensity of war. Wings of Freedom, a tour of World War II-era bomber and fighter planes, will take place Monday through Wednesday this week at the Humboldt County airport in McKinleyville.

(From top) This P-51 Mustang, B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator will be at the Humboldt County airport in McKinleyville on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for walk-through tours, flights and flight trainings as part of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour. (The Collings Foundation — Contributed)

Along with the B-17 Flying Fortress, attendees will have a chance to see the P-40 Warhawk, the B-24 Liberator, the P-51 Mustang and the B-25 Mitchell all take flight.

Prices range from $400 for half-hour flights to over $3,000 for one-hour trainings. Tours of the restored aircraft in all their glory run at $15 for adults and $5 for children.

It was through meeting the founder of the Collings Foundation — the Massachusetts-based nonprofit that puts the event together — that Freitas brought Wings of Freedom to Humboldt County.

“It’s living history,” Freitas said. “It’s a reminder of how our country really came together after Pearl Harbor in a combined effort that made us victorious in the war.”

Wings of Freedom arrives in the county about once every two years. The event first stopped by in 1992. Al Castaldi, a Vietnam War vet, took the opportunity to fly a B-17 to the airport from Napa.

Castaldi is a pilot by training — “I’m a pretty good one; I haven’t killed myself yet,” he said — and finds the fighter plane experience to be wholly different from aircraft in 2019.

“These World War II planes were mechanical, instead of hydraulic or electric,” Castaldi said. “It makes a difference as far as weight and control.”

Leaning forward or back in a P-51 can change its direction, he said. The result is a physical, hands-on experience, especially in fighter planes that are more “maneuverable” than the heavier bombers.

The engine of the B-17 Flying Fortress “Nine-O-Nine” kicks out a plume of smoke as it prepares to head to Humboldt County from Concord in 2017 as part of the Wings of Freedom tour. (Hunter Cresswell — The Times-Standard)

Each time the planes lift off from the Humboldt County airport, Castaldi takes note of the attendees and how much they appreciate the history involved. And each time he began discussing Wings of Freedom on Thursday, he wound back to his idea that people simply don’t appreciate World War II’s significance anymore.

“I think the young people today, and this is my own opinion, generally don’t understand what it means to be free over here, and how we got our freedoms,” Castaldi said.

The violence of war, he says, is widely misunderstood. The planes are a way to understand what the U.S. has accomplished, he said, calling World War II “the last great war.”

“It was one egomaniac trying to take over the world for domination,” he said. “It led to a lot of people fighting for freedom.”

Freitas says he’s proud to be a veteran, but his most resounding memories of war are the men who don’t get to celebrate fighter planes over a half-century later.

“We lost two crew members,” Freitas said. “I think about them often, those young men in their early twenties and what they could have achieved if they’d stayed alive.”

And contrary to Castaldi, Freitas believes people — especially Wings of Freedom attendees — can appreciate a global conflict’s impact on human lives.

“I have great confidence in young people,” he said. “They understand. I believe this generation would respond just as we did in World War II. We all understand that freedom is not free … you have to take a stand and fight for what you believe in.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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