Past Comes Alive With National Flight Tour
August 23, 2016
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  • The North American P-51 Mustang was the first World War II aircraft to land Monday at the Hazleton Regional Airport.

    Within minutes, three other historic planes from the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour touched down. Dick Fox was there to meet them.

    Fox, of Altoona, helps the living history event function like clockwork.

    “I’m just a traveling volunteer,” he said, as he polished the underside of a B-25 Mitchell bomber.

    Officials from the non-profit Collings Foundation said volunteers and public support are the backbone of the national tour. Most pilots and crew members are volunteers who help maintain the rare aircraft.

    “When they’re not sleeping, eating or flying the planes, they’re working on them,” said Jamie Mitchell, the tour’s flight coordinator.

    Pilots hold Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration, meaning they can both fly and work on the planes, she said.

    The tour runs from January to November each year, Mitchell said, and even when planes aren’t flying, they’re cared for daily at an air base near Daytona Beach, Florida.

    “We put around 10 hours of maintenance (into the planes) for every hour of flying,” foundation spokesman Hunter Chaney said.

    Fox said he began volunteering with Wings of Freedom about eight years ago. When he’s not polishing the just-arrived planes, he helps in other ways.

    “I help people get off and on the planes, I help sell T-shirts and ball caps. Whatever it is they need me to do, I do it,” said Fox.

    Fox’s sister is also a Wings of Freedom volunteer. Both have an interest in World War II aircraft since their father was a top turret gunner on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

    A B-17 — like one Fox’s father flew in — and a Consolidated B-24 Liberator rounded out the historical display.

    While the Hazleton airport has hosted the tour previously, Monday marked the first visit for the B-25 and P-51.

    “I come every year,” said Jim Fisher, of Lattimer.

    Fisher held the hand of his great-grandson, Aiden Merenich, 2, and later raised the boy to his shoulders to give him a better view of the planes landing.

    “This is his first time. He loves planes. He has a DVD called ‘Planes,’ and there’s a character in there called Dusty Crophopper. It looks like the P-51,” Fisher explained.

    A U.S. Army veteran, Fisher began his service in 1957 and remembered seeing similar planes.

    Ed Keck brought his airplane enthusiast grandson, Tyler Keck, who will turn 2 in September.

    “He watches the planes as they come in to the airport,” said Keck, of Drums.

    The senior Keck also enjoyed the lesson in history.

    “It’s just awesome to see them … to hear them,” said Keck, a U.S. Navy veteran. “I can’t imagine seeing 50, 60 or 70 of them together.”

    When the Wings of Freedom tour began in 1989, Mitchell said many World War II veterans would visit to reconnect and share stories. As the years wore on and veterans aged, the event began to attract veterans’ families, she said.

    “Now it’s all about the kids,” she said, noting that volunteers enjoy teaching youths about the aircraft and the war effort. “We say it is giving the past a future.”

    Visitors can tour the fully restored aircraft or take to the skies in one of them.

    Tours are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. Flights and flight training may be arranged by calling 800-568-8924.

    The planes will be on display from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday.

    For more information, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.