With props whirling and flaps extended, a B-25J Mitchell touched down at Yellowstone Regional Airport on Monday. The twin-engine bomber was the first of a four-plane formation to touch down in Cody as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour.
A B-17G, B-24J, and P-51D were all on display for three days. Flights were offered to interested visitors. The fly-in was made possible by the Collings Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving historic aircraft and vehicles.
Founded in 1979, the foundation now boasts a considerable collection of historic cars, tanks, planes and other vehicles. One of their biggest outreaches is the Wings of Freedom Tour, comprised of the four aircraft that visited Cody. The tour runs for 10 months out of the year and touches down in over 120 cities. The planes are survivors of not just the military, but also varied civilian careers. B-25 co-pilot Mike Foster explained how many aircrafts’ fate were determined.
“Whether they got sold or scrapped often depended on whether they could be converted for civilian use,” he said. “The B-25 and B-17 were pretty useful in transport, firefighting, and passenger flights, but the B-24 didn’t find near as many users. That’s why there aren’t many left.”
In a way, each aircraft on display has two histories, the history of the plane itself, and the tale of the plane it is painted to represent.
The B-25J Mitchell on display is painted to represent “Tondelayo.” On a mission in 1943, the crew of “Tondelayo” escaped a squadron of 50 Japanese Zeroes, shooting down five and forcing four more to crash. A crash landing ultimately destroyed the original aircraft in May of 1945 but its legacy lives on, embodied by the aircraft on display.
Mitchell 44-48932 was built in 1944 and used as a trainer during the waning months of the war. Sold into private hands, the plane did service as a fire-bomber until its purchase by the Collings Foundation in 1985. Despite undergoing extensive repairs after crashing at a 1987 air show, the bomber is still airworthy and tours the country, painted in the colors of “Tondelayo.”
The Collings Foundation also flies one of the increasingly rare B-24 bombers. Painted in the colors of “Witchcraft,”a bomber that flew 180 missions during the European bombing campaign, The B-24J on display possesses a unique history itself.
Sold to the British, the aircraft saw service in India. Abandoned in a bomber graveyard after the war, the plane was spruced up by the Indian Air Force and flew 30 more years.
Falling into disrepair once again, the plane ultimately passed into private hands. The old 24 made a multi-continent trip by helicopter, ship, and truck on its’ return to America. Following an extensive restoration, it is now the only true flying example of a B-24 remaining in the world, Foster said.
The Colling’s Foundation’s B17G is painted to represent “Nine-O-Nine,” Another plane used in the European bombing campaign. The crew of the bomber completed 140 missions without losing any personnel, a record for their unit. “Nine-O-Nine” was ultimately scrapped at the end of the war.
The B-17 operated by Collings was built and delivered too late to see combat in World War II. No longer needed by the Army, the B-17 was subjected to the effects of three nuclear explosions during tests. It sat, “cooling off” for thirteen years before being sold for scrap, according to the foundation website.
It wasn’t the end for the B-17, however. Its next calling would be as a fire bomber. The plane was patched together and used in firefighting operations for 20 years. The aircraft was finally purchased by Collings and restored to wartime configuration.
The plane’s air show career has been more hazardous than any of its previous adventures. It had to be repaired after two crash landings.
A fairly recent addition to the Collings fleet is a TF-51D. Built for training purposes, it is a twin-seat version of the famed P-51 Mustang. The aircraft displayed by Collings is unique in that it is indeed the same plane it is painted to represent. “Toulouse Nuts” served with the Virginia Air National Guard as a trainer . It’s now a show bird, touring the nation.
Mark Todd flew the TF-51 into Cody.
“This plane is unique in that it is original,” he said. “Most of the ones that had history were never brought home and destroyed overseas.”
Each aircraft in the exhibition was painstakingly restored down to the rivets. The planes on display also featured unique nose art, reproduced from pictures of the original planes.
The planes are operated every summer by volunteer aviators, many of whom made their career as commercial pilots. Their next stop on the tour was Casper, starting Wednesday.