Wings of Freedom Tour
Jun 27, 2016 10:57AM
● By Elena Hutslar
Don Carlson reminiscing in the familiar nose section of a B-17. Photo by Sean Liming
Local veteran Don Carlson took a short flight back in history when he sat at the controls of a B-17 bomber, identical to the one he flew in WWII. Carlson was a guest of the Wings to Freedom Tour on a flight from Napa to Concord for its exposition at Buchanan Field in early June. He was just 20 years old when he served as the lead bombardier of the 15th Air Force, stationed in Bari, Italy. On a recent flight, Carlson kept asking himself, “Did I really do this – zero in on critical targets, such as oil refineries and railroad yards, on 24 missions at high altitude? Another thing I thought about was how lucky I was that none of the bursting anti-aircraft gun shells hit me or our plane.” Carlson’s friend Rich Radigonda said, “This was a lot of responsibility for a 20-year-old.” Radigonda, a docent on the USS Hornet, docked in Alameda, arranged for Carlson’s flight with Wings of Freedom.
When parked on the tarmac, engines roaring, the B-17 seemed the same as in 1944 -1945, Carlson noted. “I climbed through the plane ‘window’ mid-ship using a step-ladder. The walk forward toward the bombardier’s seat in the Plexiglass nose was a little challenging, as it wasn’t easy to maneuver around and/or under two or three structures.” Exiting the plane on the ladder wasn’t much easier. “It’s sort of an obstacle course if you’re not 19 or 20 years old,” he said.
The B-17, B-25, and B-24 were the backbone of the American effort during the war from 1942 to 1945. They were famous for their ability to sustain damage and still accomplish the mission.
Radigonda added, “His squadron is the only one I know of that was protected by the famous Tuskegee Airmen.” The Tuskegee Airmen is the popular name for the African-American military pilots who fought in World War II. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
The Wings of Freedom Tour travels the nation as a flying tribute to the flight crews who flew them, the ground crews who maintained them, the workers who built them, the soldiers, sailors and airmen they helped protect, and the citizens and families that share the freedom they helped preserve.
Photo: Don Carlson reminiscing in the familiar nose section of a B-17. By Sean Liming
For more information about the Wings of Freedom tour, contact Hunter Chaney at [email protected] or 800-568-8924.