On Christmas Day of 1944, Don VanderBoegh watched and mourned as Allied aircraft fell from the sky during the Battle of the Bulge.
"It was a pretty sad deal," recalled VanderBoegh, who had been an aviation cadet before serving as an infantryman during the historic battle.
But the veteran had the chance to look at a B-17 Flying Fortress from a different, better angle Wednesday. He watched from the back of a golf cart as people of all ages explored two World War II era aircraft at Midwest Aviation in Paducah.
"It brings a lot of memories back," he said.
A few yards away, Chuck Heyduck, a Korean War veteran, and wife Marjorie scanned a B-24 Liberator for the name of Heyduck's brother-in-law, Don Geary, a World War II pilot from Centralia, Illinois. He passed away about 10 years ago, Heyduck said, but had always been proud of his service. They found Geary's name inscribed among many others near the nose of the plane.
The planes - including a P-51 Mustang, which had yet to arrive Wednesday afternoon - are visiting Paducah through Friday as part of the Collings Foundation's nationwide Wings of Freedom Tour, now in its 25th year.
The nonprofit foundation aims to promote aviation's living history and the remembrance of U.S. veterans, according to its website at collingsfoundation.org. Plane tours, which cost $12 for adults and $6 for kids under 12, allow attendees an up-close look at the three historic aircraft.
"Keeping this history alive - that's basically why we do 110 stops a year," said Mac McCauley, a pilot with the organization.
In touring the planes, "you get a good feeling of what those kids went through. They were only about 19 years old. Think about that. That was a heck of a responsibility," he added.
McCauley had just finished flying over Paducah in the foundation's B-17 bomber, which appears at air shows under the name "Nine-O-Nine." It was built at Long Beach, California, and accepted in 1945 - too late for combat, but in time to serve as part of the Air/Sea 1st Rescue Squadron.
Its name honors another B-17 that was assigned to combat in February 1944 and flew 140 combat missions during the war without loss to its crews. For that reason, the Nine-O-Nine was considered one of the luckiest planes in the Eighth Air Force, McCauley said.
He added that the foundation's B-24J is the only restored and flying B-24J in the world. Like the B-17, its cramped, comfortless quarters were once occupied by crews of 10.
The Collings Foundation also offers flight training in its P-51C Mustang, billed as one of the most recognizable fighters from World War II. A 30-minute flight costs $2,200 in that aircraft, while rides on the larger planes cost $450.
The veterans visiting the airfield Wednesday said they weren't planning on climbing inside and ducking through the planes. VanderBoegh was content to sit and wait for the "whooshing, whiny sound" of the Mustang's engine - that was the plane he'd always wanted to fly, he said - while fellow World War II veteran James Graves took in the exterior of the B-17.
Graves said he was in the Navy and never flew anything larger than an observation plane. He said he admires the B-17's firepower. But most of all, he looks up to the young men who risked - and sometimes lost - their lives fighting in the war.
"They gave this country back to us. We could have lost it, sure as anything. But they didn't give up," he said.
The planes will be available to tour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. to noon Friday. Veterans tour for free. To book a flight in advance, call 800-568-8924, or visit collingsfoundation.org for more information.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.
Want to go?
What: Wings of Freedom Tour.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today; 9 a.m. to noon Friday.
Where: Midwest Aviation at Barkley Regional Airport, 200 Hardy Roberts Drive, West Paducah.
Admission to tour the B-17, B-24 and P-51 costs $12 for adults and $6 for children. Flights in the B-17 and B-24 cost $450, while a flight in the P-51 costs $2,200 and includes the chance to take the controls.
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