Sitting on a hard bench — half standing, really — I exchange glances with the young woman strapped in closely beside me.
I can tell she’s not sure what she’s gotten herself into, and although my heart is racing a bit, the certainty of my own mission is clear.
We’re surrounded by tubing and cables and an odd mix of military hardware, and the smell of aircraft exhaust hangs in the hot air.
Our ears are filled with the heavy hum of four powerful piston engines cranked up to near full throttle, and we wait.
We’re facing rearward toward a glass turret, while on each side a replica .50-caliber M2 Browning machine gun pokes out of a gaping rectangular opening that is unencumbered by glass.
It’s Monday afternoon, and we are at the end of Runway 25 at the Santa Barbara Airport, ensconced in the rear of a B-24J Liberator bomber, waiting for a trip in what aptly could be called a time machine.
As a child growing up, and in the ensuing years, I’d occasionally heard the stories from my father, who was a B-24 pilot in World War II, stationed in southern Italy.
I’d seen the posters on the wall, and the vintage black-and-white photographs, but they were from a time before I was born, one that never seemed quite real.
Like so many of his generation, my dad didn’t talk much about the war. He’d answer questions if asked, but he wasn’t one to bask in past glory.
We lost him last year, his body finally giving out after 92 years. A good life well lived, including answering the call of duty as so many of his generation did.
And now, here I am, given the chance to share an experience, in a very small way, that my dad had 70 years ago.
Soon the ground falls away, and we are cruising along the Santa Barbara coastline. The day couldn’t be more beautiful.
Unlike a commercial airliner, there is no real separation from the elements — the noise, the air, the smells are all right there in your face.
I can’t help but wonder what it was like for my dad and the crews who flew bombing missions against the German Nazis. Certainly their conditions were not this bucolic.
My dad was a young man in his early 20s — about my son’s age — when he answered the call of duty. It’s hard for me to imagine.
Once airborne, we are free to make our way around the cramped interior of the B-24. A narrow catwalk leads across the bomb bay toward the cockpit, where two pilots ably guide the vintage aircraft. I look over their shoulders at an instrument array full of gauges.
Next, I make my way, on hands and knees, to the bombardier’s glass turret, which offers perhaps the most spectacular view in the aircraft.
One of my fellow passengers — 91-year-old Larry Crandell, known widely as “Mr. Santa Barbara” — had recently regaled me with stories of his wartime service as a B-24 bombardier. He sits near the front of the aircraft, seemingly deep in thought.
The minutes are racing by as I make my way back toward the rear of the plane, feeling like I’m lost in another time. Then two bells ring, signaling us to quickly find our seats for landing.
I watch as the runway races up to meet our plane, and with a thump we are back on the ground and taxiing back toward the terminal.
I can’t help but think of my father — 1st Lt. Russell K. Bolton Jr. — and wonder what he would have thought of this flight of fancy.
I see his name painted on the outside of the B-24 along with his assignment — 484th Bomb Group, 827th Bomb Squadron.
I feel proud, and somehow know he’d be happy.
Ground tours will be available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday. The cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12.
World War II veterans can tour without charge.
Flights aboard the aircraft also available for a fee, which supports the efforts of the nonprofit Collings Foundation.
A 30-minute flight aboard the B-17 or B-24 is $450. Flights in the P-51 are $2,200 for 30 minutes or $3,200 for an hour.
Reservations and information on flight experiences are available by calling 800.568.8924.
Click here for information about The Collings Foundation and the Wings of Freedom Tour.