I hate the very idea of war. Violence, guns, bombs — situations in which people equally devoted to their cause (or drafted into fighting) shoot or bomb and kill or wound each other — nothing about that is appealing.
So why do I remain enamored with military aircraft? It has something to do with flying, I suppose, the majesty of the big birds in flight. I grew up looking at pictures, watching newsreels, seeing movies that featured heavy bombers and I learned their names: the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator, the B-29 Superfortress. Then there were the smaller, faster fighters, too many to list, but all with catchy monikers: Buffaloes and Mustangs, Tomahawks and Warhawks, Thunderbolts and Lightnings, Wildcats and Tigercats, Bearcats and Hellcats — and all of them had teeth.
I built scale models as a boy and even as a young man. Once I filled two shop windows with a diorama featuring carefully painted warbirds. There were dogfights in flight and planes on the ground, most pockmarked with bullet holes and flak damage, greasy trails across the wings behind each engine. Little painted soldiers scurried about, working to repair the damage and get the planes back in the air.
There was nothing little about the men who flew the planes, though, or those who manned the guns and various stations inside. They were young, most of them; scared, some of them; and in danger, all of them. Thousands of them were killed or wounded, shot down behind enemy lines and captured, left with memories that haunted them for life. But they did what needed to be done for the cause of freedom.
I guess that’s one of the reasons I wanted to go see an old B-17f that’s still airworthy when it came through recently. Operated by the Liberty Foundation and painted in the colors of the famed “Memphis Belle,” the plane and its pilots are currently on tour: I was able to catch them over the weekend at the Sanford-Lee County Airport. Folks more enthusiastic than I signed up for 30-minute flights at $450 a pop: I was happy enough, with camera in hand, to watch the plane take off and fly, land and taxi and rev its engines.
I still don’t like thoughts of war, of bullets and bombs that tend to be indiscriminate and kill young innocents as well as wily fighters. I particularly don’t like wars that are unnecessary. Even so, I can’t help but admire the brave men and women who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way in service to their country, whether flying a B-17 over Germany, jockeying a Huey helicopter in Vietnam, or driving a humvee along the dusty roads of Afghanistan.
They deserve a salute.