MANATEE -- The crowd of about 100 hugging the chain-linked barrier fence watched in silent awe Wednesday as a vintage P-51 Mustang first did a fly over, then glided into a perfect three-point landing at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Within minutes, the children and younger and older adults gathered along U.S. 301 were turning their heads to watch a large B-17 Flying Fortress, then a more massive B-24 Liberator flying in from the south make their way to the airport.
The three restored World War II aircraft will be on display at Rectrix Aerodrome Center, 8250 15th St. E., through Friday as part of the Wings of Freedom tour.
"It was wonderful to ride on it again," John Madison, 89, of Dade City, said when he got off the B-17 after flying with the crew from Zephyrhills where the bomber was on display earlier this week.
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Madison was a tech sergeant and ball gunner in a B-17 called Pleasure Bent when it was shot down with a crew of nine over Europe on his 13th mission.
"Shrapnel was preventing the hatch from opening and I was stuck in the bubble for two hours," he said of one of his experiences during his time in the Army Air Corps, then U.S Air Force, from 1942-44.
The crippled plane made a landing at the Sint-Truiden Air Base in Belgium and Madison was later assigned to the B-17 Luscious Lou to fly four more missions before the war ended.
He said the flight to the Sarasota-Bradenton airport was great and he was happy he had the opportunity to ride along.
"It was like old memories," Madison said. "You could feel the vibrations and the up and down of the wings was still the same."
Seeing the bombers and fighter plane fly over head, also brought back memories for Manatee County veteran Bill O'Brien, who fought in France and Germany.
"I was in the infantry during the war," O'Brien said, "and while sitting in the foxhole I would look up and see all the bombers fly over.
"I thought what a life they had" (compared to sitting in a foxhole with exploding artillery falling all around), the 88-year-old recalled, "until I found out later how many were shot down."
There were nine men in a crew and if 30 planes were shot down, that would be almost 300 men killed at one time, said O'Brien, who went into the Army in 1943 at the age of 18.
The former Manatee County teacher and principal of 24 years said he was writing a book about his war experiences called "Life of a Dogface: A World War II Combat Infantryman," and hopes it will be published in March.
For Mac McCauley, memories like these was one of the major reasons he has been flying the B-17 for the Wings of Freedom tour for 15 years.
"The biggest thing for me is meeting the veterans," said McCauley, who has more hours logged piloting the Flying Fortress than any other pilot with the organization.
"They bring their families out to show them what they did during the war," he said. "It's so great to see the expressions on their faces."
The Wings of Freedom tour has been the major focus of the Stow, Mass.-based Collings Foundation since 1989.
"The purpose is to organize and support a living history event that enables Americans to learn about our heritage and history through a direct experience," said Hunter Chaney, director of marketing for the foundation.
"Aviation has been one of the most effective methods to teach the people about history," Chaney said in relation to the foundation's focus on vintage aircraft.
And that was evident on Wednesday as several children climbed through the interior of the fuselage of the B-17 named Nine-O-Nine and B-24 called Witchcraft, fingering the machine guns and grabbing the handles used to navigate through the narrow, bare-bones space.
He said the tour has been coming to the Sarasota-Bradenton airport for more than 15 years.
"It always been so well received there," Chaney said. "The people there are so enthusiastic."