World War II planes make stop in Alexandria

Courtesy of The Town Talk
Written by: Jodi Belgard

Friends and neighbors John Setnicky and Robert McMahon sat at the picture window in the Million Air terminal at England Air Park swapping war stories and awaiting the arrival of three of the most famous airplanes ever to fly.

The men both are retired lieutenant colonels in the United States Air Force, and they both live at England Oaks. Setnicky is 79 and McMahon is soon to be 81.

"John was a '57 graduate of the Military Academy and I was a '57 graduate of the Naval Academy," McMahon said. "But we both turned traitor on their services and went into the Air Force."

The veterans waited for more than an hour before the planes came in -- first the P-51 Mustang, then the B-24 Liberator, and finally the B-17 Flying Fortress.

"We just want to take pictures," McMahon said. "We are products of war in 1932 and 1934, so we were young teenagers when World War II came about. I'm quite interested in the planes. They flew over our houses when we were growing up."

The World War II fighter planes are in Alexandria until Friday as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour sponsored by the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation in Stow, Mass., which is devoted to organizing living history events that allow people to learn more about their heritage and history through direct participation. The tour is in its 24th year, and the last time it was in Alexandria was about 20 years ago.

"We try to go to different places we haven't been to in a while," Wings of Freedom Ride Coordinator Andrew Meislin said. "There are a number of World War II veterans (in Alexandria) that we wanted to come to and honor and thank for their service, and we want to give people an opportunity to relive history."

The tour does about 110 stops a year seven days a week for 10 months straight. The Collings Foundation does it so future generations don't forget. People show up, Meislin said, to show appreciation to "the greatest generation."

"If they have kids who are 18, 19 or 20, those kids would be flying that thing right there," Meislin said, pointing to the B-24. "Today, you can't even fathom giving them the keys to your car."

Like Setnicky and McMahon, Springfield, Mo., resident Basil F. Hackleman was at the event simply to see the planes, though he was stationed at England Air Force Base for a few months during his service. He said he travels to the shows any time they're within 500 miles of him.

He was there mainly to see the B-17.

"I'm kind of an honorary member of the Collings Foundation," Hackleman said. "I flew the original 'Nine-O-Nine' B-17. It's just an unbelievable feeling. To start with, I got to make history -- bombing Germany, bombing Berlin -- and now I get to read about it."

Hackleman flew the original Nine-O-Nine in 15 missions in March and April 1944.

The tour allows visitors to take self-guided tours of the planes. Tours are $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. Ground tours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to noon Friday.

The tour also offers flight time -- $425 per person for a half-hour on the B-17 or B-24 and $2,000 for a half-hour and $3,200 for a full hour on the P-51. The B-24 on the tour is the last B-24 flying in the world. The half-hour flights are scheduled before and after the ground tours.