Before going down the journalist route, I actually considered aviation as a career -- either as a pilot or flight attendant. I just wanted to be in the sky.
I've always loved flying in airplanes, since I was a little girl.
I'm that person who has to sit on the plane's wing with a window seat, and whereas most people hope the plane won't hit turbulence, there's me ... crossing my fingers that it does. There's something about that "stomach sinking" sensation that excites me. The feeling of soaring through the sky, with spreading wings, is just amazing.
So when asked if I wanted to go on a flight in a World War II bomber plane, of course I couldn't turn down that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Kevin Ryan and Mick Hanou, co-organizers of the Livermore "Wings of Freedom" tour stop, were waiting for me at the Livermore Municipal Airport. And although it was 8:30 in the morning, I was ready and eager to get up in the sky.
Ryan, a Pleasanton pilot, flew us in his 1976 Cessna 182P to San Luis Obispo, where we were to meet the bomber planes. The flight was beautiful, and we even went through some wind toward the end of the flight, causing occasional plane drops (you could only imagine how big my smile was).
We arrived at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, where the "Wings of Freedom" tour was having one of its many stops around the United States, which also included Livermore this past weekend.
The tour, hosted by the Collings Foundation, allows the public to experience a "living history" lesson by touring the bomber planes. It's a tribute to the flight crews who flew them, the ground crews who maintained them, the workers who built them, the soldiers, sailors and airmen they helped protect, and the citizens and families who share the freedom they helped preserve.
Three planes were on display at the tour -- the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine," the Consolidated B-24 Liberator "Witchcraft" and the P-51 Mustang "Betty Jane."
Unfortunately "Betty Jane," the only one of its type in existence, was not an option for me to fly in. And "Nine O Nine," the most widely recognized aircraft from WWII and one of only eight still in flying condition, was experiencing maintenance issues.
So I was left with "Witchcraft," which flew in the skies of Europe and the Pacific as a strategic bomber during WWII. According to Hanou, the B-24 flew 130 combat missions, which is represented by the number of bombs painted on the side of the aircraft.
After signing a waiver, Ryan, Hanou and I grabbed some lunch while we waited for our flight aboard the B-24. We even met two WWII veterans who flew aboard the B-17 as a bombardier and navigator.
Almost three hours later, "Witchcraft" returned from one of its local 30-minute flights, and Hanou, six other people and I boarded the plane for our flight to Monterey.
I sat in the radioman's chair, located in the upper section of the aircraft behind the pilot and co-pilot. During WWII, the radio operator was in charge of giving position reports, assisting the navigator and informing headquarters of targets attacked.
The plane's engines started, and soon after, "Witchcraft" was up in the air and we were free to roam around the plane.
Because the flight was a bit noisy, Hanou motioned with his hands for us to make our way toward the lower nose of the plane to see where the navigator and bombardier sat during WWII missions.
In order to get to their positions, we had to crawl through a narrow space. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake since I'm only 4-foot-11, but it turned out to be harder than it seemed.
Once all the crawling was over, we still had to stand up and practically lift ourselves into the nose of the plane.
But the challenging part, for me at least, was actually standing up. The area where I would naturally place my foot to stand up was painted in bright red with a "DO NOT STEP" warning -- this was one of the bottom plane doors that would automatically open when pressure was applied.
So I sat up on my left knee and lifted my right leg to place it on the floor above the red doors, and pulled myself into the plane's nose.
From there, I made my way straight to the navigator's seat, which was surrounded by a small Plexiglas dome, just forward of the cockpit.
I sat down and was just in awe.
Unfortunately we had to fly through the valley to Monterey, so looking at all the farmland below wasn't that exciting, but imagining and knowing about all that was going on during WWII and what these plane crews had to fly through was quite the experience.
After the navigator's seat, I decided to try out the bombardier's seat, which proved to be not so comfortable.
Because the B-24's main purpose was to bomb targets, the bombardier had the most important job; the targeting of aerial bombs. The bombardier used the Norden bombsight to aid in dropping bombs accurately -- which depended on altitude, true airspeed, bomb ballistics, air density and drift caused by lateral winds.
As I sat in the bombardier's seat, I had to uncomfortably hunch over to look through the bombsight.
I felt like I was in biology class, with my left eye squinted, looking through this little telescope-like eyeglass to see everything below the aircraft ... it was awesome.
My shoulders and back started getting sore from hunching so I decided to make my way toward the waist and tail of "Witchcraft."
And once again, I had to crawl my way back and entered the aircraft's bomb bay -- the part of the plane that carried the bombs.
In order to get to the waist of the plane, you had to walk through the bomb bay which had this one-foot-wide "catwalk" in the center. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong. On both sides of the "catwalk" were (once again) those doors that open at the bottom.
During WWII, the bomb bay doors would open and bombs would drop when over a target.
I'm an adventurous person, but the thought of accidentally stepping on one of the bomb bay doors scared me a little.
Holding onto a rope, which I'm sure wasn't there for the crewmen, I slowly walked along the catwalk, using my ballerina core muscles to keep balance while the plane went through some windy spots.
Soon enough, I made it to the waist of the B-24!
Prior to the flight, one of the tour volunteers said the waist of the aircraft was the place to be for a breathtaking view. And it was.
At the waist of the plane were two open windows for the waist gunner, whose primary duty was to defend the aircraft.
In the B-24, there was only one waist gunner who controlled two .50-caliber machine guns, one on each side of him. I tried my best attempt at the job, opened my arms and grabbed onto the machine guns, aiming at certain areas in the sky. It was challenging.
I also began to realize that the waist gunner was positioned right in front of the open window, making him susceptible to incoming bullets and frostbite.
Prior to the flight, Ryan and Hanou noted that the crewmen wore layers of clothing, which included an electrically heated undergarment that they would connect to one of the plane's electric plugs for heat.
As I was trying to maneuver the machine guns, I also realized that the waist gunner had to be careful to avoid aiming toward the plane's tail.
After my waist gunner experience, I decided to check out where the tail gunner sat. The tail gunner's job was to defend against enemy fighter attacks from the rear. Like the navigator, the tail gunner was surrounded by a small dome of Plexiglas, and it had a great view.
After almost an hour, a bell rang signaling us to get strapped back in our seats for landing.
As "Witchcraft" taxied down Monterey Jet Center's runway, all I could thing about was how I just flew in a piece of history.
Now, I have never been a history-fanatic, but walking and crawling around in the B-24 made me really appreciate our nation's history even more. I was able to connect what I learned from textbooks with my new-found knowledge of what these airmen did, experiencing a true "living history" lesson that I will never forget.