World War II-era planes land in Keystone Heights
Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 12:13 a.m.
The air stirred, and the silhouette of Sonny Tenly's childhood appeared on the horizon.
"Here he comes," said Tenly, 70, straining to see the approaching B-24 against the low gray clouds. "Here he comes."
When Tenly was growing up, B-24 Liberators were stationed at what was then the Keystone Army Airfield. He remembers hearing the World War II bombers buzz over Starke, and said they represent a piece of the rural community's heritage, not to mention the country's history.
Monday afternoon, a B-24 Liberator - the last fully operational B-24 in the world - landed at what is now the Keystone Heights Airport for the first time since the planes' World War II heyday.
"Sort of gives you goose bumps, doesn't it?" said Keystone Heights-based pilot Laura Riggs, 68, as the plane touched the ground.
Later Monday afternoon, a B-17 Flying Fortress landed next to the B-24, and several other planes were expected to join the vintage bombers today. The visit is one of 130 stops on the nationwide Wings of Freedom Tour sponsored by the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on historic preservation.
The event, which will include tours of the planes, air shows and even plane rides for those willing to foot a $420 donation to the Collings Foundation, comes as the Keystone Heights Airport works to open its own aviation history museum.
Groundbreaking for the Wings of Dreams Warbird Restoration Center and Aviation Museum will coincide with the vintage planes' visit.
Bob Oehl, executive director of the museum, said the Collings Foundation tour and the museum's groundbreaking pay homage to an important part of the area's history.
"From a historical perspective, looking at what the Keystone Heights Airport is now and looking at what it came from as an Army air base, this is very significant to veterans and residents of this area," said Oehl, a volunteer pilot with the Collings Foundation who operates a flight school at the Keystone Heights Airport.
The planes' presence this week was a big deal for present-day Keystone Heights, too, with the Monday afternoon landings drawing more than 100 people to the airport.
"This is probably the biggest thing to happen to Keystone Heights since World War II," said Phil Newman, 84, who flew B-24s in Europe in World War II. "It's funny - we used to see them all the time, every day, and think nothing of it."
Hundreds of schoolchildren and others are expected to attend the Wings of Freedom event today. Newman and other members of the Decrepit Birdmen, a group of former combat airmen, will be on hand to share stories about a time when the now-vintage planes filled the skies.
"When they're gone, the curtain comes down," Newman said. "As long as we're here and they're operating, we know that part of history hasn't been forgotten."
Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088.
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