"Wings of Freedom Tour" at William R. Fairchild International Airport brings back some good memories for 85-year-old Sequim resident Hal Burch.
The annual nationwide tour of vintage World War II aircraft has made Clallam County a regular stop for the past several years because of people such as Burch, who flew one of this year's featured aircraft - the P-51 Mustang - in the last months of World War II.
"I was a young guy doing what I'd always dreamed of - flying," he said.
Burch moved to Sequim in 1989 and lives northwest of town with his wife, Nella, and his boxer Dusty.
He flew 35 missions in the P-51 Mustang long-range fighter from February 1945 until the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. Burch had three years of high school when he quit and began his flying career in the Civil Air Patrol in May 1941.
Then he enlisted as an Army Air Corps cadet in May 1942 when he turned 18. He made his first solo flight on Nov. 23, 1943, in Sikeston, Mo.
After graduating in the May 1944 Army Air Corps cadet class, he began training in the P-40 fighter, which he describes as "a good trainer." He'd never seen the P-51 until he arrived in Europe in February 1945.
"I had five hours flying time in it before I saw my first combat. I ruined my guns at first because I shot too much. I ended up in a great fighter group. We had a great commander, group leader, squadron leader and flight leader," Burch said.
"They're all gone now."
Only the first two of Burch's 35 missions were bomber escort. The rest involved strafing enemy aircraft on the ground. He didn't participate in air-to-air combat or "dogfighting."
When U.S. pilots saw a large grassy area surrounded by a lot of trees, they knew it was an airstrip, so they shot at the aircraft hidden in the trees, he said.
"I'm glad we didn't do more of those bomber escorts. They were sad to see. I have the utmost respect for those bomber boys.
"The anti-aircraft flak was the worst part. We would see it exploding and the bombers would fly right into it as we pulled off. It was disheartening to see," Burch said.
The strafing runs had their own dangers for the
fighter pilots, though. Burch said probably his worst experience was getting hit and losing his airplane's hydraulics and oxygen.
"Oh yeah, we were shot back at. We had a few holes. We lost a lot of pilots," he said.
His longest mission was eight hours, which required the airplane to be fitted with two 150-gallon fuel tanks beneath the wings.
The P-51 was the first fighter with enough range to escort bombers to their targets and back instead of turning back short of the target and leaving the bombers unprotected. That allowed daytime bombing raids
deep into Nazi territory to begin in late 1943.
"The P-51 was a fantastic aircraft. It did everything. It was great. We were lucky to have it. The P-51's only drawback was that its belly was full of radiators and pipes. If you got a bullet in there, you were done," he said.
After the war, Burch went home and started a business, got married, had a son. Then he received a letter that began with the familiar draft board salutation "Greetings."
Thus began what was to become a 20-year career in the military. He was sent to weapons director training, became a flight commander and then received a headquarters position, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
During his career, Burch flew monitoring aircraft along the West Coast from Canada to the Mexican border and 100 miles out into the Pacific, watching for Soviet bombers.
He also flew out of Taiwan during the Vietnam War, tracking fighters to ensure they avoided Chinese
Burch loves flying so much he built a Kitfox aircraft in his garage and used it to fly all over the area with his wife.
He's a member of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 430.
Reach Brian Gawley at bgawley@sequim
Wings of Freedom Tour
_ What: The Wings of Freedom Tour of the World War II vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang display
_ Where: William R. Fairchild International Airport, Port Angeles
_ When: 2 p.m. June 17 until noon June 19.
Ground tours will be from 2-5 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m.-
5 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m.-noon on Friday. Cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children 12 years old and younger.
The 30-minute tax-deductible flights are scheduled before and after the ground tours. They cost $425 per person aboard the B-17 or B-24 and P-51 flights are $2,200 for a half hour and $3,200 for an hour.
The Sequim Gazette is located at 147 W. Washington Street in Sequim.
Business hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Phone 360-683-3311, or toll free at 800-829-5810. FAX 360-683-6670.
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