TAIL-GUNNER Rex Carson scans the horizon. Suddenly, an enemy fighter drops out of nowhere, guns blazing. Tracer bullets streak past him, but Carson licks his lower lip and aims his machine gun. He calmly squeezes the trigger, and the wing of the enemy plane bursts into flames. "Got 'im," Carson says, his voice drowned out by the drone of the bomber's powerful engines - ta-pocketa, pocketa, pocketa, pocketa....
"So, you're working on an article about this?" a passenger asks, yanking a reporter back from Walter Mitty land.
The B-24 "Liberator" bomber on which we are flying lends itself to heroic fantasies. But for many of the people who come to see the plane and its companion, a B-17 "Flying Fortress," on their round-the-country tour this year, the thoughts they conjure up are sometimes grim memories.
Carl Clark, a former major in the United States 8th Air Force, recalls a B-17 mission he piloted on May 24, 1944. His group lost about 60 planes that day. "I got a lot of damage," he recalls, "123 holes in the plane. But not a man was hit, and no vital parts were hit."
"My guardian angel was with us that day," says Major Clark, who is now one of the pilots bringing these pieces of flying history to the public.
The goal of the tour, sponsored by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass., is educational. At tour stops here, many visitors are veterans of bombing runs or plane-building. Others are airplane buffs or families lured by the planes' history.
Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was a B-29 "Superfortress," which came out late in the war. The B-17 and B-24 were the workhorses that flew most American wartime missions.
The planes faced plenty of opposition from Nazi and Japanese fighter planes, as well as from antiaircraft gunners firing flak (shells designed to explode at a specific altitude). Early in 1944 the Allies put a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine into the P-51 fighter, which gave the plane enough range to accompany bombers all the way to their targets and fend off attacking planes. "It turned the tide," says Joe Huth of Seattle, who flew on both bomber types, also for the 8th Air Force in Europe.
Even when the German air force withered, "you always had to sweat out the bomb run," Mr. Huth says. On a run, planes had to stay on a straight course and so were easier targets.
THE B-17 was known for its ability to return to base even if only one of its four engines was still operating. The Liberator, designed by Consolidated Aircraft, also has plenty of fans. "My pilot always said he'd rather fly a B-24," says Phil Robertson, who was navigator on a mission that hit German jet-aircraft production facilities in 1944. His plane was hit during the raid, and he and the rest of the 10-man crew bailed out. They were captured and spent eight months in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Pat Barton of Issaquah, Wash., another visitor, was among the many women who inspected the bombers as they came off the Boeing assembly line in Seattle at the rate of nine or so a day.
"The activity in the shops was beyond imagination," recalls Don Wilson, who worked two summers in high school as a "rivet bucker." His task was to hold a steel bar on one side of the plane's aluminum skin to stop the rivets shot by a co-worker on the other side. "It was all done by feel and getting to know each other," Mr. Wilson says.
From here, the planes tour the Midwest and then the East Coast. They started this year's tour in Florida and have already traversed the South and West Coast.
This B-24 is the only restored Liberator now flying, according to the Collings Foundation. Seven B-17s are still airworthy, and another is being restored at the Boeing assembly plant in Everett, Wash.
The nonprofit foundation, which is still trying to recover restoration costs as well as the $2,000-an-hour operating expenses, invites small donations from visitors ($7 for an adult). Much of the work on the planes is done by volunteers.
While visitors can watch the planes fly by and go inside once the bombers land, more-generous donors can get a spot on board during flights.
B-24 passenger Andrew Baudino was at the Tacoma Narrows airport four years ago to see the planes, "and I just said, 'How can I fly on this?' " The Spanaway, Wash., resident has contributed $2,800 to the restoration project since then, building toward the $5,000 mark that will earn him lifetime flying and guest privileges.
This day's flight from Bremerton to Seattle is Mr. Baudino's fourth trip on the plane. "This is the best one," he declares triumphantly as the two planes roar over Puget Sound in close formation.
After a low flyby of Boeing Field in Seattle, we land with a bump that leaves the smell of rubber. And nostalgia.
FIRST-HAND OBSERVATIONS ON FLYING IN A B-24
*First, there's lots of noise, which thwarted this reporter's naive expectation of conducting in-flight interviews.
*On takeoff, some crew members sit on a hard floor, strapped in with crude seat belts.
*The plane is compact, with little room for anything but essential personnel and equipment. A narrow bridge across the bomb bay lets the crew walk the length of the plane.
*At high altitudes, the plane is cold: There is only the thinnest of aluminum sheeting between you and the outside. (On our flight, we stayed low.) Breezy openings on either side of the fuselage aft of the wings offered the best views, despite the machine guns pointing out both sides.
*Small-plane pilots knew where to find us. They swarmed around the bombers like bees.
*Peering back from the nose of the plane, I could see the pilot's feet pushing pedals that help control the plane. Connected to the pedals are oily chains that look like bicycle chains. But such simple technology does not bother John Owen, one of the regular pilots. "If you get stuck somewhere, you can fix it with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers," he says, only half jokingly. Yet "in its day, it was high technology."
* The planes were scheduled to be in Janesville, Wis., through tomorrow. After that, the bombers will visit Kenosha, Wis., and Milwaukee, then Valparaiso and South Bend, Ind. For more information, write or call: The Collings Foundation, Box 248, Stow, Mass., 01775 Tel: (508) 568-8924.