Jim Brahos may be 90 years old, but the memory of his brush with death aboard a B-24 bomber during World War II stays as fresh as this morning's breakfast.
"A piece of flak came into the plane and missed my neck by inches," said Brahos, an Army Air Corps tailgunner, "but it cut my oxygen hose. I was about ready to pass out when one of the crew came along with some oxygen. I saved that piece of flak. It's now in a frame on the wall in my bedroom."
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Expert talks about warbirds in filmsAndrew Meislin eats, breathes and sweats warbirds, vintage military aircraft of the sort that landed at Wheeling's Chicago Executive Airport Saturday as part of a national "Wings of Freedom" tour.
Meislin is a volunteer and flight manager for the Collings Foundation, the tour's sponsor. So he's the perfect guy to name the best movies that depict the most realistic use of World War II bombers and fighter planes.
"Probably the best movies would include 'Twelve O'Clock High,' 'Memphis Belle,' 'War Lover' and maybe 'Tora Tora Tora,'" he said. "They actually used the original aircraft to make those movies."
These days, movies are going toward digital replications that don't ring true, he said.
He cited George Lucas' production of "Red Tails."
"Great movie, but there wasn't a single honest aircraft used in that movie," said Meislin, who grew up in Hawaii. "These planes are becoming so priceless, it's not feasible to chop one up to make a film now."
OK, so what's the appeal of bringing vintage military aircraft to the public?
"It's flying in a plane that's 70 years old and every time you start it up, it just gives you chicken skin," he said. "There isn't a guy that you'll meet who isn't going to appreciate the roar of a World War II aircraft starting up and taking off."
He said the United States is one of the few countries that allows the public to see and ride in military aircraft. A volunteer from England came to help the tour just so he could experience flying in World War II planes.
"No matter how much money he could pay, he can't do that in Europe," Meislin said. "It's illegal. The fact that we get to do it day in and day out in America is pretty special."
So why did the piece of flak miss the Beach Park resident on one of his 17 bombing missions? Luck? Divine intervention?
"It didn't have my number," Brahos said. "There were many times I thought I would never make it back, but here I am."
And there he was, standing next to a fully operational B-24 bomber on display at Saturday's Wings of Freedom Tour at Wheeling's Chicago Executive Airport. Area residents joined visitors from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other places to eyeball the B-24 Liberator, a P-51 Mustang fighter and a B-17 Flying Fortress.
Tours inside the plane cost $12 for adults, $6 for kids. but for a bit more money, $425, a select few could take a half-hour ride in the B-24 or B-17 over Lake Michigan and Chicagoland. A ticket on the P-51 came a little pricier: $2,200 per half-hour; $3,200 per hour.
Alex Kwiatkowski got to ride the Mustang as a birthday present from his mom and dad, Kenneth and Madeline of Wheaton.
Alex, an aviation major at Lewis University, already has flown Cessnas, and his parents thought that piloting a P-51 along with veteran pilot and Arlington Heights native Stu Eberhardt would be the perfect gift for his 20th birthday. (Eberhardt left Arlington Heights at age 18 to join the U.S. Airforce.)
A ride aboard the B-24 Witchcraft was also a 50th birthday gift to private pilot Dave MacDonald of Wheeling from his family.
Bob Franz of Elk Grove Village had a slightly different take on the Wings of Freedom Tour.
"This is history standing right here in front of us!" he said, not far from where people flocked around the two bombers. Franz, a radio and radar mechanic for the army during the Korean War, said, "I love planes. What can I say?"
Tom Coombs, a 74-year-old Rolling Meadows resident and former Army signal corps member, agreed. "I have a passion for anything about flying," he said. "I come to these things whenever they are."
The planes arrived in Wheeling from Racine carrying 12 Wisconsin veterans after bad weather postponed the flights from Friday night.
Proceeds from the tour go to the Collings Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1979 to support "living history" events involving transportation.
The group originally concentrated on automobiles but expanded into other forms of transportation.
Wheeling's Chicago Executive Airport was filled with people who obviously were glad it did.
A euphoric Alex Kwiatkowski stepped out of the P-51 after his half-hour of flight.
"That's an incredible experience!" he shouted. "Nothing else like it!"
Eberhardt declared him to be "a born fighter pilot."
Meanwhile, a short distance away, Jim Brahos eyed the B-24 with dubious eyes.
Why not take the bomber up once more for old time's sake?
"No," Brahos said. "I don't ever want to go up again."
He paused. "You never know."