Charlie Taylor crouched low under the belly of a World War II-era B-24 Liberator plane and handed his cane to the pilot above.
Then the 95-year-old veteran climbed into the cockpit of the bomber – the same model he captained in the war. His hands shook as he pulled himself up into the pilot’s chair.
Suddenly, 75 years melted away from Taylor’s face, and he grinned wide.
“This is great,” he said, looking around at the stark interior. The plane wasn’t built for comfort, and the exposed pipes and steel inside are just the way Taylor remembers them. “I love it. I’m glad they keep these old airplanes going.”
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Taylor, who lives in a retirement community in Raleigh, checked out the B-24 on Thursday at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Four World War II-era bomber and fighter planes are at the airport through Sunday as part of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour, and visitors can pay to tour or fly in the aircraft.
A scheduling conflict with the plane prevented Taylor from soaring into the skies Thursday, but he said he’s “just about done” with flying, anyway. Since 2008, he has flown with nearly all of his children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren in the Collings Foundation B-24.
Taylor grew up in Middlesex, a small Nash County town about 30 miles east of Raleigh. When he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, he’d never so much as sat in an airplane. He was 19 years old and, as he put it, “about as world traveled as an oak tree.”
After training, the farm boy and a 10-member crew were sent to Italy. Within five months, Taylor had flown on 50 missions.
“I didn’t want to say after the war that I didn’t do anything,” Taylor said. “But I was frightened to death of being in the infantry, I didn’t want to be on a ship, and I didn’t think I was tough enough to be a Marine, so I thought the air might be the safest place to be. All I really knew is I didn’t want to be crawling around in the mud.”
But Taylor knew flying a B-24 was risky. The bomber had a reputation for catching fire and losing fuel, and it would sink within 12 seconds if it crashed in water. Every time Taylor and his crew went on a mission in the plane, they had a 25 percent chance of returning.
He remained willfully unworried.
“I guess I was just too dumb to be bothered,” Taylor said. “I have seen my share of airplanes going down, some just going out of control, some parachutes coming out and others that didn’t, but I never lost any sleep. I always took the attitude that I could just see myself going back home.”
Taylor said he and his crew bombed oil refineries and railroad yards, tearing holes into boxcars and ripping apart rail lines. He flew missions surrounded by hundreds of enemy aircraft and walked past newly empty tents every time he came back to base.
On one mission, he said, all four engines on his B-24 quit over Germany.
“We were coming off a target and then everything, boom, went down,” he said. “And suddenly I was flying a glider.”
With the Alps between the aircraft and home base, Taylor struggled to keep the plane at a high-enough altitude while the engineer scrambled to fix the problem. Taylor later received the Distinguished Flying Cross for keeping the bomber in the air and his crew safe.
“When he got those four engines going again, that was a sweet sound,” he said.
Taylor was often the only Southerner in his flight crew, and the others never let him forget it. They made fun of him for wearing a heated flying suit in the plane and teased him about the way he talked.
“They thought we Southerners were all just ignorant hillbillies,” Taylor said. “Maybe I was, I don’t know. But I was still the pilot.”
Jokes aside, when it came time for a mission the crew made it clear they liked having Taylor at the controls. Those who trained with him in the United States asked to be permanently assigned to his bomber. At 22, Taylor was one of the oldest crew members on the plane.
“I hope it’s because they thought I was going to bring them back,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it or not, but I was there and I had to do it, so I did.”
On Thursday, Taylor swapped stories with the B-24 tour pilot. He talked about the piece of a German shell he kept after it landed behind his seat in the cockpit. One time he flew the plane too high and its wings started to flap like a bird’s.
It was cold in those drafty planes, Taylor said. But he always felt lucky to be in the cockpit, because the gunners in the back had to sit next to open gun wells with 160-mph winds.
Taylor smiled at the memories of himself as a younger man. His granddaughter, Robbie Higdon, said she couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to fly a B-24 in war.
“It’s little more than a tin can on wheels,” she said. “I truly realized what a scary thing it must have been to pilot the plane and be responsible for the lives of your crew.”
After Taylor climbed out of the bomber, he looked up fondly at the old plane and touched its side. Behind him, the thunderous thrum of another antique plane’s engine began to pulse.
“It’s strange,” he said. “Strange how you remember little things. I really do wonder how we did it. I hope we don’t do it again.”
Autumn Linford writes stories for The News & Observer. Email her at email@example.com.
Want to go?
The Wings of Freedom Tour includes the B-24 Liberator and three other World War II aircraft – a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-25 Mitchell, and a P-51D Mustang. The tour will be at RDU through Sunday, Oct, 22.
The cost to tour the four planes, inside and out, is $15 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Half-hour flights on either the B-17 or B-24 are $450 per person, while B-25 flights are $400 per person. The chance to co-pilot the P-51D fighter is $2,200 for a half hour and $3,200 for a full hour.
For reservations and information about the flights, call 800-568-8924.