William S. Pappas, 90, of North Wales, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Forces, will take to the skies above the Chester County G.O. Carlson Airport in Coatesville on Monday, weather permitting, for what might be considered his 53rd mission but this time as a passenger. His wife Nadia, 87, whom he married right after the war, and the couple's four children plan to be there to watch.
The war bird is owned and operated by the nonprofit Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass., which promotes "living history" by restoring historic aircraft so people can experience them firsthand. The organization spent five years and millions of dollars restoring the bomber, one of just two B-24s still flying today, to fighting trim.
The Collings Foundation offers roughly half-hour flights on its restored B-24 and B-17 to groups from six to 10 people for $425 per person. The bombers travel to more than 110 cities a year, along with a P-51 Mustang single-seat fighter plane. The foundation has nearly two dozen aircraft in its collection, ranging from the early days of aviation through the Vietnam War.
More than 18,000 of the heavy bombers were manufactured for the war effort. Though not as well-known as the B-17 "Flying Fortress," the B-24 could fly farther, faster and with a bigger bomb load than its larger rival.
After nine months of training stateside, "I went to Topeka, Kansas, and picked up the plane, they had me sign a piece of paper, handed me the keys and said, `OK it's yours," Pappas said with a laugh. "It was kind of like buying a used car." He arrived in Europe on D-Day and flew his first bombing mission over southern France.
A native of New York City, Pappas was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a bombing mission of German oil refineries, despite engine trouble and multiple air attacks by heavy fighters. In all, he participated in missions over enemy air fields, oil refineries, railroad yards and bridges in Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Italy.
"We had a saying: Once we got to the target, we were working for the government; once we dropped the bombs, we were working for ourselves," he said in a sitting room of his southeastern Pennsylvania home filled with B-24 books, videos, photos and a model hanging from the ceiling.
His family attributes his survival to his laid-back demeanor serving him well in the cockpit. Pappas, who doesn't like to brag about his service, said it was "mostly fortune" that brought him home safely - including the time when a piece of anti-aircraft flak hit his plane and landed, the shell still smoking, between him and his co-pilot.
Nadia Pappas said her husband had many such close calls, which she painstakingly documented in a cherished family scrapbook filled with photographs, military papers and newspaper articles.
"He did the flying, I did the gluing," she said with a laugh.