Friday, February 17, 2012

Leesburg International Airport (KLEE), Florida: Aloft on the wings of war

Paul Phillips of Tavares, who flew on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in World War II, shares his memories with guests on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012, at the Leesburg International Airport.

World War II prisoner of war Paul Phillips was among hundreds of spectators whose eyes were fixed on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine" as the vintage bomber flew into the Leesburg International Airport Wednesday afternoon.

"I love that aircraft," said the 88-year-old from Tavares, who was a staff sergeant and belly gunner underneath in the ball turret of his own B-17 when it was shot down July 1944 in Germany.

He recalled not being aware the plane had been hit by enemy fire until it was engulfed in flames.

"It was time to get out of my turret, put my parachute on and get out of there," Phillips said. "And when I got out, the rest of the crew had bailed out. We were flying at 25,000 feet and I knew there was a (bombing) wave coming in behind us, so I delayed my parachute until I got down to the clouds and pulled my chute, because I didn't know how far the ground was underneath the clouds."

After he landed, he saw a sergeant.

"He was shaking as bad as I was," Phillips said. "When they bombed from the second wave, he shoved me down on the ground. In fact, he saved my life."

Phillips also believes he was "lucky" after he was captured as a prisoner of war, where he served 318 days at a German POW camp. "The people that ran the camp were not rough with us," he said.

Following World War II, Phillips also served in Korea in 1952-53 and Vietnam in 1968-69.

"I was very, very fortunate," Phillips said. "I've been through three wars and never got a scratch."

His affection for the B-17 has never waned over the years. He visits the Leesburg International Airport each time Collings Foundation's "Wings of Freedom Tour" comes to town for a chance to see the B-17 on display, which is only one of 10 in flying condition in the United States.

"It's just beautiful; the wings are so sturdy," Phillips said, gazing at the bomber.

In his own B-17, he remembers serving 125 combat hours in the air.

"We flew from England to Russia to Italy and back to England 7,000 miles and bombed each way," Philips said. "It was a very solid aircraft. It was very hard to shoot down, but I saw a lot of them go down."

The North American P-51 Mustang and Consolidated B-24 Liberator also are included in the tour.

Phillips encourages veterans and younger generations to see the vintage war planes noted as the backbone of the American effort during the war from 1942 to 1945.

"This is great; the younger ones should know it," Phillips said, adding the tour provides a valuable living history experience.

The tour continues today and Friday.


What: Collings Foundation's "Wings of Freedom Tour," featuring a World War II Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator and North American P-51 Mustang.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today; 9 a.m. to noon Friday

Where: Leesburg International Airport, located at Main Ramp, Airport Blvd., Leesburg.

Attractions: World War II veterans can tour the inside of the aircraft for free, while the cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children. Discounted rates for school groups are available. Visitors may also take a 30-minute flight aboard the aircraft. Flights on either the B-17 or B-24 are $425 per person. P-51 flights are $2,200 for a half hour and $3,200 for a full hour. For reservations and information on flight experiences call 800-568-8924.

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