DESTIN — The Wings of Freedom Tour landed its collection of World War II airplanes at Destin Executive Airport on Friday to the enthusiastic welcome of aviation enthusiasts and history buffs young and old.
The tour is the work of the nonprofit Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation, which preserves and exhibits artifacts of American history. The foundation will show off its B-24 Liberator bomber, B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter plane at the airport through Sunday.
Among the special guests for Friday's opening was 99-year-old John Beard of Fort Walton Beach, who rode one of the bombers into Destin from the tour's earlier stop in Panama City. A World War II veteran, Beard flew 105 missions in a B-25 Mitchell bomber during three consecutive tours as a pilot.
"It's just good to come back and see them," Beard said while standing on the ramp at airport a short distance from the vintage warbirds. "I haven't been around airplanes for more than 50 years."
First in the Army Air Corps and later in the Air Force, Beard logged 9,000 hours piloting various military aircraft.
"I flew my whole career," he said. "That's all I did was fly."
Beard flew bomber missions over Italy and in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II. He did not fly the infamous "Hump" route from China to India, a transport route made difficult because of uncertain weather, a lack of navigational aids and extreme altitude.
"That's why I'm alive today," Beard joked.
Also on hand for Friday's Wings of Freedom opening was retired Air Force Capt. Nathan Nelson, military affairs director in the local office of Congressman Matt Gaetz.
"We really are excited that these aircraft came into Destin," Nelson said.
One of the first people to get up close to one of the airplanes was 7-year-old Christopher Nicoloff. Standing outside the B-17 with his mother Edina and 4-year-old brother Oliver, Christopher was eagerly awaiting his chance to get an even better look.
"I want to see what's inside these World War II airplanes," he said, "and I want to learn."
Edina brought her sons to Wings of Freedom on the spur of the moment.
"I just saw the planes coming in," she said.
Nicole and Fred Hamer, a snowbird couple from Minnesota, also took time to see the aircraft, which they'd seen previously in their home state.
Marveling at the relatively thin metal skin of the B-17, Fred Hamer said, "I mean, you're flying in a beer can!"
Seeing the planes up close provides a sobering perspective on World War II bomber crews and "how heroic they were to get in those things," Hamer said.
From Destin, the tour will head to Mississippi and then to Louisiana and Texas. In all, the 2018 Wings of Freedom Tour will make more than 100 stops around the United States.