|By Leo Cachat|
The B-17 "Nine O Nine," B-24 "Witchcraft" and the TP-51C "Betty Jane" were all scheduled to arrive at around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, but Mother Nature had different plans. When leaving my house in Bonne Terre, Missouri, the weather was absolutely perfect - sunny and 80 degrees. But as I traveled up the highway and hit Festus, I could see the clouds ahead, and they didn't look good. The forecast called for only a 10% chance of rain, and when I arrived at the museum it was obvious we were going to be the 10% of people that received rain that day. I was undeterred as I have rain sleeves for my cameras, but the concern was the arrival of the aircraft. Would they still be on time, and would the lighting be good enough for decent pictures?
My first question was answered when 1:30 p.m. came and went, and none of the aircraft were in sight. There were of course plenty of corporate aircraft to watch and photograph while waiting - and I took advantage of the opportunity. It wasn't until around 2 p.m. when we heard that the B-17 was due in within 10 minutes. At that point I went to the edge of the taxiway to photograph the big beautiful bomber on its approach. Sure enough, the big greenish-brown bomber was on a left banking turn to the runway as the sky still looked a little angry. "Nine O Nine" was now on the ground and making her way to the ramp as the crowd of onlookers, which included one other local media outlet, waited in anticipation.
As the B-17 was parked on the ramp, there was one gentleman there from Springfield, Missouri who knew this bomber better than just about anyone else there. His name is Baisl Hackleman. He's 93 years young and he flew 30 missions from Bassingbourn, England as a pilot during WWII. I was able to talk with Baisl for a while, and it was apparent as soon as the crew exited the airplane that they also knew Baisl quite well as he has seen this crew and the tour many times. It was great to see the respect the crew gave him, but then again how could you not respect him? While talking with him, he pointed out different intricacies about the aircraft. Mr. Hackleman pointed to the bombs painted on the fuselage, specifically the third one from the cockpit window, and explained that this bomb represented his first mission. The airplane itself flew 140 missions without an abort or loss of a crewman, an amazing accomplishment when considering the history of the B-17 during WWII. It was both a pleasure and an honor to spend time with Mr. Hackleman and see the joy in his eye when talking about this beloved airplane.
At this point lightning was flashing all around and the sky was ready to open up at any minute, so I started photographing until the rains came. It almost seemed fitting to have that kind of weather knowing what this airplane had gone through, and it made for some really nice photographic opportunities.
I noticed that just a few people came out to the airplane right away, and this caused me to ask, "Why?" The response I got was kind of shocking to me, but it wasn't just one person's feeling. The answer I got was: "We're here to see the big boy come in - the B-24." These people would have to wait for another three hours as the weather had it and the TP-51C Mustang delayed.
I photographed the B-17 from just about every angle in the three hours leading up to getting word that the TP-51C and the B-24 were 10 minutes out. Upon receiving that news, I again headed to the edge of the ramp to get sight of the TP-51C on approach and taxi as he came in first, followed 5 minutes later by the beautiful B-24 Liberator. By this time, the weather had cleared beautifully and a nice breeze was now blowing. Few others stuck around to wait for the arrival of these historic aircraft - Museum staff Mike Burke (Curator) and Mark Badasch (Director) were also on hand when these birds were parked on the ramp. What a treat it was to be photographing these historic beauties with no one around. I stayed until about 7 p.m. Friday evening and went home only to come back Saturday and document that day's visitors as they interacted with the living history surrounding them (see Part 2).