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Local vet takes first flight on warbird in 70 years

Springfield man served in WWII with Jimmy Stewart.

As the four radial engines rumbled down the taxiway Monday at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, George W. Snook stated the obvious.

“It’s a little bit different than flying Southwest,” the 92-year-old Springfield resident shouted.

Snook, a veteran of 30 combat missions over Europe aboard a B-24 Liberator during World War II, hadn’t been inside a warbird like the B-17 Flying Fortress on display at Aviation Sales Inc., 10600 Springboro Pike, for the better part of 70 years.

The local veteran’s daughter and friends took him to the Wings of Freedom Tour for a close-up look at two of the bombers that broke the back of Nazi Germany.

The event, which runs until noon Wednesday, features an airworthy Flying Fortress and Liberator, in addition to a P-51 Mustang.

A 30-minute ride aboard a bomber costs $425 — organizers say these old warbirds cost more than $4,000 an hour to fly — but for the more budget-conscious, a look inside all three is $12.

“He said, ‘Greg, my goal today is to just look inside the plane,’” said Greg Schafer, a 44-year-old Springfield resident who befriended Snook two years ago as part of a volunteer project at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana to restore a different B-17 to flying condition.

Snook had no idea Monday he was actually scheduled for the first flight of the day, as part of a free flight for members of the media and World War II veterans.

“Seventy years of history came back in one day,” he said afterward.

For a moment, though, it looked like Snook’s return to the skies might go all FUBAR on him.

Initially, the Liberator dubbed Witchcraft — the last flying B-24J in the world — was going to be used for the media flight, which virtually brought tears to Snook’s eyes.

The prospect of, essentially, a 31st mission aboard a B-24 stunned Snook.

“It will be like a little kid at Christmas,” said his daughter, Melody Metz, a Springfield resident. “He talks about the Liberator quite often.”

But, just prior to boarding, a decision was made to instead use the B-17 — one of just eight still flying — in order to better accommodate the elderly veterans.

Obviously, they don’t know George Snook well enough.

“He works circles around some of the people up there,” said Schafer, his friend from the Champaign Aviation Museum. “He drives his own car. He mows his grass.”

“What’s the saying on TV, ‘An active person stays active,’” Snook said. “I believe that firmly. You can’t sit on your can.”

He did, however, get that peek inside the B-24.

“It’s been 70 years since I’ve been in a B-24,” he said, “but it seems like yesterday when I stand in here and look at all those instruments.”

In the end, Snook was more than happy to take a ride of any kind, wisps of his white hair blowing in the wind as the Flying Fortress thundered through the sky.

“Next to the B-24,” he reasoned, “this is the best one to do.”

At any rate, it was Snook’s first time in nearly seven decades looking at olive drab panels from the inside.

Drafted in 1942, Snook eventually was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group’s 703rd Bomb Squadron out of England — a B-24 unit commanded by a fellow named Jimmy Stewart.

That Jimmy Stewart.

The star of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — and, after the war, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Rear Window” and others — was exactly like his on-screen persona, Snook said.

Stewart, he said, was “slow, methodical, soft-speaking and a prince of a gentleman.”

He also threw himself fearlessly into the war effort.

“He had some rough targets, same as we had,” Snook said.

For Snook, who manned the top gun turret, they didn’t come any rougher than the one on Feb. 25, 1944, to knock out the Luftwaffe’s ability to manufacture airplanes in the Ruhr Valley.

Having just dropped bombs, their B-24 was hit square in the belly by German anti-aircraft fire. Unbelievably, an .88mm shell came into the plane and ricocheted back out near Snook’s position.

“Fortunately, it was built by slave labor, so it was a dud,” Snook joked. “It didn’t explode. If it would’ve been a live one, I wouldn’t be telling you this story.”

The hole in the plane, however, sucked Snook’s boots right off his feet, along with his parachute.

After they got back on the ground, a picture taken by Snook shows that the hole was big enough for a man to clearly stick his head through.

That personal camera of his, from which he also photographed Jimmy Stewart, is on display at the Champaign Aviation Museum.

“I believe firmly in the saying, ‘God was my copilot,’” he said. “Hell yes.”

For other area veterans on Monday’s flight, the experience was equally memorable.

Red Ketcham, an 87-year-old Centerville resident, hadn’t flown on a B-17 since May 1946. He once had logged more than 300 hours aboard the B-17 on missions to photomap Europe and North Africa immediately after the war as part of Project Casey Jones.

“Sure brought back a lot of memories,” Ketcham said. “The sound of the engines, seeing all the equipment. It’s just been wonderful.”

Other veterans were happy just to watch from the ground.

Ken Johnson, 88, of Middletown, survived the Battle of the Bulge with the Army.

“I made it this far,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to drop out of the sky.”

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