Local flier at warbird controls — Barnett ‘living the dream’ as volunteer for history group

Published 9:16 pm Thursday, March 8, 2018

He brought the bird in with easy throttles, making 140 knots on a heading of two-seven-zero, straight west, using Brookway Boulevard as a guide.

Conditions over the target area were perfect — burning blue skies, cloudless, with a gentle northwest breeze and temperatures in the mid 50s. His run was dead-on, right over the initial point — the parking lot of Paul Barnett Nissan. He egressed Brookhaven to the southwest, turning wide somewhere out over the west fork of the Bogue Chitto River before correcting back west for the 90-minute run to Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Of course, Paul Barnett would never have jettisoned a bomb load over his own car dealership, and “Nine-O-Nine,” the old B-17G Flying Fortress he was piloting, never dropped a bomb in anger. Now, 73 years after it rolled out of the factory in Long Beach, California, the aircraft is a flying museum, an airborne teacher kept aloft to educate the nation, and Barnett considers himself the luckiest student in the sky.

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“It’s absolutely living the dream to be able to be a part of this,” he said. “To think, I’m actually afforded the opportunity to pilot an aircraft I’ve read about in the history books. You can read all the history you want, watch all the documentaries, but to be maneuvering it, and handling it, just sends chills up your spine.”

Barnett made his flight over the heart of Ole Brook Wednesday as a volunteer pilot on the 2018 Wings of Freedom Tour, an annual 10-month aerial journey of World War II “warbirds” owned by the Collings Foundation, a non-profit group focused on heritage preservation through “living history.”

It’s Barnett’s first year on the invitation-only tour after passing qualifications in January. He’s already had the chance to take the controls of “Toulouse Nuts,” one of the legendary P-51 Mustang fighters; “Witchcraft,” the last surviving B-24 Liberator bomber left in the world (19,000 were built), an underappreciated craft; and, Wednesday, “Nine-O-Nine,” one of 11 airworthy Flying Fortresses (more than 12,000 were built).

The Flying Fortress and the Liberator were America’s main strategic bombers during the Second World War, and for two years served as the nation’s primary contribution to the war in Europe. The Mustang — widely considered the finest fighter aircraft ever built — was the first aircraft with the range to escort the bombers deep into German territory.

Hollywood icon Jimmy Stewart flew B-17s in combat in 1943 as commander of the 445th Bomb Group, and Chuck Yeager — first man to break the sound barrier — became “ace in a day” for shooting down five enemy aircraft at the controls of a P-51 in 1944.

Barnett’s flight over Brookhaven encountered no enemy action.

“The Messerschmitts evaded us,” he joked. “Once they saw we were on-station, they just got out of there.”

The aircraft are national treasures, and flying them around the nation is how the Collings Foundation keeps them in the air. At every stop on the tour, the foundation sells rides — a half-hour flight in the two big bombers costs $450 per person, while a full hour of flight instruction in the Mustang runs $3,200.

The rides and training fulfill the foundation’s mission of allowing people a chance to experience the historic aircraft, while the fees help offset the costs of operation.

“A quote I often use is, ‘you must take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime within the lifetime of the opportunity,’” Barnett said. “When these kinds of events come near, I encourage everyone to make that small donation and take advantage of this opportunity.”

Barnett, a licensed pilot and history buff, said his flight time on the tour has taught him much about the experiences young men went through more than 70 years ago.

“I asked the captain of the B-17 what the average mission was, and he said it was more than 10 hours. I will tell you, I was extremely fatigued flying just two hours,” he said. “It’s all hand flying. There’s no autopilot, and there’s no just resting your hand on the throttle and letting it fly. You’re constantly moving the yoke, and it’s a constant workout. That connection, for a historian, is irreplaceable.”

Barnett will complete his leg of the tour, which began in Destin, Florida, Saturday in Tyler, Texas. He will remain on-call with the foundation for future flights.

“To be a part of this is an honor,” he said. “Even more so, I look forward to being able to share this opportunity, to share this experience, with people around the country.”

The Collings Foundation owns numerous other warbirds that are on static display, or in restoration. To reserve a flight or read more about the foundation, visit www.collingsfoundation.org.