On May 27, 1943, Louis Zamperini - the Olympian and hero of the movie "Unbroken" - was flying in a B-24 bomber on a mission over the Pacific. The plane had mechanical difficulties and went down about 800 miles south of Oahu. Zamperini was adrift for almost 50 days before he made it to land, where he was captured by the Japanese and held and tortured until the end of the war.
About 19,000 B-24s were built, but only one -- owned by the Collings Foundation -- is still flying, and it's in Southern California as part of the foundation's Wings of Freedom tour. It flew from Santa Barbara to the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance yesterday, with Louie's son Luke Zamperini - and Off-Ramp - aboard.
It was Luke Zamperini's second trip. "I only saw one once before," about 3 years ago, he said. "I took my dad for a visit and he crawled inside the plane and got in the bombardier's seat, and then I followed him through the plane as he starting reliving the battle above Nauru. By the time we got to the back of the airplane, he was exhausted, and he said to me, 'I tell you. In my memory, the plane was larger.'"
(B-24 above Nauru, April 1943. Office of Chief of Military History)
The plane is built for war, not comfort. Equipment is packed into every available space. The windows are tiny, and the gun ports are huge. Oxygen comes from big yellow tanks. The plane's skinny ribs and thin shell are clear to see. "You get in there," Zamperini says." It starts to taxi and you get the idea that you're kind of in this flying jalopy. You just have this wind blowing through the plane, and I suddenly realized what kind of men that generation was to get inside something like this and fly eight or ten hours over the ocean. There's nothing in between you and a bullet except a little tiny bit of aluminum."
The Collings Foundation spent years renovating the plane, now flown by Jim "Pappy" Goolsby, a retired airline pilot who was looking for something to do to keep him busy after he retired. He knows he has a plum job. There aren't many openings to fly B-24s. Of course not; he flies the only one left.
The plane is also the one used by the sound geniuses who worked on "Unbroken" for their Oscar-nominated sound effects. We talked with them on Off-Ramp at Oscar time.
The B-24, as well as a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-25, and a P-51 Mustang, are all at the Western Museum of Flight in Torrance until Wednesday at noon for tours and rides. The rides are expensive - from $400-$450 per person - but you'll never forget it. "What a gas it was," said Zamperini when we arrived at Zamperini Field in Torrance, named for his dad. "I coulda stayed another couple hours in that thing."