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Tuesday
Jul262016

Flying With Faber: Willow Run Airport -A Journey Through History

By Stuart J. Faber

A portion of Willow Run plant today. (Stuart J. Faber)Our minds often work in mysterious ways. It’s hard to explain. I often can’t recall the name of a person I met yesterday, yet frequently the visions and memories of certain folks I met during my childhood tiptoe into my thoughts with uncanny clarity.

It’s been over 75 years since Jack Jerstad drove up to our Racine, Wisconsin house. Donning a bright Hawaiian shirt, he emerged from his 1930s Ford Woody Station Wagon, greeted us gleeful, screaming kids and whisked  us off to day camp where he taught us about nature’s magic-water creatures, weather, identification of species of trees and birds.  He honed our swimming, boating and hiking skills.  I only knew Jack for a few weeks during that summer of 1940, yet, he has had a profound impact on my life. It was Jack’s enthusiasm and dedication to the kids which sparked my passion for nature’s earth and its innumerable gifts.

John L. Jerstad (Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame)I was seven years old when I met  John L. Jerstad. He himself was a mere  kid-about 21 years old. Of course, to a boy of seven, 21 was old. To this day, I clearly see his face and Hawaiian shirt. I hear his laughter as vividly as if he appeared just a few days ago.

Last month, as I crossed the threshold of the cavernous skeleton of the Willow Run B-24 Liberator plant, my thoughts turned to visions of Jack. He traded his Woody for the cockpit of a B-24. He traded his Hawaiian shirt for a natty leather airmen’s jacket and held the rank of major while co-piloting one of the ships that emerged from the Willow Run assembly line- perhaps at the exact spot where I stood last month. On August 1, 1943, during a bombing run over Ploiesti, Romania,  Jack and his crew perished in that airplane.

Of course, there are childhood memories of others who have influenced me: A third grade geography teacher who weaved tales of many lands, none of which I ever dreamed I would visit. It was she who motivated me to eventually  place my feet into what now totals over 100 of those countries.

Or the high school business law teacher.  I was often at odds with most of the faculty-but not with him. This teacher encouraged me that I had a knack for the law. He sowed the seed which eventually blossomed into my journey to the courtroom.

During my first year in college, I met an English professor who taught me the musicality of English grammar and literature. Conversely, I was  in high school when a piano teacher taught me that music was also a language. And of course, from middle school on, the guys I met who took me for airplane rides and endowed me with a passion for aviation that overflows to this day.

Among all of these mentors, I feel that my brief, precious moments with Jack taught me many of life’s guidelines and instilled numerous profound and eternal treasures in my mind, soul and spirit.

Funny Things About History

I love to muse over how events and people are juxtaposed in history. Here are a few examples:

1. It is claimed that the first of our species, Homo Sapiens, are said to have appeared around 200,000  years ago. Other than placing one foot in front of the other, it is doubtful that any other modes of transportation  ever entered their minds.

2.  June, 1896. It took Homo Sapiens over 200,000 years to leap from foot power to actual animal horsepower to a machine with four wheels and an internal combustion engine.  Although a few Europeans  beat him to the punch, Henry Ford was the first American  to invent and construct a vehicle that ran on its own power. Henry’s Quadricycle reached a top speed of around 20 miles per hour.

3. Homo Sapiens of 200,000 B.C. could only dream of flying like birds. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright breathed life into that dream. He piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach in North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds. Range: 120 feet.

4. December 29, 1939. It look exactly 36 years and 12 days for Homo Sapiens to leap from a 12-second flight of 120 feet to an aircraft that could reach altitudes upwards to 40, 000 feet and travel a distance approaching 3000 miles.

To me, it’s fascinating  that it took man over 200,000 years to make his first flight and a mere 36 years from the first flight to reach heights up to 40,000 feet.  The lamentable part of this exercise in history is the thought that man’s technological achievements have enabled him to annihilate  more people at one time.

Rows of Crops to Rows of Airplanes

Henry and his Quadricycle (Yankee Air Museum)Near the town of Ypsilanti, Michigan where a small tributary of the Huron River winds its way through pastureland, a farmer raised cattle and grew vegetables. Henry Ford, who sprung from poverty to one of America’s richest men, purchased this farm in the 1920s.  Employing what he referred to as “social engineering,”  he introduced inner city boys to the land and taught them farming and rural living.

In 1939, Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, California (later, Consolidated Vultee), developed the first B-24.  In early 1941, forecasting the imminence of war, the government established a program to build the B-24. Ford, even with previous aircraft manufacturing experience with the Ford Tri-Motor, certainly was not equipped to build a ship of the B-24’s magnitude. Nevertheless, his reputation as a mass-production wizard was legendary. 

Ford Motor Co. would not only manufacture the bombers, they would also provide the airfield. The  farm became the site of the Willow Run Airport and the B-24 factory. A 3,500,000 square foot plant was constructed with an aircraft assembly line stretching over one mile.

My First Glimpse of Willow Run

Miles and miles of B-24’s (Yankee Air Museum)We arrived at Willow Run Airport (KYIP), just after dawn. I’ve seen countless airports over the years, but this one, with its concrete runways built with enough material to construct a 120-mile, 2 lane highway was very special to me. This was the airport from which over 8700 B-24s were flight tested-by top-notch aviators including Charles Lindberg.

I’ve had a love affair with airplanes for as long  as I can remember. From the time I was a toddler, the sound of an airplane overhead instantly drew my eyes to the skies. I love the sounds of the WWII airplanes, many of which most kids could identify without looking up. The thundering drone of the Lib’s four Pratt & Whitney radials is music to my ears. I know the sound as well as I know the melodies of most musical hits of the 1940s.

We were ushered into a large hangar where my eyes met the sparkle of a shiny, silver airplane. “That’s a Mitchell B-25,” I bellowed. “You are correct,” responded Dave Callanan, one of the Yankee Air Museum’s officials. We sauntered over to the ship.   A historic shot of Willow Run Airport (Yankee Air Museum)He described the unique construction of the wing.  Supported entirely by the bomb bay structure, the wings had no spar.    I hoisted myself through the narrow conduit of the bomb bay, struggled into the cockpit and plopped into the left seat. Not wanting to leave, I tightly gripped the controls. But I was soon extracted so that others could savor the experience.

Later, our group climbed aboard a C-47 (aka, DC-3) and were escorted to lines of seats extending the length of the cabin which were configured like paratrooper benches.  We took off and cruised through airspace where test pilots first flew the nascent B-24s-exactly where their wing tip vortices have long since dissipated.

Finally, we walked over to the B-24 factory. A mere gentle touch of a button  was required to activate the giant doors.  About half the size of a football field, these rusty, majestic doors hummed as they ascended up their tracks and revealed vestiges of the 3.5 million square foot citadel. Although only about 150,000 square feet remain, we could barely see to the other end. A lonely de Mitchell B-25 (Stuart J. Faber)Havilland DHC-4 Caribou stood proud, but dwarfed in its temporary home.

There was dead silence. Nevertheless, I could feel the cadence and hear the echoes of competing sounds from 3/4ths of a century past: The throbbing of punch presses and the tool and die machines. The screeching of saws against metal. The drumbeat of the air hammers. The rat-a-tat-tat of the rivets. The shouting of the workers. To some, it was cacophonous.  To me, mellifluous.

The Mighty Liberator

The B-24 Liberator, affectionately  nicknamed “The Lib,”  also dubbed (without affection), “The Flying Coffin” for its limited bail-out exits,  was 110 feet from wing to wing and 67 feet from nose to tail. The 20-ton ship was powered by four Pratt & Whitney 18-cylinder, 1200 horsepower radial engines.   With a fuel capacity of 3614 gallons and a crew of ten, the Liberator could fly at a maximum speed of 303 miles per hour at 25,000 feet.

Over 18,000 Libs were built, 8700 of which were constructed at Willow Run.  The manufacturing and assembly lines at Willow Run were a quintessence of efficiency.  The 1,250,000 parts which made up each plane were created and assembled by folks who first attended a special school to learn their respective jobs.  The school was conducted with the precision of a medical and surgical college. The factory operated with the fluency and grace of a symphony orchestra-each worker performing his or her function with the agility of a ballet dancer. Each airplane was held together partly by approximately 360,000 rivets. Folks of all ethnicities  and gender were hired. Riveting, performed primarily by women, one-third of the workforce, gave rise to the popular song, “Rosie the Riveter.”

Led by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, the company promised the military that it would produce a plane every hour. The first B-24 emerged from the hangar on May 15, 1942. By July, 1944, after a series of start-ups and disappointments,  Ford was producing a B-24 every 55 minutes at a cost of $137,000 per plane!

Learning More about Willow Run

The Yankee Air Museum, a must-visit spot for  aviation enthusiasts, conducts air shows with the B-25, a Waco, the C-47 and a B-17 Flying Fortress.  The Museum is currently re-building what remains of the B-24 assembly plant which will eventually house over 150,000 square feet of museum.

The Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame (WAHF), who shared many  new details and photos of Jack Jerstad, were very helpful and generous with their time and resources. They offer several educational programs, especially for kids. www.wisconsinaviationhalloffame.org.

I recommend a DVD entitled, The Story of Willow Run, produced in the 1940s by Ford Motor Company. I’ve watched it over a dozen times. A must-read book on the birth and development of Willow Run is “The Arsenal of Democracy,” by A. J. Baime. The book presents a riveting (no pun intended), history of Ford Motor Company from its inception through the WWII years at Willow Run.

Epilogue

Jack was buried in the Ardennes American Military Cemetery in Belgium. Today, from where he rests, there are still lessons to be learned from Jack-even for those who never knew him.  For example, In July, 1941-even before the war began, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. By August 1943, Jack had safely completed the number of bombing missions to make him eligible to return home. Yet, he heard about the dire need to destroy Hitler’s oil refineries in Ploiesti, Romania-a town just north of Bucharest in the Transylvanian Alps. He knew that the fields were heavily protected by  enemy ground artillery and fighter aircraft.  He knew that an earlier attack on Ploiesti resulted in the loss of approximately half of the B-24s that participated in that mission. Fully aware of the dangers, he volunteered to lead a B-24 low-level bombing sortie-bombers were flown just above the treetops at an altitude of 250 feet. He took off from Benghazi, Libya on August 1, 1943 for the 18-hour, 2,400 mile round-trip mission. Three miles from the target, his ship was severely hit. Yet, he proceeded to the target and released his bombs.  The fire damage on his ship became so intense that it crashed into the sea. In October 1943, he was posthumously awarded America’s highest medal, the Medal of Honor.  A paragon of bravery, generosity and perseverance, his message resonates to this day. Jack Jerstad’s life was dedicated to doing the right thing for others-ultimately at the expense of his own life.

As much as I love the appearance, sounds and smells of the B-24s and other planes of that era, I wish that the need for them had never existed. Had the need never arisen- had modern Homo Sapiens abandoned war as a problem- solving mechanism-perhaps I could have reunited with Jack-enjoyed his laughter, partaken of his knowledge and teased him about his funny Hawaiian shirt. Imagine what sublime contributions Jack could have bestowed on mankind had he lived!

 

 

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