It has been 60 years since Merle Hancock heard the roar and felt the rattle of a B-17's four engines.
At 80, he didn't feel strong enough to climb around the multilevel cabin of the vintage World War II bomber. So Hancock, of Manassas, just sat back and let the rush of memories return: the airfield in Italy, his crewmates, the decades of life he feels blessed to have had.
"It all came back,'' Hancock said after he climbed out of the plane that flew him and a few others from Stafford to Manassas Regional Airport on Friday. "I can't remember it being that noisy. But 60 years does a lot of things to you."
The flight was part of the Freedom Museum's sixth annual Festival of Freedom in Manassas. The festival continues today with a display of vintage aircraft, a celebration to honor veterans of conflicts past and present, and World War II-themed entertainment, including a Bud Abbott and Lou Costello tribute and performances by the USO Liberty Belles.
The Freedom Museum, at the Manassas Regional Airport, is a collection of photographs and memorabilia of the nation's 20th-century conflicts.
The festival is drawing several World War II veterans "who have been calling in all week," said Chuck Colgan Jr., the museum's president. Colgan invited some to the airport Friday to watch the big planes come in.
That is what brought former B-17 flight engineer John White to the airfield Friday. White, 84, flew 55 missions in a B-17 from an airbase in Italy.
Those white-knuckle missions satisfied his curiosity. White declined an opportunity to take a flight Friday. "No. I ain't flying," he said. "The ground looks good to me."
That didn't stop him for coming out and getting a good close-up of the B-17, painted with the colors of Nine-O-Nine.
"I haven't seen one since I got out of the Army," said White, who lives in Solomons, in Southern Maryland.
The festival is a highlight for aviation buffs. In addition to the Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress," the festival had a B-24 Liberator, a B-25 Mitchell bomber, a Vought F4U Corsair fighter and other war birds. Unlike the static displays in the National Air and Space Museum, these planes fly. Visitors got to hear and smell the engines, poke their heads inside the cabins and watch the aircraft take to the skies.
Visitors could buy tickets to ride in the B-17 and B-24, which are operated by the nonprofit Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass. The authentically restored aircraft are part of the foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour, which brings historic aviation to communities across the country.
Although thousands of B-24s were made for the war effort, the foundation's plane, which underwent a multimillion-dollar restoration, is the only one currently flying, according to the foundation, which supports living history events involving transportation. There are 14 B-17s still flying.
Marion Lee of Montclair has a special relationship with the B-17 -- she helped build the aircraft. In 1944, Lee was a riveter building bomb bay doors in Fresno, Calif., during the war.
Yet it wasn't until Friday that she was in one. Lee bought herself a ride on the Nine-O-Nine as an early 85th birthday present.
"I figured I'd have to get in one sometime," she said.