WWII vet pilots again
SELINSGROVE - World War II veteran Walter Mattson had not piloted a B-24J Liberator American bomber since leaving Italy in July 1945. For 15 minutes Monday, the 92 year-old Camp Hill man was again called pilot of the last B-24J in the skies.
Mattson was aboard the plane from Altoona to Heritage Aviation LLC, Penn Valley Airport as an honorary guest of the Collings Foundation, whose members preserve machines that influenced the world and kept it free.
During the flight, Mattson was welcomed into the cockpit and afforded the chance to get behind the controls on what the foundation says is the only restored flying B-24J in the world.
"O boy! It was really something," Mattson said of his time as pilot.
According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, during World War II the plane held a crew of 10, including a co-pilot and a nose gunner. It weighs 65,000 pounds and has a maximum speed of 290 mph. It has a span of 110 feet, a length of 67 feet, eight inches, and could carry 12,800 pounds of bombs. Approximately 6,600 of them were built.
Preparing for war
Mattson graduated from Dickson City High School in 1936 and attended two years of business school.
"When I saw things happening in Europe, I told the draft officer I would voluntarily sign-up once I finished school," Mattson said.
After he failed to pass a cadet training exam, he went back to high school for a year to sit in on several high school courses.
In June 1941, he successfully passed a second exam and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, a forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. He attended the civilian pilot training at the University of Scranton and within two years, received his commission as a pilot of a B-24J in the 460th Bomb Group, 760th Bomb Squadron. He called his plane Princess Carol, which was named after his niece, who was born the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Mattson flew several kinds of dangerous missions, but none as intense as when he bombed a German-held petroleum factory near the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
"One of the engines shut off and the plane flew out of formation and dropped 5,000 feet," Mattson sharply recalled. "I was a lone wolf in enemy skies, but thankfully two B-51s piloted by the Tuskegee Airmen escorted me to safety."
After recalling the story, Mattson called his wife to tell her of his second chance at pilot.
"They let me fly!" he said over the phone. "After 66 years of not flying, I wasn't too bad," he added.
The B-24J Liberator, along with a P-51 Mustang and B-17 will be on display at the airport through Wednesday.