TAMPA, Fla. — The roar of the engines could be heard while they were still far off. A crowd had gathered to see a pair of WWII era planes land at Tampa Executive Airport, and Jerry Browne Jr. was in position.
“There’s the 51,” he said from his wheelchair.
Just after noon, a B-24 Liberator and a P-51 Mustang settled into the runway and shut off their engines to applause.
It was a reunion of sorts for Browne Jr.
More than seven decades ago, Browne Jr. was a pilot in his mid-20s assigned to fly P-51s through the skies of WWII. He served in both WWII and Korea and flew 20 combat missions during his military service.
The P-51s were his favorite.
“Flying fighters is a different experience than any other experience anyone can have,” the now 95-year-old said.
Widely considered “one of the greatest fighters of World War II”, the North American P-51 Mustang cost $51,000 in 1945, or about $675,000 today, according to National Interest.
Browne Jr. was wheeled to the plane and took a walk around the aircraft in which he served so valiantly and proudly. He paused a few times to speak.
“It brings back memories,” he said. “Some memories are good and some are not so good,” Brown Jr. admitted.
He lost friends while flying that plane.
"I think of the guys who got shot down," he said.
The B-24 Liberator was a powerful symbol of US industrial might, with more than 18,000 produced by the war’s end, says the WWII National Museum.
The planes are in town until noon on Thursday and open to visitors. It’s part of a nationwide, 110-city tour called the Wings of Freedom Tour. The public can go inside the B-24 Liberator and even fly in the planes for a fee.
You can see them Tuesday and Wednesday from 9a - 4p and Thursday from 9a - 12p.
It’s a trip down memory lane for Browne Jr. I asked him what I thought was a simple question:
"Did you think you'd ever be able to see a plane like this again?"
Lt. Jerry Browne Jr.'s gaze swiveled from the P-51 Mustang in front of him to me.
"Not this close," he said with a smile.
"I'm still proud of my country. It has its weak points but it's still a wonderful country."
“Wow,” he said as he was wheeled back to his car. “It’s kind of bittersweet.”