DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
BURNET — Seventy years had passed since Col. Thomas Sams of Horseshoe Bay sat in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. But as the World War II fighter plane raced through the skies above the Highland Lakes, the seven decades faded, and, for a moment, Sams was once again a young man flying a mission over Europe.
“Wow,” the 90-year-old retired Air Force pilot said after his flight. His grin, which erupted the moment he saw Cowden Ward Jr.’s P-51 Mustang outside the Freedom Flyers hangar, continued to shine well after he climbed out of the cockpit following a 20-minute flight April 17.
“It was a little bouncy,” Sams said as he imitated the plane’s movement with his hands, “but it was not bad. Wow. It was like I never stopped (flying P-51s).”
Sams knows P-51 Mustangs intimately. As a young man, barely out of his teens, Sams joined the hundreds of Allied pilots taking it to the Germans during World War II. He flew a P-51D Mustang as a member of the 503 Squadron of the 339th Fighter Group flying out of Fowlmere Field in the United Kingdom. The squadron flew escort for the B-17s heading out across Europe on daylight bombing runs. But the P-51s often hit targets of their own.
During one mission on April 10, 1945, members of the 339th destroyed 105 enemy aircraft on the ground. Six days later, the fighter claimed another 118 enemy aircraft destroyed after strafing runs.
In all, Sams flew more than 40 missions over Europe.
Though the German Luftwaffe wasn’t as potent during the time Sams flew over Europe (December 1944-October 1945), they still managed to put up a fight, forcing P-51 pilots to stay vigilant. While Sams never earned the title “ace” by knocking down five enemy planes, he helped several of his friends earn that status.
During one air battle, Sams was flying wingman for Capt. Rex Poultre. As wingman, Sams needed to protect Poultre as he chased down enemy fighters.
“Tom was flying as Rex’s wingman when Rex shot down four and a half (German fighters),” said Tom’s wife, Gloria Sams. She said Poultre tried to get Sams credited with some of the kills, but the squadron superiors wouldn’t approve it.
“It wasn’t done that way. But he was that good of wingman,” she said.
After World War II, Sams flew several other aircraft during his Air Force career but never took to the skies in a P-51 again until he climbed in the backseat of Ward’s Mustang. From there, he headed for the clouds as Ward took off. But once in the sky, Ward relinquished the controls and let Sams take over for awhile.
“He did great,” Ward said.
“I was amazed at how much I remember it,” Sams said once back on the ground. “The feeling came back to you. Everything sort of fell in place.”
The flight would not have happened had it not been for a Horseshoe Bay police officer on patrol. About three years ago, Sgt. John “Chip” Leake was patrolling the community.
“I’d see this older gentleman out on his porch or in front of his house, and I’d wave,” Leake said. “I saw him several times. Then one day, I decided to stop and introduce myself.”
As the two men began talking, Sams shared his story about being a P-51 Mustang pilot during World War II. Leake, a history buff, shared the story with other officers at the Horseshoe Bay department. An investigator told Leake about Freedom Flyers, which provides P-51 Mustang rides for World War II veterans.
“I knew I had to get him up in it,” Leake said.
The first step was finding out if Sams was interested.
“I was telling them about this, and, you know, his wife’s face just lit up,” the officer said. “She was just so excited.”
Sams, however, was sitting off to the side, looking straight ahead.
“He didn’t have any expression on his face,” Leake said. “Just kept looking forward.”
But then Leake noticed something. The colonel’s feet were moving up and down and a bit back and forth. Leake knew then the veteran wasn’t with them but had returned in his mind to that P-51 cockpit flying over Europe some 70 years ago.
“He was working the pedals (of the Mustang),” Leake said. “We had to get him up.”
Leake and members of the Horseshoe Bay Police Department began raising money to help offset the cost of the flight. A 20- to 30-minute flight cost about $1,000 for Freedom Flyers, though the group doesn’t charge the World War II veterans.
The officers, with the help of several Horseshoe Bay businesses, the city of Horseshoe Bay and community residents, raised $700 to help cover the flight’s cost.
“I’m so grateful to Chip and the Horseshoe Bay Police Department,” Gloria Sams said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
As Sams took to the sky April 17, Leake, Chief Bill Lane and Assistant Chief Rocky Wardow stood by in support of the veteran. Burnet Police Chief Paul Nelson, Capt. Jason Davis and Officer Larry Lamb also came out to show their support for Sams and gratitude for their fellow men in blue for what they did for Sams.
And when Sams returned and climbed out of the cockpit, his grin even larger than when he first crawled into the Mustang, Leake met him at the wing to help him down. At that moment though, it was harder to tell whose smile was larger.
Freedom Flyers provides flights for World War II and other veterans but relies on donations and community support to do it. Ward and the Mustang attend several air shows across the country where he tries to get more veterans up in the air. The Mustang will also participate in the 2015 Bluebonnet Airshow on April 25 in Burnet.
Go to www.freedom-flyers.org for more information or how to help the organization.