A Rare Thrill

Courtesy Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer
It’s been 65 years since Bob Bluford last took the controls of a bomber plane, but the decades haven’t dulled his pilot’s instincts.

While on route from Staunton to Chesterfield last month in the only remaining airworthy B-24, Bluford did not hesitate to accept an invitation to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.

And when the pilot of the craft handed him the controls, Bluford didn’t hold back either. The 91-year-old Presbyterian minister remained at the helm almost the entire flight before relinquishing the stick for a landing at Chesterfield County Airport.

Asked if his flight training came easily to mind after all those years, Bluford answered in the affirmative.

“But I didn’t try any funny stuff,” he said with a chuckle. “I just flew straight and level.”

After volunteering for the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, Bluford served as a B-24 bomber pilot and squadron leader, flying 18 missions over the European Theater. While he was based in England, his brother Harry was a ground crew chief, working with P-38’s in Italy. The day after Bob Bluford’s flight, Harry – now 90 and a resident of The Masonic Home – enjoyed his own flight tour of Richmond.

Organized by The Collings Foundation, an educational non-profit that sponsors living history events, the flight provided five local vets in all with an airborne stroll down Memory Lane, just in time for Veteran’s Day. The Wings of Freedom Tour, which left Richmond Oct. 22 bound for North Carolina, is designed both to honor veterans and to educate visitors. Every year, an estimated three to four million people see the planes, which include a B-17 and a P-51 in addition to the B-24.

Polegreen Preacher
Since his World War II days, Reverend Robert Bluford, Jr. has leaned more towards shepherding church congregations than piloting planes.

Resuming his interrupted studies at Hampden-Sydney College, he graduated as valedictorian in 1947 and went on to the seminary. He later served as campus minister at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and had pastorates in North Carolina and South Carolina, then was active in the civil rights movement and war protests of the 1960s. In 1979, he co-founded the Fan Free Medical Clinic, and in 1989, he founded the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation in Hanover County.

Samuel Davies, the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia, pastored the Polegreen Church from 1747 to 1759. Among Davies’ regular listeners at Polegreen, considered the birthplace of religious freedom in Virginia, was young Patrick Henry – who later credited Davies with “teaching me what an orator should be.”

In addition to establishing Polegreen and overseeing its placement on the National Register of Historic Places, Bluford played a significant role in the preservation of Henrico County’s Laurel Historic District, which is also on the register. He is an author as well, having chronicled the Samuel Davies story and the history of Polegreen in the book, “Living on the Borders of Eternity.”

“He has a profound knowledge of history,” says long-time admirer Susan Nochta, who was among the friends celebrating his flight. “If you have any questions on history, Reverend will probably know the answer.”

On a historic tour with Bluford, she adds, he can talk about “every single building, how every brick was laid, who was who and who said what.” A former runner, Bluford always carries his running shoes in the car and is known for conducting impromptu, hands-on tours that involve anything from a trek through the woods to digging up dirt.

Last One Left
Nochta notes that Bluford is tireless as a guest preacher as well, and never misses an opportunity to speak on the topic of religious freedom and Polegreen.

“There’s not a church he hasn’t preached at,” says Nochta. “Bob is amazing. He reaches out, he never reaches in. He’s given us so much insight – as Christians, friends, family members, and loved ones.

“He’s definitely my hero,” adds Nochta, noting how gratified she was to see Bluford enjoy an opportunity like the B-24 flight.

After his flight, Bluford observed that the feat was even more remarkable considering that almost all of the B-24’s built -- except for a handful preserved in museums – were later “chopped up” for scrap.

“[That plane] was the only one of 18,000 made that is left in the world,” he said, “and still flies.”

What’s more, it appears, the rare bird could not have been in more capable hands.

When Bluford asked the pilot, “How much altitude did I gain or lose?” he was pleased to hear that he had kept the aircraft flying level and true.

“It was quite a thrill for me,” said Bluford. “I’m very grateful.”
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