Veteran takes flight again
Leon Bernard spent his 91st birthday Wednesday amid memories of piloting a B-24 in World War II.
Flying a Piper simulator at the T.W. Andrews High School Aviation Academy took some adjustments. Bernard crashed several times.
“The B-24 was slow,” said the High Point native. “I needed faster reactions for this. I never crashed a B-24.”
Bernard flew 35 missions in the heavy, twin-tail bomber, also known as the “Liberator” over Europe and Germany in 1944. Many pilots of that era say the B-24 was harder to fly than her sister bomber the B-17, or “Flying Fortress.”
“It was noisy and windy in those airplanes. Thank God, I made it back and all my crew did,” Bernard said. “We had fighters protecting us, but planes still got shot down. We did it because we had to do it.”
Although he saw an airplane only once before he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942, Bernard always wanted to fly.
“I knew I was going to be drafted and the Army did not suit me and I did not want to be on the water, so the Navy did not suit me,” Bernard said. “I decided I wanted to ride rather than walk, so I joined the Air Corps. When I was young, most people did not think much about flying, or even driving.”
At one point, Bernard was assigned as a second lieutenant to the 328th Bomb Squadron in the 93rd Bomb Group in Hardwick, England. During one stretch, he flew six missions in six days.
“We were all exhausted after that,” Bernard recalled.
A family friend arranged the simulator session for Bernard who came to the school with family members as part of his special day.
“We had a lunch today and a dinner tonight,” Bernard said. “It’s just another day. After 91 years, I’m thankful to be here. I am glad I did this.”
When Bernard was a pilot, there were no computers and simulators were little more than boxes with joy sticks and pedals.
The 150-student magnet school program is one of three in North Carolina and 52 in the country. For flight experiences, the academy offers table-top computer flying stations and the FAA-certified flight simulator training.
“The kids here are so lucky to have this,” Bernard said. “We did not have these gadgets. We just took off and we had few instruments.”
Students also have an opportunity to study for careers as engineers.
“This is a great profession to be in,” Bernard said.
Leon E. Bernard
Hometown: High Point
Pilot: B-24, Liberator, 1944, U.S. Army Air Corps.
Military Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with five Oak Leaf Clusters.
Occupations: Shoe salesman; furniture