09/06/09 — A gift of flight for their teacher

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A gift of flight for their teacher

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 6, 2009 2:00 AM

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Ed Clark, history teacher at Wayne Country Day School, enjoys a ride in the Liberty Belle, a B-17 bomber that survived an explosion at Dusseldorf, Germany in 1944, and has been touring the U.S. since being restored. His students surprised him with the trip last week.

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Ed Clark, history teacher at Wayne Country Day School, shares the excitement of recently flying in the Liberty Belle, a B-17 bomber restored from World War II. He had the opportunity to fly on the plane last weekend after his students collected the money to make it possible.

Wayne Country Day School history teacher Ed Clark realized a long time ago that you teach best what you know.

Since 1994, he has been bringing his own history into the classroom.

And now, thanks to the students he inspired, he has a firsthand experience aboard a World War II B-17 bomber to add to his repertoire of personal experiences and stories.

Retired from the Air Force in 1988 after 20 years, he was an aircrew life support superintendent, responsible for the flight equipment of pilots. One of the highlights of his career was being able to be on board when they would test a new piece of equipment.

Now 60, it is still what defines him.

"First, last and always, I'm an airman," he says.

His enthusiasm about history is evident, whether in the classroom or in casual conversation. He is passionate about the subject, especially as it relates to wartime and military service.

Clark remembers being a 19-year-old from Missouri, completing basic training and heading off to Chanute Air Force Base. It was the Fourth of July, around 2 a.m. when his plane landed, he said.

A sign greeted him -- "Through these doors pass the finest airmen in the world" -- that he has never forgotten.

These days, he can be found leading his classes in lively discussions about U.S. strategies in World War II and has his students research and learn positions of every airman on the plane to allow them to "vicariously experience what it was like to go on a mission."

"I experienced this for the first time when I was 19 years old (and) never lost the thrill of it," he said. "When you join up with one formation, it's like you're in a river of air."

He wants his students to take away the concept of sacrifice and courage, to learn to function as a team.

Apparently, they got the message.

Upon learning recently that the Liberty Belle, a B-17 that survived an explosion in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1944, was touring the U.S. after having been restored, the school's senior class decided to help Clark recapture some of his own youth.

Seniors Stoan Stewart and Jay Grissette thought their teacher just might enjoy a ride on that plane, so they collected money from classmates to make it a reality.

"What I like about it was it had actually flown in the war, had a true history to it," Clark said.

Still, the presentation came as a complete surprise.

"I had not seen (the news), didn't know a thing about it," Clark says now. "I never expected to be able to have the honor to fly in a B-17."

On Aug. 25, four days before he was scheduled to go, the students sprung the news in the middle of a civics class.

"I'm 10 minutes into the lecture, talking about the etiquette of the flag," Clark said. His comment about the flag symbol on the side of an airplane provided students with their opportunity.

"For the first time in many many years, I was speechless," their teacher said. "That doesn't happen very often."

He was so excited about the Saturday noon flight that he arrived at Concord Regional Airport three hours early. He brought a book to read, but was too enthused to sit still.

Once on board, it was a swirl of emotions and memories -- the vibrations beneath him as the engines started, taking in all the sights and sounds as the plane began to taxi.

"The most magnificent thing is when (the pilot) makes the turn to the active runway," he said.

As the plane climbed to 2,000 feet, Clark began snapping pictures -- of the wings, the engine, behind the flight deck.

The only modern element on the restored plane was a GPS system, he said. Hovering over downtown Charlotte, nine were on the flight with him, the most esteemed spaces given to veterans of World War II, who were allowed to sit behind the pilots.

Traveling 160 miles an hour, Clark assumed the positions familiar to him as a young airman -- as the flight engineer and as the bombadier, simulating dropping a bomb.

"I have not experienced that since I was 19," he said. "That was such a great experience to feel that. ... I felt like I was 19 again. Literally, I felt like I did the very first time I ever got into an Air Force plane."

The lengthy, rich history surrounding him was not lost on the educator.

"There were a lot of ghosts in the airplane with us," he said with a smile. "When I sat down in that seat in the radio operator's position, you can't help but wonder."

It gave him pause, as a poignant story came to mind.

"At the end of World War II, one of the American Air Force generals was at the American cemetery right outside of Cambridge, England," he said. "There were all of these white crosses, and he said, 'All the fine young men.' I thought about that Saturday."

It was a great day, he said.

The only thing better was having the opportunity to talk with some of the older veterans who also shared the experience.

"They were in their early 90s, late 80s. My war was the Vietnam War and the Cold War. We had a great conversation," he said. "There were several hundred people there, and they came to shake (the veterans') hands and thank them."

Clark's current students are not the only ones who shared in his latest adventure. Earlier this week, he said he received a call from a student who graduated last year and now attends Davidson College, near Charlotte.

"We passed over Davidson" on the B-17, Clark said. "He was coming out of the cafeteria around noon when the plane passed over, and called his sister and told her he got to see a B-17. She said, 'Guess who was on it?'"

Who would have thought students he has taught since the seventh grade would transport him back to his own youth?

And yet, Clark said, one of his goals has long been to teach his classes to be independent thinkers -- "to understand the 'we' and not the 'me.'"

"My students are so special," he said. "They have given me a gift that I could never have afforded to do on my own. They will never know how much I really and truly appreciate that."