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Wings of Freedom puts history in the air


James Varkas' first excursion on a B-24 bomber in 64 years was like taking a trip on a time machine.

"It reminded me of how noisy they were," Varkas said.

He didn't seem to mind.

Varkas described his voyage aboard Witchcraft as a thrill after taking a 35-minute flight Friday afternoon from Venice to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

It was all part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, which will be at the airport through Monday.

Now 87, the 20-year Tarpon Springs resident was a radio operator on a similar plane during World War II, at a time when he held the rank of technical sergeant.

He flew 25 missions over Europe on the Blonde Bombshell.

His duties were crucial.

"I was in charge of communications on the plane," Varkas said. "I received signals from the Air Force on where to drop (the bombs), then I signaled the results back. I also gave the weather report to the pilots."

Witchcraft was joined at the airport by a B-17 bomber and P-51 Mustang, a fighter plane also used during the war. The tour, which is operated by the Collings Foundation of Stowe, Mass., takes authentically restored aircraft to more than 150 locations nationwide each year to promote aviation's living history and the remembrance of veterans.

Varkas' daughter, Christine, saw an ad for the tour and inquired about having her father ride along on a flight. A week later, he was doing just that, and she joined him. Another daughter, Catherine, gave him a scrapbook with his World War II photos in it earlier in the day.

"That was a big time in his life," said Ethel Varkas, his wife of 61 years.

Missions aboard the Blonde Bombshell were bumpy and treacherous, but Friday's jaunt was "nice and smooth," Varkas said. During the flight, he found himself in a familiar place.

"I stood between the pilot and co-pilot," Varkas said. "That's what I used to do."

As the plane soared through the air, Varkas was thinking about the present, not the past. But minutes after touching down at 2:06 p.m. before roughly 100 onlookers, he reflected — and got emotional — while staring at the dozens of names painted on the plane's tail.

"Those were the guys that didn't make it," Varkas said. "I was fortunate enough to make it."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at or (727) 445-4156.

TARPON SPRINGS — Tina Bucuvalas has crisscrossed the state during her 8-year tenure as state folklorist.

But all those roads seemed to lead her back to Tarpon Springs, Bucuvalas said.

In March, Bucuvalas will take over as curator for the city's Division of Arts and Historical Resources. She'll replace former curator Judith LeGath, who retired in December after 11 years.

"I'm so interested in doing research here anyway, and I do have some museum and archives background. I just felt it was a very good fit," said Bucuvalas, 57. "I love Tarpon Springs."

Bucuvalas, who speaks Spanish and some Greek, has done extensive research on Greek culture. She hopes to put that knowledge to good use in her new post. And she also plans to expand her research to include Tarpon Springs' black and Latino communities.

"Tarpon has a richness and breadth of the culture, and I'd like to look at it more profoundly," she said.

Bucuvalas spent six months in Greece as a Fulbright scholar, studying public folk life programs. She is also a published author.

Kathleen Monahan, Tarpon Springs' cultural and civic services director, said 81 people applied for the position. Bucuvalas stood out with her professional museum, archive and folklore experience, skills that will help her manage the city's wide array of cultural programs, Monahan said.

"We're just very fortunate that we have her at this particular time where we're basically trying to preserve and promote the heritage of our community," Monahan said.

Bucuvalas worked with the city to secure a $5,000 grant from the Florida Humanities Council for an upcoming exhibit that uses her research and photographs to explore the connection between the Greek communities in Tarpon Springs and the Bahamas.

Bucuvalas and Monahan are considering the creation of a Florida folk art gallery that would be housed at the city's Cultural Center.

"It's something really lacking in the state, and she's uniquely qualified to do that," Monahan said.

Bucuvalas will begin March 5. The position pays $45,748 annually.

Rita Farlow can be reached at or (727) 445-4162.

fast facts

If you go

What: The Wings of Freedom Tour, which includes B-17, B-24 and P-51 planes from World War II.

Where: St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

When: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday.

Cost: Donations are $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 12 and younger.

Also: The planes won't just be on display; flights are available for a fee. Flights range from $425 to $2,200.


Wings of Freedom puts history in the air 01/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 9:50pm]
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