As far back as the late 1950′s a flung-together group of veterans and aviation enthusiasts combined their efforts to locate, purchase, renovate and maintain, vintage aircraft from, mostly, World War II. It wasn’t long before they felt the need to formalize their venture and in 1961 the group registered themselves as a non-profit Texas corporation called “The Commemorative Air Force”, or CAF.
One can imagine the cost, in dollars and man-hours, of the mission these men and women set out upon. They were relentless in the pursuit but by 2001 their name had become politically incorrect. It was never their intention to align themselves with the Confederate South, they simply had considered themselves a loosely constructed “confederate” of soldiers with a specific mission: to maintain, for the sake of history, honor, and future generations, some of the more venerable aircraft of our nations’ military history in the air.
The CAF now has the world’s largest fleet of flyable World War II aircraft. Everything from small trainers and liaison aircraft, to the gargantuan B-29 Superfortress, this one named “FiFi”. It is the world’s only flying Superfortress. The CAF has saved many aircraft from all out extinction, including the famous Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The Helldiver restoration took over six years and tens of thousands of man-hours. It is the only flying Helldiver in the world.
The CAF maintains several museums scattered around the country, including the Airpower Museum at the Midland (Texas) International Airport. They fly their aircraft all around the country to various air shows and events with the airplanes are put on display. These outings include an army of volunteers to help with the displays and flying and to “babysit” the aircraft during shows. Being a babysitter, while sometimes perhaps a bit repetitive, does have it’s moments. One such “babysitter” related a story to Barry Schiff, a retired airline Captain and regular writer for AOPA magazine:
“I was sitting a North American B-25 Mitchell at an airshow. I noticed an elderly man approaching slowly, with the help of a walker. I looked into his rheumy eyes and saw tears beginning to form rivulets on his cheeks. The man said that he had been a B-25 tail gunner and had not been ‘near an Army bomber’ for 60 years. The man cried unabashedly as he told of how he was wounded during his twenty-fourth mission, but he was the lucky one–the only one to bail out of the stricken airplane, the only survivor. Emotion poured from the man like water from a faucet. After gaining his composure, he laid a bony, weathered hand on a bomb-bay door and offered a barely audible prayer for his fallen comrades.”
That single event, I suspect, would be enough restitution for any of the hundreds of volunteers at CAF who have dedicated their free time to this project. Only the Collins Foundation of Stowe, Mass., comes close to the CAF in terms of number of aircraft and effort-spent in this priceless pursuit of maintaining history. There are only two B-24′s left flying in the world. One is owned by CAF, “Ol’ 927″, and “Witchcraft”, owned by the Collins Foundation. I have seen and been inside Witchcraft several times at various airshows around New England. I can’t tell you the feeling of being inside a piece of flying history, in an airplane that saw battle. It is easy to imagine the nervous young soldiers getting tossed around inside, listening to flak all around them. Quietly praying for a safe return from yet another death-defying mission. You can crawl back to the tail-gunner’s seat…a canvas sling that hung from the sides of the aircraft with barely enough room to turn your head. It is a vulnerable-feeling place, and the birthplace of the old adage “don’t get your ass in a sling”.
Next time you hear of either one of these two organizations planning on showing up at an airport near you, make it a point to go. Bring your kids. Bring a friend. It is an awesome experience and more importantly, an opportunity for each of us to lay a hand on aluminum and offer our own quiet prayer for all of those who called one of these planes, the last place they were alive. A heartfelt “thank you” to the Commemorative Air Force and The Collins Foundation for your tireless efforts.
Tags: Flying History