Commemorative Air Force keeps history alive and flying
January 3, 2018
By Tim Sealy
World War II is something very few people remember. For most of us, it’s an abstraction that we only know from reading history books or watching newsreels. Perhaps we had a grandparent or great-grandparent alive during the war. Maybe they were there. Their stories become our perception of their reality – an ethereal connection to that world.
The Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force offers a chance to turn abstraction into a real experience. At Mesa’s Falcon Field, the CAF houses history that comes alive. In addition to a museum full of warbirds, seven operational aircraft are available for rides throughout the year. They range from an open-air two- seat biplane, the PT-17 Stearman to the massive B-17 Flying Fortress. The most famous and recognizable planes in the fleet are the B-25 Mitchell, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the C-47 Skytrain. These planes were on the cutting edge in their time and shaped the way America fought WWII. Each is not only operational, but regularly take passengers on a journey back in time.
The bombers are restored to combat configurations allowing passengers to sit behind machine guns and walk through bomb bays that once carried the munitions that won the war. On the B-17, you can ride in the coveted bombardier’s position in the clear Plexiglas nose of the plane.
The C-47 Skytrain is a military version of the DC-3, an aircraft that revolutionized civilian aviation and gave birth to modern-air travel. In the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s, the DC-3 was the passenger plane relied on by fledgling airlines like American Airlines, United and TWA to set a standard of comfort for a population not yet accustomed to regular air travel. On the military side, these aircraft were workhorses carrying troops and equipment into and out of harm’s way. Paratroopers jumped into battle from the C-47 and much needed supplies made their way across enemy lines. Old No. 30, the C-47 based at Falcon Field is a mixture of civilian and military worlds. She saw a lot of combat action in Italy and Japan before retiring to civilian use as a corporate plane for the Hoover Vacuum company. Its exterior has been restored to its military specs while the inside is still a picture of 1950s luxury complete with comfortable seats and even traditional lamps on end tables.
On December 7, two of the CAF’s warbirds, the B-17 Sentimental Journey and the C-47 Old No. 30 participated in Gov. Doug Ducey’s Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony by conducting a fly-over of the memorial downtown. On board both aircraft, passengers experienced a taste of what WWII heroes went through. The cool, clear morning air was perfect for a flight across the Valley aboard these heroic machines. Flying at low altitude (approximately 1,000 feet) passengers watched the Valley pass below them as they headed toward downtown. Loud propeller engines announced their arrival over the ceremony. After one pass headed west, the planes turned around and flew back over downtown Phoenix on their way home to Mesa.
Volunteer pilot Dale Churchill was at the helm of the C-47. He’s flown sporadically for the CAF for over 30 years, having piloted another B-17 with his father when he was 21 years old. “You gotta know where history is and without history, you have nothing. You just gotta remember where we all came from or where we all could have ended up if we didn’t have history.” This is why he finds honor in keeping these airplanes flying and why he will continue to volunteer his time to take people up.
Aboard the C-47 were two special passengers. Jeanne Cox from Prescott has a personal connection to this aircraft. During WWII, her father flew C-47 transports across the Pacific Theater from the Philippines to Korea to Japan. Long after his death, she discovered his log books detailing his missions and, for the first time, was able to ride on the type of aircraft her father spent his military career piloting. The CAF’s efforts to keep this aircraft in the sky allowed Cox a tangible connection to her history and a glimpse into ours. “I think they should all come and see. The history is an important thing to learn about and know.”
Also traveling on the C-47 was Oliver Babbitts, a WWII veteran who spent 11 months on Iwo Jima where “every night was a nightmare,” making him one of the rare survivors of that island’s notorious wartime battles. The unit next door to his, the third division started with 300 men, of which only 30 made it out alive. As for how he survived, he says, “I have no idea.” Pointing skyward, “He was good to me.”
To get your own tangible taste of the experience of flying in WWII-era warbirds, visit the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force at Falcon Field in Mesa. Book a trip through https://www.azcaf.org/fly-with-us/