Why Warbirds Continue to Be Such a Vital Cog in the Air Show Wheel

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Nothing makes an air show fan give up his place in front of a funnel cake stand and run to the fence like a hot pit full of cranking warbirds. Warbirds are big, they are loud and fans love them. It’s the whine of the starter, the cough and fury of the ignition when it catches, and the smoke and the smell, all blending together in a cacophony of mechanical magic that shakes the ground and excites the senses.

Gyroscopic performers are exciting, jet teams and their precision displays are thrilling, but nothing stirs the emotions quite like the planes of yore. They touch our hearts and our souls. Is it nostalgia? Is there a personal connection? Is it simply a type of aircraft rarely seen that makes warbirds such a curiosity? The answer is “yes” to all of the above.

ICAS surveys, year after year (see results of the 2016 ICAS Air Show Spectator Survey on page xx of this issue of Air Shows Magazine), show that warbirds are one of the top three air show attractions, third only to military jet teams and solo military jet demonstrations. “Big airplanes with big propellers are fascinating to air show fans,” says Stephan Brown, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). “And the sight and sound of these unique airplanes are important to them,” he said. The CAF, with wings all across the country, has been restoring and flying vintage aircraft for decades.

But just as important as the sight and sound of warbirds are the stories that go with them. “Every airplane has its own story,” Brown said, whether it’s the CAF B-29 known as “Fifi,” a fabled P-51 Mustang, or a Stearman trainer. “Young men trained in these airplanes and flew them into battle, or worked on them during one of the most important eras of modern world history, and fans want to know about them,” he said.

Aircraft museums dot the country, a number within a short drive of just about anywhere. But, Brown says, as important as they are, “museums are no way to see a warbird. People come to airports to see airplanes fly, and that’s what we do,” he said. The CAF, like some other warbird organizations, stages its own warbird-only air show every year in order to bring people together with the airplanes.

Nostalgia and the human passion for daydreaming about “the good old days” explain part of the fascination for warbirds. But it goes beyond that. Unlike today’s modern warfare aircraft where dog fighting is all but a lost art, warbirds represent a time when going to war in these airplanes was a very personal event.

Whenever a pilot puts a warbird on static display, one of the first questions an air show fan will ask is whether these airplanes flew in the war. The next question is whether it’s going to fly in the show. “Warbirds are a high demand item. A good [event organizer] is going to make sure that, if the warbird community is involved, the airplanes are going to fly.  It’s what people expect,” Brown said.

P-51 performer and instructor pilot Lee Lauderback recognizes that warbirds are part of America’s history. “People have a very patriotic feeling toward what these great aircraft did to maintain our freedom,” he said. And even though many pilots from World War II have passed on, interest in their aircraft remains strong.

“Warbirds are big, noisy and historic. You read about them in Air & Space Magazine, see them on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and in the movies. They bring the stories of these airplanes to the public. People can identify with them,” Lauderback said. And, he notes that the audience for these programs includes all age groups, not just the old.

“Whether it’s the P-51, the F4U Corsair, the B-17 or a Stearman trainer, many second and third generation air show fans know their dads and granddads flew these airplanes into combat or worked on them, which is why they still resonate with so many people,” he said.

While a wide variety of warbirds participate in air shows, the P-51 is popular because it is so iconic, says Lauderback. Because of its popularity, all he has to do is a fast fly-by to satisfy fans. “I’m often asked if it is a real P-51. It draws a crowd and people love it. They take pictures, ask questions and want to touch it. I’m really happy that people aren’t forgetting our history,” he said.

One of the great joys for Lauderback is being able to fly his dual-controlled Mustang with veterans. “I’ve flown with some of the greats, including the late Bob Hoover. I’ve also flown with WWII pilots that none of us has ever heard of, but who did their jobs in these airplanes and came home to pick up their lives where they left off. These guys were the real deal and many of them just wanted to fly the airplane one more time. That speaks volumes about how they feel about the airplane and the job they trained to do. I’m able to share the P-51 with them and they share their stories and memories with me,” he said.

The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) in Reading, Pennsylvania has its own version of a warbird event. They call it the World War Two Weekend and they’ve been at it for 27 years. In 2016, they featured 1,500 reenactors, 80 warbirds, and nearly 200 military vehicles. The museum also has nearly a dozen airplanes that they take out to shows.

MAAM president and co-founder, Russ Strine, said their event began years ago with separate ramps. Warbirds were on one, modern military on another. “We were doing visitor surveys and started getting overwhelming feedback that told us to lose the modern military. After three years, we dropped the modern military displays and our event has grown threefold since then,” he said.

Air boss Ralph Royce was president of the Commemorative Air Force for eight years and has flown just about every type of airplane in their inventory. “Modern military aircraft don’t have the diversity of design that we saw developed for WWII, which is part of the attraction. Bombers like the B-17 are notably different from the B-24, and the P-51 is significantly different than the F4U Corsair. All have a different look and a different sound which people still have an attachment to,” Royce said.

Those who are fortunate enough to own or operate warbirds and take them to air shows know, firsthand, the impact these airplanes have on people. “I took the CAF B-17 to a Tennessee air show as a static display, when a guy came up, very excited, and ran under the bomb bay doors. He had been a flight engineer and had been forced to bail out through the doors during the war and wanted to get another look at the inside of the airplane. And there is always a veteran who goes to his station and just stands there, staring off into space. Some get emotional. All relive their experiences. It’s very gratifying to help people do that,” Royce said.

One of the most iconic warbirds, of course, is North American’s B-25 Mitchell, the airplane of choice for the storied Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April, 1942. When its Wright Cyclone R-2600s fire up, people notice. During a fly-by, its big, wide props slap the air with a distinctive sound that is music to the ears of warbird aficionados.

Delaware pharmacist Larry Kelley owns the B-25 known as Panchito. Kelley is a student of history, saying the B-25 has always been a focus of his attention. “These airplanes are icons that represent a generation of Americans. They came from an era of chivalry before the wide-spread use of rockets and missiles,” Kelley said.

In addition to taking Panchito to air shows, Kelley’s company offers rides, instruction and type ratings in the B-25. “Airplanes like the Mitchell appeal to all our senses. People want to see them, they want to touch them, they want to hear them and they want to smell them. It’s like going to a zoo: nobody wants to see stuffed animals; they want to see the real thing,” Kelley said.

One thing that people always want to know about individual warbirds is the aircraft’s history. Did it fly in combat? What were its dates of service? Was it ever hit by bullets or flak? Where did it fly? “We have developed storyboards that we put around our airplane to tell the history of the airplane itself, the history of the type of airplane and the history of its restoration,” said Kelley.

In Kelley’s airplane, the replica bombs that hang in the bay are autographed by every WWII veteran who has ever told them he or she worked on a Mitchell. And there have been hundreds. “Each one has been a combat veteran from WWII, either as ground crew or air crew. And with each signature has come a story,” Kelley said. Stories of heroism, stories of the day-to-day grind of flying hazardous missions, the late-night hours repairing shot up aircraft so they could fly again the next day, stories of training and of friends who never came home. And, Kelley says, it’s just as important to recognize the ground crew as it is to recognize the flight crew. “Without a competent ground crew, the air crew are just extra mouths to feed. We can’t forget the important role they played,” he said.

Warbird owners each have their own stories of veterans who have approached them with their families and wanted to share a story or two. And often times they were stories the families had never heard. On one such visit, a veteran pilot came to an air show with his son and daughter. When he saw the airplane, he told of having been injured when he was shot during a bombing raid. His family had always thought he limped because of a deformity. He had never told them the true story. “One veteran came up to me in a wheelchair, stood up, put his hand on the airplane and went silent. I didn’t even want to talk to him at that moment. He was reliving that era. He was one of those farm kids that left home, went halfway around the world for the first time, and was lucky enough to return. It was an era we will never see again,” Kelley said.

When warbird stories are told properly, they remind us all of how our nation came together to build the airplanes, train the pilots, and send them off to war to defeat enemies on two fronts. “It’s important to remember the commitment our nation made to an ideal. It was one of the most pivotal decades in our history,” said Kelley.

Warbird pilot Sam Graves with the Texas Flying Legends Museum in Houston is one of seven such pilots who comes from across the country to take museum aircraft to air shows and tell their stories. The museum has 11 different warbirds, including a TBM, P-40 and numerous others. All are in perfect condition and all are flyable. “We do this to honor our veterans, past and present, and to instill pride in what America accomplished,” Graves says. “We stood up for freedom and for democracy with these airplanes.”

Graves said they seek out veterans at every show, let them sit in the airplanes, and make a video of them telling their stories. “Most remember missions as if they were yesterday and we have a permanent record of their stories,” he said.

The president and chief operating officer of the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas,  Larry Gregory, says they still have a lot of WWII vets come up to talk to them when they take their airplanes out to shows. “I think that’s part of why these airplanes are still relevant to people today,” he said.

Gregory says numerous people who stop by their airplanes at air shows don’t believe airplanes that old can still fly. “We are often asked if these airplanes are real and how we got them to the show. I smile and tell them they were delivered by FedEx, and then I let them off the hook. But it gives me the opportunity to tell our stories about these airplanes,” he says.

Some of the most rewarding experiences for Gregory are the stories he hears from WWII vets who flew or maintained, or even built the airplanes. He recalls an elderly woman asking him if he knew how many rivets were in his B-25 horizontal stabilizer. “She knew the number because she worked on them for two and a-half years during the war,” he said.

Clearly, warbirds are more than the sum of their parts. Gregory says they were often built by women, and some were flown by minorities, an experience that changed how we look at different groups of people. World War II formed the foundation we stand on today. “How many African American pilots would we have today if it weren’t for the Tuskegee Airmen?” he asks.

While we know the names of aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, North American, Grumman and the others, few Americans realize that thousands of these airplanes were built under license in automobile factories converted for use in the war effort. These included Ford and General Motors, among others. As announcer Danny Clisham noted: “Even the Harvestore Company which makes grain silos was converted into a propeller manufacturing operation during the war. Because of this national commitment, we were able to produce these superior airplanes far faster than our enemies predicted, which helped shorten the war,” he said.

Air show narrator Ric Peterson puts it this way: “You can’t tell the story of these airplanes without telling the story of the people who built them. Rosie the Riveter. Blue Star families. Gold Star families. All were involved, cranking out airplanes at an astounding rate.

Business operator Mark Peterson of Boise, Idaho considers himself fortunate to own two P-51 Mustangs, one of which has been converted into a dual cockpit so he can give rides, often to veterans. “Owning a Mustang was a childhood dream. I still remember the incredible feeling of climbing onto the wing and sitting in one the first time,” he said.  And, as much fun as the airplane is to fly, Peterson said his greatest pleasure is meeting the people who flew them or maintained them. “That’s the icing on the cake for me.”

Peterson, like all warbird pilots, understands the significance of the airplanes entrusted to him. “These airplanes are national treasures, originally built and paid for by taxpayers. I have a responsibility to take care of them and to take them out and show them. I also know that I’m a temporary custodian of these airplanes and have an obligation to give them the best possible care, so that, when I hand over the keys, the next generation can touch them, hear them, and see them fly for as long as possible.”

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Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.