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Planes of Fame 2019

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One of my absolute favorite shows of the year, and the best vintage show in the Western United States, is the Planes of Fame Airshow held in Chino, California. This year's show commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Kicking off the flying portion of the show were a couple formation flights in memory of those we have lost. First, a flight of four P-47s performed the missing man in remembrance of those lost serving our country. Sunday was three P-47s and a P-38).

Following that was a formation that really tugged on the heart strings. Three one of a kind aircraft, an AT-12 Guardman, a P-26 Peashooter, and a P-51A Mustang flew by in tight formation until they were mid-field. At mid-field, the P-51A slid left to open up a 'vacant' position within the formation. This vacant position was in memory of recently passed David Vopat, who tragically lost his life a little over a week earlier while on a test flight in the one of a kind N9MB Flying Wing in preparation for the show. David's passing is yet another reminder of the risk and sacrifice these pilots take on doing their best to keep history alive. And to repeat the announcer during the tribute flight in his honor, "We will miss you David Vopat, we will ALWAYS remember you."

After the very touching tribute, and as David would've wanted it, the show went on.

Entertaining the audience with aerobatic routines were Rob Harrison in the 'Tumbling Bear', John Collver in his AT-6 'War Dog', Eric Tucker in his Piper Cub, Dennis Sanders in his Sea Fury, Stew Dawson in his Tigercat, and Greg 'Wired' Colyer in his new T-33 'Ace Maker III'. Another treat for the fans in attendance was an air race demonstration with the P-51s 'Goldfinger', 'Boise Bee', 'Strega', and 'Voodoo', as well as the Sea Fury (and 2019 reigning Reno Air Race Champion) 'Dreadnought'.

A multitude of warbirds filled the skies each day and were broken into different categories: the Golden Age, Army aircraft, Korean War, Navy aircraft, and a re-enactment of the D-Day invasion involving several paratroopers. Making several laps around the airfield, this vast number of warbirds (some of which are incredibly rare) are the biggest draw for me personally. Nothing can beat the sound of these amazing machines. Some of the flying warbirds included: 10x P-51s, 4x C-47s, 4x P-47s, 3x P-40s, 2x F-7Fs, 2x B-25s, 2x P-38s, an AD-4, F-4U, A-26, FM2, F6F, PB4Y, A6M, FW-190, P-2, P-26, AT-12, AT-6, BT-13, Yak-3, TBM Avenger, SBD Dauntless, Spitfire, 3 T-33s, and a Mig-15.....just to name a few.

The United States Air Force F-16 Viper Demonstration Team took the skies and Major John 'Rain' Waters put the mighty Viper through its paces in a very aggressive display of modern air power. He concluded his demonstration by forming up with several warbirds each day for the always impressive Heritage Flight. This was Major Waters final display with the Viper West Demonstration Team. We wish him the best in his next adventure.

Chino is one of the can't miss airshows every year. There is always a different theme, and enough different participants to keep it fresh each and every year. I'm looking forward to next year's commemoration and am already counting down to May in 2020.

Hands on History at CAF’s AirPower History Tour

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With only two airworthy examples remaining of nearly 4,000 airframes built, it’s a rare treat to see a B-29 in observation. Aviation geeks from near and far had that opportunity during the recent stop of the Commemorative Air Force’s AirPower History Tour stop at Oakland County International Airport in Southeast Michigan. The airport, known to pilots at “Pontiac” is located in the city of Waterford and is surrounded by the inland lakes that are famous in the region, and is celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019. What better way to celebrate than a visit from one of the rarest warbirds in operation?

The aircraft arrived on 1 July ahead of public exhibition from July 3rd to 7th. The B-29, known as “FiFi”, is the crown jewel of the CAF fleet and was joined on this leg of the tour by a PT-13 Stearman and a T-6 Texan, both of which were offering rides throughout the week. FiFi was available for walkthrough cockpit tours (included with the ramp fee) during the visit, with her 10 passenger seats being available for the two scheduled rides each morning on the tour’s weekend days.

To aviation enthusiasts, the B-29 needs no introduction. The pressurized heavy bomber was state of the art in the 1940s when it entered service with the US Army Air Corps, and is widely credited for ending World War II through the firebombing of Tokyo as well as the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition to pressurization, other innovations present on the aircraft included remote controlled defensive gun turrets and tricycle landing gear. Of the 3,970 B-29s built, only 26 are preserved, with 24 of those in the USA, and two of them being airworthy. For many years, FiFi stood alone as the only operating B-29, though she was joined by Doc in more recent years. The B-29’s distant cousins in the form of the Guppy series aircraft are still operated by NASA to haul outsized cargo to this day.

The B-29 was originally powered by the 55 Liter, 18 Cylinder Wright R-3350 radial engines. Initially the massive radials required frequent maintenance and replacement, though they eventually developed into reliable machines powering the Famed Lockheed Constellation, DC-7, and A-1 Skyraider among many others. Fifi utilized the aircraft’s original -57AM engines that resulted in downtime for the big bomber. In 2006, FiFi was grounded and the long process of refitting new custom engines based off of two of the more reliable R-3350 variants was undertaken. After 4 years on the ground, FiFi returned to the skies in 2010, and has once again been traveling the country with each of her cowlings bearing the name of her engines which, apparently, all have somewhat unique personalities.

History buffs, aviation fans, and folks who just happened to be passing through filled the ramp, seizing the opportunity to spend some time up close and personal with one of the most recognizable aircraft in today’s skies. The tour’s star was roped off awaiting riders first thing in the morning, with the Stearman and Texan also sectioned off on the hot side of the ramp. The trainers spent the morning taking riders up for short trips in the local area while FiFi remained grounded due to a lack of suitable divert fields. As it became clear that the weather would not cooperate, the crew prepped the B-29 for cockpit tours for the gathered crowd which commenced ahead of schedule.

Attendees young and old patiently waited in line for their turn to climb aboard FiFi, which involved a climb up through the front bomb bay between racks of replica 500 pound general purpose bombs. At the top of the ladder you step through a small hatch in the cockpit section’s pressure bulkhead into the radio/navigator’s area. Immediately behind you as you enter the aircraft, you can see the tunnel that passes between the front and rear sections of the aircraft over the unpressurized bomb bays. The tunnel is not much wider than an adult’s shoulders, and it looked to be a long and uncomfortable crawl from the cockpit to the gunner’s compartment in the aft end of the plane.

Turning back towards the front, you’re greeted by a rack of radio equipment to your right and the navigator’s station to your left. The map on the navigator’s table is signed by MAJ Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator on Enola Gay’s fateful mission on 6 August, 1945 in which the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. “Dutch” was the final surviving member of Enola Gay’s crew, and it was a moving moment to realize that a man who was a part of one of history’s most impactful chapters was once right where I stood at that moment.

Leaving that piece of history behind, one walks forward towards a truly expansive cockpit by modern standards. The pilot and copilot sit on opposite sides of the aircraft, with a wide path between them leading to the bombardier’s seat. The flight engineer sits facing rearwards behind the copilot, and has a full set of engine controls as well as a wall of gauges in front of him. One can not help but notice the resemblance to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, with the fictional starship’s design having clearly been influenced by this legendary World War II bomber. Historical accuracy takes a back seat to flight safety in the cockpit, where modern instruments are mixed in with original era hardware to make up the panels of the pilot, copilot, and flight engineer. A decidedly non-period correct mount was present to hold the pilot’s GPS for additional navigational capability despite the presence of the navigator’s station immediately aft, certainly better safe than sorry with this priceless piece of history! One can only imagine the amount of coordination and communication that must go on between the crew to keep this 74 year old bomber happy and healthy in the air. Exiting the aircraft is done through a hatch in the floor of the cockpit, climbing down a ladder through the nosegear bay and back to ground level.

When she’s not touring the country making appearances at airports and airshows, FiFi resides in Ft. Worth, TX and is operated by the CAF’s B-29/B-24 squadron. The aircraft was acquired by the Confederate (now Commemorative) Air Force in 1971, having been used as a missile target and thankfully escaping destruction. Aircraft 44-62070 was built by Boeing in Renton and delivered to the Army Air Corps in 1945. After a hard landing in Colorado, the aircraft had its combat systems removed and was turned into a trainer. Following a storage period, it returned to flight before being retired to the bomb range at China Lake where it sat for over 10 years before being discovered by CAF.

The big radials on FiFi marked their territory on the ramp, and served as a reminder to the gathered crowd that this particular B-29 is no static display tucked away in a museum hangar, rather an active piece of living history that helps tell the story of the greatest generation. Lest one forget the amount of money and maintenance it takes to keep history alive, consider this: FiFi has 72 cylinders with a total of 144 spark plugs and each engine has an 85 gallon tank of oil with 10 gallons of oil consumption, and between 400 and 500 gallons of fuel burn expected per hour. Each winter, FiFi spends about 3-4 months at home base for her annual inspection and other yearly maintenance procedures. Each flight hour results in hundreds of hours of maintenance to keep FiFi flying, hundreds of hours well spent in the eyes of most avgeeks! Between consumables, maintenance and other expenses, costs are estimated at $10,000 per flight hour for a B-29, though one can’t truly put a price on seeing such a rare piece of history in action!

Despite Saturday’s weather issues, Sunday presented a perfect opportunity to fly. To make up for Saturday’s cancellations, FiFi took to the skies 4 times! Each flight began with the process of starting the bomber up. The two inside engines were started at the parking spot, rumbling to life with an unmistakable sound and smell known to warbird aficionados around the world. Due to low ground clearance of the outside propellers on narrow taxiways, the B-29 taxis using only its #2 and 3 engines. Upon reaching the end of the runway, the other two engines are started and final preflight checks were performed in position on Pontiac’s 6,500 foot Runway 9R. Even from nearly a mile away, the roar of 72 cylinders of radial power echoed around the parking ramp in front of the terminal. FiFi picked up speed and broke ground about halfway down the runway, slowly climbing as speed built up. In order to keep the engines cool, airspeed is a priority over altitude when taking off. Keeping the big Wrights happy is key to keeping the 70+ year old bomber in the skies, and ensuring the cylinders were cool is a good start to do that. The rumble of the radials faded into the distance as one of the two remaining airworthy B-29s spent about 40 minutes flying the fortunate passengers on a trip around the Southeast Michigan skies like none other. Upon return, FiFi came in and performed an overhead break before coming in for a landing. Shutting down the #1 and 4 engines to taxi back to the parking area, the bomber crept back onto a set of steel plates on the ramp. Due to the wheel loading on the 6 landing gear tires, the plates were an effort to ensure the asphalt taxiway/ramp area that FiFi was parked on wasn’t damaged.

As the engines were shut down and FiFi was buttoned up at the end of the tour stop, it was a great moment to reflect on the history that she represents. While this airframe never saw combat, FiFi and Doc represent the pinnacle of WWII bomber technology, and represent one of the most important aircraft from the era. Many of the innovations from the B-29 are still used on aircraft to this day, and to see this aircraft so advanced for its day remains a rare treat.

In short, if the opportunity presents itself to see FiFi in the flesh at an airshow or CAF tour event, run, do not walk, to the nearest appearance. Every donation helps keep the historical treasures flying and telling the story of the greatest generation, whose sacrifices must never be forgotten. The dedication and efforts of organizations like the Commemorative Air Force as stewards of history is admirable, and it is an honor to be able to share the experience they keep alive with readers.

Nine-O-Nine Has Crashed

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A few days ago, the Collings Foundation’s B-17G, “Nine-O-Nine” crashed while returning to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. Seven crew members and passengers died, while seven more people in the plane and on the ground were injured. The highly visible aircraft, part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, had departed with ten passengers and three crew members; it was attempting to return to the airport after a crew member mentioned a problem with an engine in a conversation with air traffic controllers.

Through local and national news outlets, horrific photos of the aftermath of the crash were published, but information about the accident, and the people involved, couldn’t come fast enough. A full briefing finally occurred almost twenty four hours after the seventy five year-old bomber went down just short of Bradley’s runway six.

Pilot Ernest McCauley and co-pilot Michael Foster were killed in the crash, but flight engineer Mitchell Melton survived. McCauley had flown with the Collings Foundation for twenty years, and had over 7,300 hours flying B-17s, Foster had spent five years with the organization. The aircraft was a common sight in the New England area, although it toured throughout the country as part of the Wings of Freedom tour.

Members of aviation communities in general, and especially the Warbird community, were saddened by the loss of the pilots and passengers, as well as the iconic Boeing strategic bomber. Social media lit up as people talked about their experiences and the lasting memories the crew members and the aircraft gave them.

Our group of writers and photographers sends our deepest sympathy to those who lost a friend, family member, or fellow volunteer. To those who were injured and survived the crash, we offer hope for a speedy and full recovery. We’ve reported in our journals on some of the great “living history” that the Collings Foundation presents through various events… and hope that they will continue fulfilling this goal going forward. We wish the Foundation’s members peace during this difficult time.

Understandably for many people, the remainder of the 2019 Wings of Freedom Tour has been cancelled.

Here are a few photos of “Nine-O-Nine” over the years, as some of us have seen her at air shows and during past Wings of Freedom Tour stops.

World War II Weekend, 2019

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In it's 29th consecutive year, World War II Weekend descended upon Reading, Pennsylvania during the first weekend in June. I discovered this show in 2010 and have attended regularly since. To be assigned as the lone media representative from Photo Recon was a privilege but also daunting because this show is so big. It is, in fact, the largest World War II event in the country. Thousands of reenactors take part and the vast encampments preserve the authenticity of the period. There is so much to see and I admit that I do not take the time for a lot of it. I have followed a consistent pattern of behavior year after year where I enjoy the displays, the reenactors, various goings on around me and the flea market. I then relocate to the fields on the other side of Reading Regional Airport to photograph the airshow with a cooler full of food and drinks and the sun behind my back. I also only attend the show for one day.

For photography, the sun is good in the morning on Runway 13/31but deteriorates by the afternoon for the airshow. My one track mind to photograph aircraft always has me on the other side in the afternoon so I have not seen what goes on within the show grounds in the afternoon. For instance, I have never seen the recreation of the Battle of Iwo Jima and the flag raising on Mount Suribachi but I have seen the smoke from a distance.

By the time the airshow started, the runway operation changed to the 13 end. Not as desirable as a Runway 31 operation from our vantage point. All-in-all, though, the weather was very good all weekend except for some clouds and although a few aircraft did not make it in, the flying schedule was pretty full and plenty exciting.

Morning operations give you plenty of opportunities to photograph the aircraft offering rides like the B-29, B-17, B-25, P-51, P-40, PT-17, PT-19 and T-6. They are out 15 to 30 minutes before returning. The rest of the time is spent exploring the grounds among the reenactors. There is also a parade of all the World War II vehicles from jeeps to half tracks and tanks. The atmosphere is a lot of fun.

Fast forward to the airshow. The airshow follows a familiar pattern of Warbird shows where Liaison aircraft and trainers get things started. A T-6 breaks out into a solo aerobatic routine by Kevin Russo. There were a few other aerobatic acts like the BU-133 "Jungmeister" biplane and Greg Koonts in a Piper J3 Cub.

Some amphibious aircraft participated which included the PBY Catalina and a Grumman Widgeon in Coast Guard colors that I have never seen before.

The Pacific Flight was next and featured an FG-1 Corsair, TBM Avenger, FM-2 Wildcat, Replica Japanese aircraft, a Kate torpedo bomber, a Val divebomber, a Zero, and there was an actual rebuilt Zero that encountered a problem and did not launch. The Corsair performed a solo routine. Later, Greg Shelton also performed a solo routine in the Wildcat. The Zero was supposed to simulate a dogfight with him. I did catch a little of this from afternoon practice on Friday.

A massive flight was combined when the transports were sent up with the bombers. C-47 "Hairless Joe", C-46 "Tinker Belle" (Actually named The Tinker Belle), B-17 "Yankee Lady", B-24 "Diamond Lil", and B-25s "Yankee Warrior" and "Panchito".

B-29 "Fifi" has a flight slot all to herself. She lumbers by at high speeds and you can feel the power.fighters closed out the show featuring solo routines from Thom Richard in the P-40 "Jacky C" and a P-51 Mustang, "Tiger's Revenge". The other P-51, "Red Nose" and the relaunched Corsair joined up for the missing man formation. All aircraft landed and the airshow was officially over. Once the waiver expires, aircraft take off again for more rides. On the show grounds, there is a dinner and hangar dance to round out Saturday night.

Whenever anyone asks me about a good Warbird airshow or a World War II experience, in general, I tell them about World War II Weekend. This is the place and the show you need to visit. Authenticity in the large number of reenactors, veterans present and sharing their stories, a flea market where you can buy almost anything from the era, and a really fun atmosphere that keeps me and even the wife coming back every year.

With our World War II Veterans passing in great numbers every year, if you ever thought about coming to the show, put it on your calendar for next June and do it. Your life will forever be enriched by sharing a moment or hearing a story from our greatest generation.