Take a Ride in a B-25
From engine fumes to exhilaration, here’s what to expect.
- By Phil Scott
- Air & Space magazine, May 2011
(Page 2 of 3)
The number of flights has dropped from an average of 32 a year to 26 in 2009. Terry blames the recession; the company’s customer base—World War II veterans—is also dwindling rapidly. “Taking four passengers for a flight is break-even,” says Terry. To compensate for lost revenue, they’re flying more second-in-command training: For a $5,000 donation, they teach the fine points of copiloting, and the student gets to fly from the right seat for two hours. The photo missions too, which can carry two photographers at a time, fetch $2,500 an hour.
The United States is blanketed with similar organizations, which, like Terry’s foundation, fly passengers in all types of World War II aircraft: Boeing B-17s, Consolidated B-24s, North American P-51s and T-6s, and yes, plenty of B-25s. Nearly 10,000 of the twin-engine medium bombers were built, and they flew in every theater of World War II. The military retired its last B-25 in 1960. After the war, the bombers found work as civilian transports and firefighting aircraft.
In fact, B-25s are so ubiquitous that Pacific Prowler wasn’t the only one at the Alliance airshow. Barbie III, parked outside the ropes, is owned and operated by History Flight, a Marathon, Florida-based organization. At the airshow, American Airlines paid History Flight to fly passengers for American’s Sky Ball: If the airline hadn’t done so, History Flight could not have afforded to make the journey from Florida to Texas—the decrease in the number of passengers would have made it impossible to cover operating costs. “People don’t have the disposable income these days,” says John Makinson, History Flight’s chief pilot and flight instructor.
The competition, the 800-pound, alpha-male, silverback gorilla on the tarmac, is the Commemorative Air Force, with more than 150 warbirds in 72 units across the country. “We visit 100 airshows annually,” says Autumn Hicks, the CAF’s director of public relations. “And you can get a ride in quite a few of them,” including three B-25s (Yellow Rose, Maid in the Shade, and Miss Mitchell).
“The CAF has all kinds of vintage airplanes, and they can put together an entire airshow package,” says Terry. “Since it’s all volunteers, they can do it pretty cheap.” Even so, “the recession has done a lot of damage to what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Hicks.
The day before my flight in Pacific Prowler, Scott Perdue took me on a quick tour of the bomber. After a while, he abandoned me beneath the shade of the B-25’s wing. As I sat there, a 30ish man carrying a kid walked across the nearly vacant apron toward the Prowler. I convinced myself that I wouldn’t show off or even get involved. He warily touched the barrel of the machine gun mounted in the nose, then moved in to inspect the left prop. The kid squirmed, and when the man let him down, he shot under the bomber and into the open bomb bay doors. The man rushed after him. And I followed them both.
“Check out the autographs,” I said. The man, stunned, took a quick glance at all the signatures in black Sharpie.
“They’re all World War II airmen,” I explained. “There are supposed to be a couple of Doolittle Raiders here, but I can’t find them.”
“Who were they?” asked the man.
“The Doolittle Raiders?” I said. “Four months after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Doolittle loaded 16 of these bad boys on an aircraft carrier and bombed Tokyo. They took off from the deck of the Hornet—in this heavy-assed bomber.” The man nodded and pulled the kid from the bomb bay into the sunlight. “There’s a great book about it,” I added. “It’s called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, by Ted Lawson. He was one of the Raiders.”