Where the Warbirds Come From

Backstories of some of the airplanes in the May 8 D.C. flyover.

More Stearmans are flying today—about 1,000—than any other type of World War II trainer. Each one in the group appearing in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover is owned by an individual pilot, all living near Warrenton, Virginia. (Paul Bowen)
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The airplanes flying over the National Mall on May 8 were all built before or during World War II. They have been restored and are maintained, at a cost that would terrify most of us, by individual owners or by organizations of volunteers. The largest of these, the Commemorative Air Force, started in 1957, when a group of former military pilots pooled their money to buy a P-51 Mustang, and has grown to 12,000 members in 63 chapters, operating 160 vintage military airplanes. Another group, the Texas Flying Legends Museum, is no ordinary air museum but a traveling airshow that demonstrates 12 warbirds at events around the country. Eight Texas Flying Legends will appear in the flyover, including the four that will fly a Missing Man formation at the end: a Mustang, Corsair, Warhawk, and TBM Avenger flown by Congressman Sam Graves of Missouri.

Fagen Fighters World War II Museum in Granite Falls, Minnesota, is sending a B-25 Mitchell medium bomber and a Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Founded by Ron Fagen, a construction entrepreneur who has built the majority of U.S. ethanol plants, the museum honors World War II veterans, especially Fagen’s father, who was with the 4th Infantry when the division stormed Utah Beach and was wounded several times as he fought his way through France. Fagen Fighters & Warhawks also restored one of the few aircraft in the flyover that engaged in combat during the war, a P-40K Warhawk recovered from the Soviet Union in 1996.

Five aircraft are coming from the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, one of the largest private collections of World War II (and World War I) aircraft in the United States. The Museum’s annual World War II airshow, Warbirds Over the Beach, will take place May 15 through 17, the weekend following the flyover.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
Sporting the shark’s teeth nose art and the Flying Tiger logo of the American Volunteer Group—U.S. pilots who fought the Japanese on behalf of China before the United States entered the war—the Military Aviation Museum’s Curtis P-40 actually flew in the Soviet Union, not in China, during World War II. The aircraft’s paint scheme is modeled on the aircraft flown by ace pilot David Lee “Tex” Hill, a Flying Tiger credited with destroying 18 enemy aircraft. Although Hill’s signature adorns the aircraft’s baggage compartment, the fighter was exported, as part of the Lend Lease program, first to England. In April 1942, it was transferred to the Soviet Union. “All we know is it was with the Russians and assigned to a Soviet fighter squadron near Murmansk,” Says Felix Usis, MAM historian. “It was evidently shot down or lost power and did not make it home.” The aircraft remained on the tundra until it was recovered in 1992. (Richard Mallory Allnutt)
Curtiss P-40K Warhawk
The U.S. warbird community is like a small town: Everybody knows everybody, and trades and deals abound, all with the shared purpose of keeping the airplanes flying. The Texas Flying Legends P-40 was bought as a “project,” frequently a euphemism for a pile of parts and pieces, by collector Ken Hake of Tipton, Kansas. It was acquired and restored by Ron Fagen of Fagen Fighters & Warhawks in Minnesota and awarded a Grand Champion for the restoration by the Experimental Aircraft Association before it found its way to the Texas Flying Legends.

The Warhawk is painted as one of the “Aleutian Tigers” of the 343rd Fighter Group, which operated in Alaska in 1942 and 1943. The group was commanded by John “Jack” Chennault, the son of Claire Chennault who led the Flying Tigers in China. (Luigino Caliaro)
PBY-5A Catalina
The Consolidated PBY-5A has one of the Military Aviation Museum’s most interesting histories. Accepted by the Navy in November 1943, it flew search-and-rescue and combat patrols from North Africa to the Caribbean and the North Atlantic before being retired in August 1956. From 1977 to 1982, it worked remote areas of Alaska carrying passengers or hauling fuel. Federal marshals confiscated it in 1985, because it was being used to transport illegal drugs. Sold again by the U.S. government in 1987, it began a slow transformation back to its wartime appearance while in California.  After six years, it was sold once more, and still in warbird paint, spent time in Italy and attended airshows in Switzerland.  On its way to the U.S. in 2000, following a stint in South Africa, engine trouble kept the flying boat in England. During an extended stay, the Catalina acquired a new paint job to appear in a movie as the PBY that spotted the battleship Bismarck.  The Military Aviation Museum acquired it in 2001. (Richard Mallory Allnutt)
Grumman (General Motors) FM-2 Wildcat
Built by General Motors in Trenton, New Jersey, the Military Aviation Museum’s FM-2 was accepted by the Navy on April 14, 1944. “It’s one of the few airplanes we have the logbooks [for] from a long, long time ago,” says historian Felix Usis. Initially stationed on the West Coast, it was transferred back east in 1945. Late in its military life, the Wildcat was assigned to the Civil Air Patrol and it flew search-and-rescue missions in Virginia. After it was acquired by the museum in 2009, it was repainted to match its appearance when it entered Navy service. “This airplane finally came home,” says Usis. It had been assigned to Navy Squadron VF-97A and stationed at Naval Air Auxiliary Field Pungo, a station “about two miles up the road.” (Moreno Aguiari)
Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless
“Lady in Blue” was finally hoisted aboard an aircraft carrier in 1975, for the retirement ceremony of then Commander of the Atlantic Fleet Admiral Ralph W. Cousins, who had flown the dive bombers during World War II. This particular Dauntless spent the war Stateside with the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics and afterward was sold to the Skywriting Corporation of America, which quickly found it too expensive to operate as a skywriter. It’s next job was with an aerial photography company in Mexico, until warbird savior Ed Maloney acquired it for the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. The CAF bought it from Maloney, and Dixie Wing leader Jim Buckley calls it “one of the nicest landing airplanes” he ever flew. The Dixie Wing will be selling rides in the Dauntless at the MidAtlantic Air Museum’s War War 2 Weekend in Reading, Pennsylvania on June 5, 6, and 7. (David F. Brown)
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
In 2004, Warbird pilot Kevin Eldredge, the chief pilot of the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, tipped off Don Fagen and his son Evan about the Lockheed P-38J that was for sale in Santa Rosa, California. Built in 1945, the Lightning did not enter combat and was bought from the War Assets Administration in 1946 and competed in the Bendix races until 1955.

During its restoration by Fagen Fighters & Warhawks, the Minnesota restoration hangar received a visit from Norbert Ruff of Bloomer, Wisconsin, who had flow P-38s during the war. Impressed by Ruff’s wartime memories, the Fagens painted their P-38 with nose art and colors of the one Ruff had flown. The restoration won a Judges Choice recognition from EAA in 2007.

Eldredge, who is a member of the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation, will fly the Lightning in the May 8 D.C. flyover, but Evan Fagen is also checked out in the aircraft. “To me, the P-38 is the easiest warbird to fly,” he says. “Its tricycle landing gear makes it easy to land and with twin engines, it doesn’t have the torque of the [P-51] Mustang.”

(Luigino Caliaro)
Consolidated B-24 Diamond Lil
One of the oldest airplanes in the flyover, Diamond Lil was the 25th B-24 built by Consolidated Aircraft, serial number 18 out of more than 18,000, and one of only two B-24s flying today. The airplane “has been flying almost nonstop since 1941, with a few years off here and there,” says Al Benzing, a former Northwest and Delta Air Lines captain who is the Commemorative Air Force Go Team leader for the B-24. The CAF acquired the airplane in 1967 and tours the country offering rides to up to 12 passengers on a flight. The aircraft, which served Stateside during the war, is painted in the livery of the 98th Bomber Group, best known for the 1943-44 raids on Ploesti, Romania oil refineries. Benzing estimates the hourly cost of operating the vintage bomber is nearly $5,000, counting the labor of the maintenance staff and the 200 gallons of gas it burns in an hour. (Scott Slocum)
Grumman TBM-3E Avenger
The U.S. Navy accepted this Avenger as an anti-submarine platform on May  26 , 1945. Nine years later, the service put the aircraft in storage at Litchfield Park, Arizona and retired it on April 2, 1956 with only 1,227 hours. With a civilian registration of N7030C, the Grumman began a new career in 1963 as a fire tanker, capable of dropping 600 gallons of fire retardant. Its current paint job reflects its early life as an anti-submarine platform; it is painted to represent an aircraft flown by Navy Captain Richard “Zeke” Cormier of squadron VC-1 aboard the escort carrier USS Card (CVE-11). The Military Aviation Museum acquired the aircraft in January 2001, and it made one of its most notable flights in 2009 during the commissioning of the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77). It flew over the ceremony to honor Bush, a former Avenger pilot. (Richard Mallory Allnutt)
Goodyear FG-1D Corsair
The FG-1D Corsair was built under license by Goodyear in May, 1945. After spending much of its military life in storage, it was released by the Navy in November 1956 with very little time on the airframe. The fighter was purchased as a gift by a California family in 1964 and, four years later, traded for a North American AT-6. After a series of owners, the Corsair ended up in Oklahoma City with a World War II veteran and Marine pilot, who repainted the aircraft in Marine colors and fitted it with replica rockets. The Military Aviation Museum acquired it in 1999 and restored it to World War II authenticity in 2001. Today it carries the Navy markings of Ray Beacham, who flew in the South Pacific for VF-17, the Jolly Rogers. (Richard Mallory Allnutt)
Boeing B-29 FIFI
The CAF found its Superfortress, one of only two airworthy B-29s, in 1971 at a Navy weapons test center in California, where it had been used as a gunnery target. According to Mark Watt’s Warbird Depot, a CAF maintenance team with an army of volunteers restored the airplane to flying condition in nine weeks, then gassed it up and flew it 1,250 miles to CAF Headquarters, then in Harlingen, Texas. It was named FIFI in honor of the wife of a veteran who helped develop the B-29 during the war and who financed the restoration. After the flyover in Washington, D.C., FIFI will offer rides on a 26-city tour. (Scott Slocum)
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