Vintage roar: WWII planes soon soaring into Janesville

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Jim Dayton
Wednesday, August 9, 2017

JANESVILLE—In one week, Janesville residents might catch a glimpse of vintage World War II airplanes flying overhead.

But the first thing they'll notice is the roar, even for those not hitching a ride inside.

“We always tell people, 'Your teeth are going to rattle. It's going to be loud and really uncomfortable,'” said Kim Pardon, public information officer for the Commemorative Air Force's AirPower History Tour. “But these airplanes were built for your freedom, not your comfort.”

The AirPower History Tour will return to Janesville (it stopped here last summer, too) from Aug. 16-20 to do aerial tours in 70-year-old aircraft. Four airplanes will be in attendance, including a B-29 Superfortress, one of the premier bombers of World War II.

A P-51 Mustang Gunfighter, T-6 Texan and Boeing Stearman will join the Superfortress FIFI, for those military buffs who were wondering.

The AirPower History Tour's origins date back to 1957. One of the organization's founders purchased a World War II plane and began collecting as many military aircraft as possible, Pardon said.
Historical preservation was an early motivator.

“They saw the airplanes were being destroyed. After World War II, the jet era started. They were taking (World War II aircraft) out to the desert and chopping them up,” Pardon said. “(The organization's members) felt like if they didn't have the airplanes they'd all be gone, and there would be nothing left to tell the story.”

The goal was to keep the airplanes in flying condition. The Commemorative Air Force now boasts a collection of 165 airplanes housed throughout the United States, she said.

A handful of planes saw combat. Even for those that didn't, millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers have been necessary to restore the aircraft and keep them functional.

They're all more than 70 years old, after all.

And old airplanes fly a bit differently than plush airliners.

Allan Benzing, a retired commercial pilot who now flies on the AirPower History Tour, said the vintage aircraft are designed for function and lack modern amenities. The controls use a cable system rather than a computerized one, he said.

Without any warbird experience, it took Benzing some time to learn the idiosyncrasies of each plane. He's been with the Commemorative Air Force since 2010 and said each flight is still a learning experience.

But the most important part of the airplanes and the organization's overall mission is World War II education. A banner displayed on aircraft bomb bay doors provides a physical lesson. The banner displays several World War II pilots and shares stories about their wartime missions, Benzing said.

The volunteer crew is well-versed in the history of each airplane. But the most poignant learning opportunities come when a veteran or the family of a veteran steps aboard the aircraft.

“You watch them sit there, and their mind goes back 70 years. It's really something,” Benzing said. “We love to have veterans. There's only a few that come these days. We're very fortunate to have them.”

Other times, families will bring their deceased father's or grandfather's captain's hats as tributes. It becomes emotional as the family reflects on what flying missions at 19 years old must have been like, Pardon said.

Those interested in the event can purchase tickets online. Prices range from $80 to $1,895 depending on which plane customers want to fly in and their seat location inside, she said.

The money goes back into the airplanes. Pardon calls it a “monumental job” to stave off aging and keep the aircraft in flight.

Benzing said he was honored to fly the vintage aircraft. World War II was a vicious time with plenty at stake. Now, several decades removed from the war, Benzing wants to ensure people don't forget about the “Greatest Generation,” he said.

Pardon said World War II was an era unlike any other in American history, and that it needs to be commemorated.

“World War II was a time when an entire country came together,” she said. “Women went to work in factories to build the planes. Children collected scrap metal. Families were on rations.

“It was a time when the entire country worked together to fight tyranny. I don't think we've had a situation like that since. It's a significant story that needs to be told.”

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