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WW II planes still fly - with a lot of TLC

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 19, 2008 - Amid the cornfields of rural St. Charles County, at a former World War II flight training station, air men and women of a later generation carry on for the cause with a small fleet of historic aircraft. Their mission: preserve, protect and promote vintage planes as symbols of patriotism during that critical period of American history.

These 21st century flyboys and their ground crew are part of the Missouri Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, based at Smartt Field, St. Charles County Airport. About 120 strong, they are dedicated to the maintenance, operation and display of three WW II-era aircraft: a North American B-25J Mitchell medium bomber, a Grumman TBM-3E torpedo bomber and a U.S. Army Aeronca L-3B observation plane. The planes, all on loan from the national organization, are regularly featured in air shows around the country.

The B-25, christened "Show Me" by the Wing, is the type aircraft Lieutenant Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle and his squadron flew in their daring 1942 raid on Tokyo. Launched at sea from the carrier U.S.S. Hornet more than 600 miles away, 16 modified B-25s were the first American bombers to retaliate against the enemy homeland after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor. Because of the distance and payload, the planes were unable to carry enough fuel for a return trip. After the raid, they were to land in China, where partisans were to help the 80 Americans reunite with Allied forces. Eighteen airmen were either killed or taken prisoner.

The TBMs were nicknamed the "Avenger" for their quick entrance to the war effort shortly after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Among Avengers' accomplishments were four torpedo hits on the mighty Japanese battleship Yamato, the world's most heavily armed warship.

The Wing also maintains on site a small museum of WW II memorabilia, including uniforms, weapons, dioramas, historic newspaper pages and maps.

Pat Kesler, a U.S. Air Force veteran and retired commercial pilot with US Airways, is the Wing leader.

"These are people who volunteer their time because they have an interest in keeping the memory of these planes - and the people who built, flew and repaired them - alive," says Kesler, who like other officers in the organization carries the honorary title of colonel.

To be sure, membership has its perks. Kesler says members who put in the time, be it sweeping out the hangar or fine-tuning one of the B-25J's 14-cyclinder engines, are eligible to fly to air shows aboard one of the vintage aircraft.

To actually pilot one of the aircraft, members have to be licensed. But the mechanics, hangar-sweepers and other helpers are eligible to ride in the waistgunner seats in the rear of the plane, a view unlike anything you'll get in coach or first class.

"Most people say, 'Wow! You get to fly around in one of these?' " Kesler says. "We also take a PX trailer to the shows and sell T-shirts and dog tags and such. ... It's a real kick, a hoot going to an air show."

Appearance fees and membership dues are two sources of income for the Wing, an affiliate of the national Commemorative Air Force based in Midland, Texas. Kesler says the Wing makes 12-16 appearances during the April-November air show season. But keeping these 60-year-old-plus planes flight worthy requires additional income streams.

Two of the planes, the TBM and the B-25J, are undergoing engine rebuilds or replacements off site at a combined price tag of almost $100,000.

"Fortunately, we have two area businessmen, Tee Baur and Jack Taylor, who have created a maintenance endowment," Kesler says. "If it weren't for these guys, it would be difficult to fly these things."

Both men, Kesler says, have strong sentimental reasons for backing the organization. He says Baur's namesake uncle was shot down over Italy in WWII and Taylor, founder of the car-rental  company Enterprise, was a Navy pilot in the war.

It's all about honoring the past, Kesler says.

"These planes are a hands-on, noise-making, fuel-burning source of actual history," Kesler says. "They're visual education of what our guys and gals had to work with during the war. It's important to keep them running so as many people as possible can look and touch ... a physical piece of history."

Ray Jordan is a freelance journalist. 

The basics

What: Commemorative Air Force, Missouri Wing

Where: Smartt Field, St. Charles Airport, Grafton Ferry Road, just off Highway 94

Open to the public: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the year. Hours vary on weekdays, depending on personnel available. Saturday times are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Information: 636-250-4515

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