Commemorative Air Force Brings Aviation History to Life

Commemorative Air Force volunteer mechanics pass on the knowledge of how to maintain historic warbirds, such as this SNJ-5 Texan, in flying condition to new generations. Jon Whittle

Drivers, motorcyclists, bikers and pedestrians craned their heads to the skies as military trainers, combat fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft made their way over the city in a series of formations, commemorating the 70th anniversary of V-E Day (victory in Europe).

World War II was a special era in the history of aviation, the likes of which we will probably never see again. People from all walks of life got their hands dirty building, flying and maintaining airplanes to support the war effort. With the help of the masses, aircraft manufacturers were cranking out warbirds by the thousands, and engineers were busy maximizing the speed and agility of the airplanes.

When the war ended, the government swiftly canceled its pending orders, and thousands of airplanes that today would be considered rare and beautiful treasures were destroyed for scrap metal. Were it not for organizations such as the Commemorative Air Force, many of these historical machines would be confined to the ash heap of history. CAF alone has taken more than 165 of these historic airplanes of more than 60 different types under its wing.

The CAF's A6M3 Zero at Camarillo Airport. Jon Whittle

Unlike many warbird museums, CAF’s main mission is to restore and maintain warbirds in flying condition. It all began with the one airplane that still to this day has been hailed as one of the most victorious and stunning ever to roll out of an aircraft factory — the North American P-51 Mustang.

A man by the name of Lloyd Nolen brought a group of former service pilots together to purchase one of these beautiful performers in 1957 in Rio Grande Valley, Texas. The group ponied up a total of $2,500, bought a Mustang and named it Old Red Nose — the airplane was recently restored to pristine condition and is actively flying. Soon after its P-51 purchase, the group added two Grumman F8F Bearcats to its fleet.

Out of around 300,000 warbirds built in the United States during World War II, only a small number remained by 1960. Concerned that these historic treasures would eventually be destroyed, the group worked swiftly with the ultimate goal of saving at least one of each warbird model from that era. In 1961, CAF, then named the Confederate Air Force, was formed as a nonprofit organization, and by the end of that year, the number of airplanes had grown to nine. “The membership voted to change the name in 2001 due to the fact that it did not accurately reflect our mission and was becoming a distraction to this mission,” explains Steve Brown, CAF’s president and CEO.

Volunteers stand inside the hangar at CAF's SoCal Wing at California's Camarillo Airport. Jon Whittle

The first official CAF museum was opened at Rebel Field in Mercedes, Texas, in 1965, with one 26,000-square-foot building. Three years later, the organization had outgrown that facility and moved, taking the airport name with it to a new location in Harlingen, Texas, where CAF occupied three large buildings. Later, for many years, the organization was housed in Midland, Texas. But in 2015, its headquarters were moved to the Dallas Executive Airport right smack in the Dallas metropolitan area to be closer to a larger population of people, Brown says.

CAF has big plans for its new location, which will become the CAF National Airbase. “We’re going to build an aviation attraction unlike any other in the world,” Brown says. “What gives us that ability is that our airplanes fly. You may see an airplane inside on display, and later that day, you may see that same airplane outside of the building, loading up passengers to fly.”

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“‘Everyone flies’ will be the mantra when you come to visit the National Airbase, whether it is a kid in a pedal plane, a teenager in a flight simulator or an adult loading up to take flight in the only flyable B-29 Superfortress in the world,” Brown says. The new location will also be accessible to faraway travelers, with Dallas serving as a top international and domestic airline hub.

But the headquarters is just one of many locations where you can experience CAF warbirds. The organization has what it calls “units” — wings, squadrons, detachments and airbases. There are currently 79 units in 25 states, each one started by local CAF members.

There are times when an airplane has already been donated directly to the new unit. If not, the CAF headquarters does its best to find an airplane for the unit. In most cases it may be something fairly simple, such as a North American T-6 Texan or SNJ. But the Southern California Wing, which formed 35 years ago and is based at the Camarillo Airport, was offered a Curtiss C-46F Commando — a heavy transport airplane — named China Doll.

China Doll, a C-46F Commando that was the first plane donated to and restored by the SoCal Wing, became a huge draw at airshows. Jon Whittle

The SoCal Wing was both dedicated and fortunate, says Pat Brown, one of the wing's founding members who, today, serves as its public information officer. A member who was qualified to fly the massive airplane donated the funding required to get its two engines running. A team of mechanics went to Texas every weekend until the C-46 was ready to fly to California. China Doll became a huge draw at airshows, and the SoCal Wing had no trouble fundraising to keep the C-46F flying and growing its fleet.

Today, the SoCal Wing's three hangars house 12 aircraft, including a P-51, Fairchild P-19A Cornell and Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat, as well as non-U.S. WWII examples, like its Supermarine Spitfire MK XIV and an original Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero. There is also a North American PBJ-1J B-25 Mitchell bomber that has been in restoration since 1993 and recently made its first flight in 23 years. With an extensive museum and gift shop, a brand-new 33,000-square-foot hangar and big plans for the future, the SoCal Wing is on its way to becoming an airbase, a status attained by only one other unit — CAF Airbase Arizona located at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, Arizona.

So how did all of the airplanes and memorabilia at the SoCal Wing arrive? “It all just came to us,” Pat Brown says. “We had no idea. We thought we would support one airplane.” And once word spread of the bustling museum, donations and offers to take over the collections from other museums rolled in.

Airplanes maintained at the remote units belong mostly to CAF, with the exception of a few that are on loan. In cases where warbird owners or surviving family members can no longer fly and maintain their airplanes, CAF is there to help. In many cases, the airplanes are eventually donated to CAF.

Visitors at the CAF SoCal Wing in Camarillo can walk through the Curtiss C-46 Commando China Doll, which showcases World War II-era equipment, such as this navigator station, parachute and oxygen tank. Jon Whittle

Steve Brown's goal with CAF is to allow these historic airplanes to impact all Americans, not just the aviation crowd. In addition to CAF units and the airplanes' attendance at airshows, CAF's Airpower History Tour flies the famous B-29 bomber FIFI along with five or six other warbirds around the country to teach people about World War II history and allow them to interact with the airplanes. "It's like a traveling circus," he says. "We take the airshow out on the road to places that may not have the wherewithal or the size to create an actual airshow."

Airpower History Tour visitors can also experience warbirds in flight. Anyone can book a ride through, with costs ranging from $75 to $1,795 depending on the platform.

Another educational program is the Rise Above Traveling Exhibit. The current exhibit is a fully contained movie theater that uses the example of the Tuskegee Airmen to educate visitors and inspire children to rise above any challenge to achieve their dreams, Brown says. More Rise Above exhibits are planned for the future.

Today, CAF supports about 13,000 members through several levels of membership ranging from $45 per year for students to $300 for a full supporting member.

However, membership dues only put a slight dent in the cost of restoring, maintaining and flying these historic airplanes, so fundraising is a major component of CAF’s operations. The units fundraise by bringing their airplanes to local airshows, charging admission for museum displays, hosting events and more.

A restored SNJ-4 Texan proudly sits in a CAF hangar at Camarillo Airport. Jon Whittle

CAF took to a new fundraising effort with its latest large restoration That's All, Brother — a Douglas C-47 (known in the civilian world as the DC-3). A hugely successful Kickstarter campaign brought in $328,736 to date, and the project is currently going through a heavy engineering phase, removing corrosion and restoring the airframe — a project expected to take 3,000 man-hours to complete. CAF hopes to bring the C-47 to Europe for a celebration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.

If it is your dream to take the controls of a warbird, you can. All you need to do is become a CAF Colonel (a $200 annual commitment), join a local unit and put in some volunteer hours. The return on investment — the ability to literally experience history — is well worth it.

“Many memberships will give you discounts on rental cars and all kinds of stuff,” Brown says. “But if you join us, your membership gets you the opportunity to give more of your time, effort and money to keep these airplanes flying.”

If you love warbirds and want to see them continue flying for the benefit of future generations, it’s a priceless investment.

See more images of the CAF SoCal Wing's fleet. Photo Gallery

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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