Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Take off! (and landing)

All last week I kept hearing an ad on the radio – when I’m driving, I listen to the radio (much safer than cell-phoning or texting). It said that in honor of Minnesota’s sesquicentennial; that is, its 150th birthday, there would be a flyover of antique airplanes above the state capitol in St. Paul on Saturday around noon. My very dear friend Ellen and I love antique cars and planes, so I told her about it and we agreed we’d like to see it. But where were the planes coming from? She got on the Internet and found out they were gathering at the Anoka Airport (Anoka is a distant suburb of St. Paul), and there would be an air show out there. So we changed our plans and went instead to Anoka on Saturday. Another friend, Greta Lynn, was coming into town to visit grandchildren (and sleeping on our couch), so we asked her if she’d have time to come along and she would. So Saturday morning we drove out. They do an air show every year, but never before had they had these magnificent birds to display, and, despite the lack of advertising, the crowd was much larger than anticipated. A veterans’ organization had offered a five-dollar pancake breakfast and there was a very long line waiting for it (which we joined). When we finally got to the head of it, the man taking money asked us how we found out about the air show, noting how stunned the planners were at the turnout. But this was the sort of event that a person finds out about and tells all his friends.

On the taxiway in front of a row of hangers were warplanes from World War II. While we waited for our breakfast, a big silver plane landed and after awhile came taxi-ing up to park, its engines running very raggedly, pocketa, paki, boppety, BAM! and belching blue smoke. It was a B-25 called Miss Mitchell, who was depicted as a scantily-clad young woman on the left front fuselage. On the other side were black bomb silhouettes in clusters of five, each bomb representing a bombing mission. Total: 147! One hundred and forty-seven forays into the teeth of fighter and ground fire. What stories that plane could tell! And now it sat calmly in the warm spring sunlight, its war wounds covered over, Miss Mitchell's paint brightened, its defensive machine guns still bristling in all directions. We were permitted to peer into her open bomb bay, which was surprisingly small. She is privately owned, as were all the planes on display, an amazing fact all by itself. See one like her at http://www.aviation-history.com/north-american/b25.html.

Next was a P-38, one of the oddest-shaped planes I’ve ever seen. At the front end is a cockpit, and the wings each have a big propeller engine – but there’s no back to the fuselage. Instead, the engines run back in stems to where they join the tail, leaving a square hole in the center of the plane. The German pilots who had to deal with it called it the fork-tailed devil. P in front of a plane’s number designates a Patrol craft, but this thing was also a fighter and a bomber. It even sometimes carried torpedoes and went after ships. To see one, go here: http://www.world-war-2-planes.com/lockheed-p-38.html.

There was a Curtiss P-40, which is the kind of plane the Flying Tigers flew – they were Americans who got involved in the Asia theater of World War II before America formally entered the war. The P-40 in Anoka wasn’t a flying tiger, but it had the traditional fierce, snarling animal on its nose, much like this one: http://www.fighterfactory.com/airworthy-aircraft/curtiss-p-40.php.

There was a flight of six single-engine trainers – single-engine combat planes with enlarged cockpits used to teach fledgling pilots the deadly arts. They were painted differently to show designations for use by the Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines – one had a tail hook! – but again, all were privately owned. See one here: http://www.warbirdalley.com/t28.htm.

One of the hangers out in Anoka is owned by the Golden Wings Museum that collects antique planes. And one was a big old "trimotor." That’s right, three engines, one on each wing and one on the nose. Built in 1931 as a passenger plane, it carried nine passengers. It flew so slow and so low that passengers could actually slide the windows open while in flight – though I imagine it blew things around a bit. The seats look like padded upright leather chairs. No seat belts. I had only heard of Ford Trimotors, I didn’t know anyone else made them. The one in Anoka is a Stimson, and here is a photograph of the actual Anoka plane: http://www.goldenwingsmuseum.com/Aircraft%20Pages/Tri-Motor%20-%20B.htm.

Did any of you see that PBS series on the aircraft carrier Lincoln? Remember the "look of eagles" about the pilots? Well, that same look is all over the people who fly these planes, when a pair of them walked through the crowd, it was as obvious who they were as if a spotlight shone on them. More than merely in great physical shape, these people are intelligent, competent – and cocky.

The pilots started the engines of all these planes and trundled slowly off, making a most tremendous racket, to the runway, and took off. In the sky, they gathered into formation and went off to their flyover, then came back to land at the Anoka airport. (And to think, we might have been over at the Capitol to get a mere glimpse of these planes passing overhead!)
Perhaps it’s because I served in the U.S. Navy, or maybe I’m just patriotic, but it moved me to tears to see these grand old veterans, these heroes and survivors of a very different and dangerous time, race their still-mighty engines and go charging into the air. It was the same feeling I got seeing all the human veterans who were out at the airport greeting one another, sharing memories of these old times, laughing and telling war stories. They are, by and large, gone to fat and walking sticks and hearing aids, but when sharing stories they become young again, falling into the cryptic terminology, the esoteric references only their fellow veterans truly understand.

CORRECTION: The bird I’ve been hearing some mornings and identifying as a robin is, apparently, a grosbeak. I went to a store that specializes in bird houses and feeders and baths to buy something to attract orioles – they love grape jelly and will return with their fledgling young to a feeder that offers it. Anyway, while there I told the story of the robin who taught me his song when I was a child and how I listen for the robin’s song every spring. And how the robins in my adopted state of Minnesota seem to have this little gurgle or glitch in their song. "But that’s not a robin doing that, it’s a grosbeak!" the woman behind the counter said. Apparently the two birds have similar songs, except the grosbeak’s is longer and more complex and it has this curious gurgle in it. As Bertie Wooster would say, I am dashed. Dashed if I’m not.

6 comments:

Dee Winter said...

WOW! This is not an event, or information I would have ever tracked down myself. Thank you for broadening my horizons. I enjoyed your outing very much. And yes, we'd have had the pancakes also. What a pleasant surprise for the organization. Fundraising is such a tough job these days, a windfall like this is totally appreciated.

Monica Ferris said...

Check around your local events calendar for Memorial Day or Fourth of July events, and you may find one of these. The owners of these planes fly all over the country to show off their "birds." It's fun and exciting to see them close up. I touched the nose of the B-25 and wished her God Speed. Oh, another interesting fact: The American insignia of a blue circle with a white star in its center used to have a red ball inside the star -- and when I saw it on a plane I felt a shock of recognition. I've probably seen it in pictures somewhere. It was removed as it was thought too like the Rising Sun of the Japanese flag.

Monica Ferris said...

Check around your local events calendar for Memorial Day or Fourth of July events, and you may find one of these. The owners of these planes fly all over the country to show off their "birds." It's fun and exciting to see them close up. I touched the nose of the B-25 and wished her God Speed. Oh, another interesting fact: The American insignia of a blue circle with a white star in its center used to have a red ball inside the star -- and when I saw it on a plane I felt a shock of recognition. I've probably seen it in pictures somewhere. It was removed as it was thought too like the Rising Sun of the Japanese flag.

ellen said...

The Boeing 727 - a relatively modern plane - is a trimotor. Same reason: if a motor fails, you only lose a third of your power instead of half or all.

nanucbe said...

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Brian Uhrig said...

I live near the Crystal Airport and usually see some the Trainer Warbirds flying over off and on during the summer. I'm glad you got to see some of the workhorse aircraft from WW2. A minor note, P is for Pursuit instead of Patrol. B is for Bomber and the Army Air Corps trainers that you saw were AT-6 for Advanced Trainer. After WW2, the P was changed to F for Fighter.
The B-25 that you saw is also the same type of plane the Jimmy Dolittle flew off of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet for the famous Dolittle Raid over Tokyo. Pretty amazing that those planes took off from a carrier deck!