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Relics of Confederate Air Force : Memories Soar as Museum Flies Around Town

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since the days when the city was preparing for a Japanese attack, San Diego’s skies were filled Friday with B-17 bombers, a C-46 transport plane and a virtual squadron of other World War II-era aircraft.

One by one, the planes landed at Brown Field on Otay Mesa to participate in the city’s first World War II Aircraft Show. The display, the first of what organizers hope will be an annual affair, drew hundreds of veterans, aircraft aficionados and curious spectators, some too young to have seen the planes anywhere but in old newsreels.

“I didn’t expect this kind of turnout,” said Col. Ron Rolfe, commanding officer of Air Group One, the San Diego wing of the Confederate Air Force, a “flying museum” for World War II memorabilia. Rolfe said organizers now hope to attract more than 25,000 people to the show, which continues today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

After 12 of the 22 planes expected for the show had arrived, engines were started and the disparate array of huge silvery bombers and colorfully painted fighter trainers took off for a mission over San Diego. Flying in a loose formation, the squadron flew north over Mission Valley, then headed west to La Jolla and flew south along the coast to Chula Vista before circling back to the airfield.

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The planes on display were all built before 1945, though most, particularly the small T-6 fighter trainers, did not see combat action. Many had been used for training or converted to non-military purposes when they were bought for restoration. But even without battle scars, the planes are respected and admired by those who fly them.

“Any fighter pilot that flew from the (beginning of the) war up to 1956 was trained in one of these,” Lt. Col. Jim Ferguson, 59, said as he pointed proudly at his two-seater North American T-6. “It’s the most utilized training airplane that ever existed.”

Like the aircraft, most of the pilots have never flown in combat; many joined the service shortly after the end of the war. One of the few battle veterans, Phil Davies, 59, arrived from Mesa, Ariz., in a B-17 similar to the one in which he served as a ball turret gunner during missions over Germany.

“I always liked the old 17,” Davies said. “It was the plane that carried us in the air battles over Germany.”

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The B-17 seemed to be popular with spectators as well, many of whom paid $3 (in addition to the $5 general admission) to tour the restored bomber, nicknamed “Sentimental Journey” and replete with blonde bombshell Betty Grable painted on the outside of the cockpit. The plane was also the favorite of Rolfe, who entered the Army Air Corps right after the war’s end in 1945.

“I’ve flown most of these birds, but after the first time I flew (a B-17), the plane was 30 feet high and I was 60,” he said. “I don’t know what heroin feels like, but it can’t be anything like that feeling.”

However, Rolfe said, the San Diego display is only a two-seater reconnaissance plane compared to the big bomber of World War II aircraft shows, the Confederate Air Force’s annual festival at its headquarters in Harlingen, Tex. The show, which drew 250,000 last year, features squadrons of planes simulating such famous battles as Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, complete with explosives.

“If the public supports this show and we can get 25,000 to 50,000, we’ll bring out some of the big stuff next year,” Rolfe said.

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Rolfe attributed the popularity of these shows largely to veterans’ nostalgia and the fascination of younger spectators with the excitement of World War II air battles.

“Not to take anything away from the guys that fly the jets today, but it was the macho thing to do,” he said. “If you could be a fighter pilot, you walked with gods. At the shows, (the veterans) relive that feeling. I’ve seen hardened combat veterans cry.”

Rolfe said the Confederate Air Force, which has 70 chapters throughout the country, is supported by donations ranging from a required minimum of $3,500 to planes and equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Sometimes (the donors) benefit on their taxes, but a lot of them are just patriotic veterans,” he said. “We deal in nostalgia and preparedness.”

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In fact, Rolfe said, ensuring America’s present and future military preparedness is a major objective of the air shows.

“This is the era of Pearl Harbor, when we got caught with our undies down,” he said. “Our BVDs were at our ankles and we weren’t even bending over. We need to teach the younger generation this feeling. We let our guard down and someone kicked us in the butt. We can’t ever let our guard down again, not in this crazy world. Man is still filled with greed and avarice.”


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