Telling it forward

Stories link those who flew with those who will

April 25, 2013

It’s a simple proposition: Tell Joe Richardson what you did in the war, and he’ll give you a ride in his P-51.

That’s the sporting offer Richardson makes to the World War II veterans who come by hundreds to see his flyable collection of vintage military aircraft at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.

Few of the veterans who have seen the airplanes, including the 40 or so who have gone up in the P-51D, Hurry Home Honey, haven’t shed tears at the memories evoked by the close contact with their past.

“The people I’ve gotten to meet are the best part of owning these airplanes,” Richardson said in a phone interview. “The planes and the guys that flew them are heroes, and it’s their stories that need to be told.”

That launches him into one of those stories. Then he shares another, and another.

Farm boy to fighter pilot

Imagine how big a thank-you could be said to the heroes who Richardson says “saved the world,” and how much could be done to secure aviation’s future, if you could round up a posse with the enthusiasm, and the means, to get the job done. Suppose further that your posse consisted of an emergency room doctor/pilot, a writer of historical novels, the owner of an aircraft maintenance company, an aviation business consultant, and the organizer of a project under which a dozen high school students were assembling a World War I fighter from a kit.

Your posse would be Joe Richardson.

How does one man keep so many balls in the air?

“I don’t sleep very much,” Richardson says with a laugh. “I’m grease on a skillet. I’m all over the place.”

That’s become something of a dilemma for a rather private man who nevertheless takes on some rather high-profile projects.

Not just the warbirds.

His first book, a historical novel titled Visions of Mary, a novel of one man’s war, has just been published. Now media rounds to drum up publicity must be made, and appearing on Good Morning America in May to discuss the story based on a real patient encounter was sure to postpone that privacy project.

Richardson prefers to talk about what he does with the six aircraft that he calls the “Farm Boy to Fighter Pilot” collection that includes a Fairchild PT-19, a PT-17 Stearman, a Ryan PT-22, a rare flyable Vultee BT-13, a North American AT-6 Texan, and of course, the Mustang.

“We’ve got every step,” he said. “To my knowledge, this is the only such flyable, airworthy collection in the world.”

Usually the aircraft speak for themselves as the hundreds of veterans—some too frail to trade a story for a ride—show him with their responses to his way of expressing America’s gratitude for their sacrifices.

Honey’s homecoming

When the chance came along to acquire the Mustang, Richardson did so knowing that you don’t just step out of the Beechcraft Bonanza you have been flying for the last 20 years and start giving thank-you rides.

“It sat in the hangar for a year before I could fly it,” he said. “I’d go out and take naps in the thing.”

In between the naps and his other projects, Richardson accumulated about 100 hours of experience in the collection’s AT-6 Texan. Then he sought out renowned Mustang mentor Lee Lauderback to work on his proficiency flying the fighter.

Now, with the general aviation economy perking up enough for his maintenance business, Mustang Aviation, to have “stuck our nose into the black,” Richardson, 57, hopes he can spend less time in the ER and more time with airplanes and working on his second book.

He is also excited that the high school students’ project to build a Nieuport from a kit he bought—a work being documented in video at every step—should be finished in time for an early summer flight.

In between, there will doubtless be more stories, but none may surpass one from Richardson’s own backyard concerning the late Kent Moseley, a local B-24 pilot who owed his safe return from a 1944 bombing mission to an unknown fighter pilot.

It was Easter Sunday, 1944. Moseley’s crippled Liberator was limping home from the mission over Berlin when three Messerschmitt Bf-109s attacked, strafing the bomber.

“He thought it was over,” said Richardson.

Suddenly a P-51 engaged the Messerschmitts, shooting down two and driving off the third. Then the P-51 pulled up alongside Moseley’s aircraft. The fighter pilot saluted.

“For 51 years, all Kent knew was the name of the P-51, Hurry Home Honey,” Richardson said.

Many years later, the Mustang’s pilot, Pete Peterson, and the man he saluted would meet.

Moseley would also see Hurry Home Honey again.

In the 1990s, there was an airshow at Blue Grass Airport, and Moseley’s wife Betty was walking along the flight line. She walked over to take a look at a P-51.

Betty Moseley told Richardson later about how she went back to bring her disbelieving husband over to see the aircraft that had saved his life in 1944. At the time of its appearance at the airshow in Lexington, Hurry Home Honey was one of several warbirds owned by Charles Osborn, of Indiana.

Osborn sold the airplane. When the Mustang went up for sale again soon after, Richardson saw it online—and bought it. Now Hurry Home Honey works in the service of what Richardson calls his “ministry of sorts, purposed to share with World War II vets.”

In exchange, “I’ve heard some amazing stories.”

And he is passing them along.