A new generation is blazing a trail into history, and securing the future of the Commemorative Air Force. The organization, founded in 1957 by Lloyd P. Nolen and a small band of ex-military aviators, is reshaping an image of a group once largely closed to outsiders. President and CEO Stephan Brown put a 29-year-old B-29 pilot, along with a pair of young B-24 copilots, front and center at Sun 'n Fun.
“These are the faces of the CAF going forward,” Brown told a group of reporters. Oliver was a professional pilot before joining the 9,000-member organization, and worked his way up from the right seat to the left of Fifi, the B-29 he now commands—along with service as flight operations officer and tour director.
Brown said the organization is working to find more aviators—and aviation history enthusiasts—like him.
While it’s no small leap from the cockpit of a Cessna 172 into the left seat of a vintage four-engine giant, a path is taking shape that will offer pilots willing to work hard a chance to build time in vintage aircraft and work their way up into the cockpit they dream of. Brown said the systematic approach being developed is part of a larger effort to expand for the future, establishing new bases near major urban centers and widening the reach of education programs. The Rise Above traveling exhibit, featuring a panoramic film presentation and a P-51 Mustang restored to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, was introduced in 2011 and on the field at Sun ’n Fun. With these programs, Brown and fellow CAF leaders hope to capture the imagination of new generations.
“A lot of times we’ve been viewed as the old boys flying club,” Brown said. “That’s not really who we are.”
Oliver, the youngest person in CAF history to command an aircraft, is a pilot’s son who first put his hands on the controls at age 8, and firmed up his grip on those controls with lessons as soon as he could take them.
“I used to ride my bike down to the airport when I was 15 to take a flying lesson because I couldn’t even drive down there,” Oliver recalled. “Being kind of like the airport brat kid, sticking my head in everybody’s hangar and just kind of hanging around airplanes is what probably culminated in where I’m at today.”
Oliver, entrusted to command a national treasure with an empty weight of about 75,000 pounds, said he takes the responsibility seriously. It can linger in the back of the mind at times, but the weight of responsibility is pushed aside as each mission begins, he said.
“You stop really thinking about that and you just realize whether you’re flying this airplane or a Cessna 150, the realities and the seriousness of the situation are the same,” Oliver said. “With that comes a focus and intensity. We’re going to operate this airplane, and we’re going to do it safely.”
The Commemorative Air Force B-29 Fifi is prepped at sunrise for a series of flights at Sun 'n Fun.
It can be a tricky bit of business: The airframe is 99 feet long, with main wheels well forward of the tail, and equipped with a skid plate to protect the tail in case a landing is less than perfect.
“There’s not a lot of deck angle in terms of landing flare,” Oliver said. As for managing to land the left seat, Oliver said, “being at the right place at the right time is certainly important.”
Oliver was already a CFI when he began his studies of aviation management and maintenance at the Southern Illinois University. His career continued in corporate aviation.
At age 29, David Oliver, left, is among the youthful emerging leaders of the Commemorative Air Force, seen here signing off on documents for the B-29 Fifi.
“I’ve had the opportunity to fly to various places all over the world, (including) Iraq and Afghanistan,” Oliver said. Operating aircraft in different environments and overcoming logistical challenges helped prepare him for the job he has today. “There’s no doubt that we come up against really difficult logistical issues in maintaining an older airplane like this.”
Brown said that rated aviators need not be millionaires to afford the time building and specialized training required to take command of historic aircraft. For a rated aviator with the desire to learn, and to fulfill the mission of bringing history alive for generations to come, there will be opportunities to broaden a basic GA skill set and step up to increasingly larger and more powerful aircraft. A nonprofit with 9,000 members and 156 aircraft, “we’re basically the world’s largest aviation co-op,” Brown said.
Fifi costs at least $9,000 an hour to operate but the organization is committed to keeping the giant Boeing on the road. Fifi travels with country music star Aaron Tippin on the “Red, White and Loud” tour, and reliably draws a crowd. “I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to be a part of this,” Tippin said.
The bomber inspires both nostalgia and youthful wonder, with children climbing through the ground tours as if on “a jungle gym,” Oliver said, smiling.
In all, CAF aircraft logged 4,559 hours in 2011; maintaining and building that pace will require fresh faces, both pilots and nonpilots. Brown and Oliver noted that a variety of flight crew jobs—including crew positions on Fifi—can be trained for with no aviation rating or prior experience required.