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Pilots prep historic DC overflight

Editor's note: View a slideshow of the May 8 overflight and read about the ceremony commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II.
  • Two flights of World War II aircraft join up in a holding pattern over Virginia.
  • Waiting for their time to depart the hold, a flight of Stearmans orbits the Virginia countryside.
  • L-birds climb above a low layer of scattered clouds.
  • A Lockheed P-38 Lightning is refueled before the practice flight.
  • This C-47 awaits its turn to take off from the airport in Culpeper, Virginia.
  • The B-25 Devil Dawg recovers at Culpeper following the practice flight.
  • Four former Navy and Marine SNJs orbit during the practice flight.
  • Erik Hokuf of Bemidji, Minnesota, paints invasion stripes on the Texas Flying Legends C-53.
  • Catalina co-pilot Robert Cope’s iPad proves handy in planning the orbit over the Warrenton airport.
  • Catalina pilot Bob Hill hydrates as an SNJ taxies past.
  • Pilot Bob Hill adjusts the power as his PBY Catalina climbs to 4,500 feet.
  • The pilot of P-51 Gunfighter holds an American flag as he taxies to the Culpeper ramp.
  • Two P-40s prepare to shut down at Culpeper following the practice flight.
  • Marshallers direct a Wildcat to parking after the practice flight.
  • Practice, like the Friday flyover, concludes with a missing man formation.

Fifty-two vintage World War II military aircraft took off from Culpeper Regional Airport in Northern Virginia, joining up with four others from nearby Manassas Regional Airport/Harry P. Davis Field early May 7 in a partial practice of what’s likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime mission on Friday.

On May 8, the 56 warbirds will cross the skies of the nation’s capital in the Arsenal of Democracy: World War II Victory Capitol Flyover, which commemorates the seventieth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. The aircraft will be organized in 15 historically sequenced formations representing the war’s major battles, ending with a missing man formation. The event honors those who fought in the war, as well as those on the home front who produced the tanks, ships, and aircraft that enabled the United States and its allies to achieve victory.

Erik Hokuf paints invasion stripes on the Texas Flying Legends C-53.

Among the airplanes participating in the flyover are the P-38 Lightning; the FG-1D Corsair; the P-51 Mustang; the B-25 Mitchell; and Fifi, the only flying B-29 Superfortress.

Pilot Bob Hill of Nashville, Tennessee, and co-pilot Robert Cope—also of Nashville—preflighted a Catalina PBY owned by Jerry Yagen and based at his Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Hill has been flying that Catalina for 13 seasons, and Cope for nearly as long.

For the practice flight, they were assigned to depart Culpeper, hold at 4,500 feet over the nearby Warrenton-Fauquier Airport, and then—at a designated time—descend to and overfly the Culpeper airport before entering the pattern to land. “This was a made-up hold point for today,” Hill explained. “Tomorrow there will be four holds.” Aircraft will be stacked at different altitudes. The Catalina’s highest assigned hold on Friday is 2,500 feet, which will not be as comfortable as the cool 4,500-foot air temperature during Thursday’s practice—of course, the crew won’t have to descend as aggressively to make their time over the National Mall. To descend more quickly on the practice flight, they lowered their landing gear to increase drag.

“I feel like we represent every PBY crew during World War II,” Cope said of his role in the event. “And what an honor to have the call sign we’ve got: Strawberry 5. That was the call sign of the PBY that spotted the Japanese fleet, which started the Battle of Midway.”

That history’s certainly appropriate; the Catalina that Cope and Hill are piloting is the only PBY flying with known combat history. While the model is best known for its service in the Pacific Theater during World War II, however, their airframe served in the Mediterranean. “We have all the original logbooks to this airplane, which is kind of unique,” noted Hill—who’s actually type rated in five amphibious aircraft. In addition to the Consolidated PBY he is qualified in the Grumman Mallard, Grumman Albatross, and the Canadair CL-215 and CL-415 firefighting aircraft. “I spend most of my time, warbird-wise, in the B-17,” he said.

The Arsenal of Democracy flyover is historic, Hill said. “Obviously it’s a huge responsibility. We’re very focused. You don’t want to be the person who has an issue out there,” he explained. And the attention to detail that he and Cope have invested in the mission was evident during Thursday’s practice flight.

“It’s a responsibility not only to our nation, but to show what general aviation can do. These are all general aviation airplanes today,” Hill added.

Above all, however, Hill’s hope is to inspire Friday’s audience. “If we can inspire young people to do something, it will be worthwhile”—whether it’s to consider an aviation career, the military, or learning to fly.

Planning for the flyover has been going on for months, and event organizers have worked closely with the FAA, the Transportation Security Administration, the National Park Service, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the U.S. Secret Service. The FAA granted the necessary approvals for the flyover in March, noting “the educational and historic value of this single signature event in commemorating this significant milestone in history.” Because of the flyover, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport will be closed to commercial traffic from noon to 1 p.m. A rain date of Saturday, May 9, has been set for the flyover.

Warbirds rest at Culpeper, Va., after completing the practice flight.

Among the people who will be watching the aircraft overfly the National Mall are Mark and Judy McEuen of San Jose, California. They were planning a two-week trip to Spain when they learned about the event. “When I found out about this, we arranged to do the trip a week early,” Mark explained. They flew from Madrid to Philadelphia on Wednesday, rented a car, and drove to see the aircraft at Manassas and Culpeper.

“I live and breathe aviation,” he said, adding that his late father flew the P-51, P-47, and C-57. “This is one of the best aviation days of my life.”

The flyover’s executive committee includes Stephan C. Brown, president and CEO of the Commemorative Air Force; Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows; Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association; and Doug Rozendaal of the Texas Flying Legends Museum. AOPA is a silver sponsor of the event.

On Saturday, May 9, many of the airplanes featured in the flyover will be on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy facility in Chantilly, Virginia. During a Fly-In to Victory Family Day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., visitors can talk with the pilots and enjoy educational and World War II-era activities that include hearing a performance by the U.S. Air Force Band Airmen of Note, planting a Victory Garden, and learning to swing dance.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins, AOPA technical editor and director of business development, died at age 59 on February 25, 2021. He was an integral part of the AOPA Media team for nearly 30 years, and held many key editorial roles at AOPA Pilot, Flight Training, and AOPA Online. He was a gifted writer, editor, photographer, audio storyteller, and videographer, and was an instrument-rated pilot and drone pilot.
Topics: Vintage, Events, People

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