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Inspiring the American spiritInspiring the American spirit

The Commemorative Air ForceThe Commemorative Air Force

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), the people and aircraft that preserve a key part of our heritage. Find out how to see these incredible warbirds and feel the rumble of their engines in your very bones. You can even ride in one!

  • In 1957, Lloyd Nolen and a small group of ex-service pilots in the Texas Rio Grande Valley formed a partnership; each ponied up a $1,500 share to buy the P-51 Mustang “Red Nose.” They later added a pair of F8F Bearcats and then got the idea to save an example of every aircraft that flew during WWII. On September 6, 1961, the group chartered a Texas non-profit corporation. To poke fun at their own rag-tag organization, they named it the Confederate Air Force. Photo courtesy CAF Dixie Wing.
  • As the fleet grew, the CAF moved to larger quarters, first in Harlingen and later in Midland, Texas. By the late 1960s–early ‘70s they were adding heavy bombers to the fleet, including the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, North American B-25 Mitchell, and the Boeing B-29 Superfortess, “FIFI.” By 2001, many members felt the Confederate name was confusing, offensive to some, didn’t reflect the organization’s true purpose, and hurt fundraising efforts. By vote, the membership changed the CAF name to Commemorative Air Force, effective January 1, 2002. The CAF is now headquartered at Dallas Executive Airport. Photo courtesy Air Power Squadron.
  • The 169 CAF aircraft—the Ghost Squadron—are housed in many locations, including some overseas. Usually around 125 CAF aircraft are flyable at any given time. Restoration and maintenance of these antiques is a never-ending task, almost entirely carried out by over 11,000 volunteer CAF members. Some members have devoted nearly every weekend to the CAF for decades. The CAF is self-supporting and funded entirely by donations. You need not be a veteran or pilot; membership is open to all men and women over 18; those age 12 and over may join as Cadets. Photo of the B-17 “Texas Raiders” and crew courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • Come to a CAF open house or airshow to see the aircraft up close, on the ground and in flight. Better yet, arrange to fly in one yourself! CAF wings generally cite ride fees as the number one income generator that keeps their warbirds flying. Many parts, when broken, must be re-fabricated from scratch as they are no longer made. Fuel costs, especially for the bombers, can be huge. In 2014, CAF aircraft flew 5,258.40 hours and performed 4,366 rides. Photo by Chris Ebdon courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • The CAF B-29/B-24 Squadron is based at Dallas Executive Airport, also the national headquarters of CAF. But the CAF AirPower History Tour may be coming to an airport near you this summer! Talk to the crews, see the cockpits—you can even take a ride! Photo courtesy Air Power Squadron.
  • Strap yourself into the B-29, a P-51, or any of the other airplanes the CAF gives rides in, and you’ll create memories that will live not only in your brain, but in your body. Once you get a taste of these warbirds, they become a part of you. And that’s the point: these airplanes are a part of all of us who call ourselves Americans, because without them, their pilots, and their crews during WWII, our country might not be here anymore. Photo courtesy CAF Dixie Wing.
  • One of the CAF’s most sacred missions is to honor our veterans. Supreme bravery was required of the men who fought both in the air and on the ground, day after day, for years. In 2014, the Gulf Coast Wing, home to the B-17 “Texas Raiders,” hosted two WWII aviators and their families. Pilot John Lindholm (on left) and co-pilot George E. Parker, formerly of the 8th Air Force, 457th Bomber Group, 748th Squadron, boarded the B-17 and sat in the left and right seats, together again. John has kept his helmet, which bears a crease where it was struck by flak. On that mission the right oil line was shot open; they had to feather both right engines. George remembered how difficult it was to hold the stricken airplane aloft, saying, “We had to wrestle the plane the whole way,” but John was able to land it safely. Clearly moved, they ended their visit by saying, “We appreciate the CAF making this happen—to allow a couple of old guys, pilot and co-pilot, to experience the airplane and get together again.” Photo courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • The CAF provides many ways for people to meet our veterans. Around 1998, a friend of mine was at the Reno Air Races and wandered over to where the B-29 “FIFI” was parked. Inside on the right seat sat none other than retired Brigadier General Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr., best known as the pilot of the B-29 “Enola Gay” when it delivered the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. General Tibbets motioned for my friend to sit in the left seat. They were alone in the aircraft and shared several minutes of small talk. It was a moment my friend said he would never forget. Photo by Mark Russell, courtesy Wings Over Houston.
  • CAF airshows provide fun opportunities to see these historic aircraft. The granddaddy of them all is AIRSHO, traditionally held at Midland International Air & Space Port in Midland-Odessa, Texas. Usually about 80 CAF aircraft participate, so the sky is full of historic airplanes. One popular event is the Tora! Tora! Tora! performance that includes six replica Japanese aircraft that flew in the famous movie and were later donated to the CAF. In addition to the CAF aircraft, civilian aerobatic pilots also perform, as well as military aircraft such as the USAF Thunderbirds. Photo by Phil McKenna, courtesy Gulf Coast Wing.
  • The CAF Wings Over Houston Airshow is normally held in October at Ellington Airport (EFD) and usually includes the USAF Thunderbirds or USN Blue Angels, as well as CAF WWII warbirds, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and aircraft from the Collings Foundation, Texas Flying Legends Museum, and others. Pictured here is a Soviet-era MiG 17 from the Vietnam War Museum that also flew in the airshow. Photo by Kevin Bailey, courtesy Wings Over Houston.
  • Each year, thousands of visitors come to see, touch, or ride in the B-29 Superfortress, B-24 Liberator, B-17 Flying Fortress, P-51 Mustang and other fighters, trainers, and liaison airplanes. The airplanes make appearances at airports across North America. You can reserve a ride in the nose gunner’s seat just like this man did. Photo by Chris Ebdon, courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • The flight crew of “Texas Raiders” maneuvers the big B-17 Flying Fortress through the sky. Photo by Chris Ebdon, courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • You could sit in a seat like this on the B-17 “Texas Raiders” or one of the other big bombers flown by the CAF. Photo by Chris Ebdon, courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • The B-17 “Texas Raiders” shows us her business side, with bomb bay doors open. It’s easy to see why the EAA’s B-17 is named “Aluminum Overcast.” Photo by Chris Ebdon, courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.
  • The gorgeous P-51C “Red Tail” is flown by the CAF Red Tail Squadron to honor the Tuskegee Airmen. Photo by Max Haines, courtesy CAF Gulf Coast Wing.

The CAF got its start after 1957, when Lloyd Nolen and a small group of ex-service pilots in Texas pooled their money to buy the P–51 Mustang Red Nose. The group soon realized that very few World War II-era aircraft were left. Even though the United States had produced nearly 300,000 airplanes by the end of the war, nearly all of them were later decommissioned and then stripped or scrapped. The first CAF airshow was held in 1963, and as the years progressed, the group acquired more airplanes and more volunteers and donors to help the cause.

The entire collection of about 169 CAF aircraft is called the Ghost Squadron. Hundreds of thousands of spectators see Ghost Squadron aircraft at their home bases, at fly-ins, and at airshows around the country. Visit the CAF website for an interactive map where you can pull up any CAF unit’s information, including website, location, contact info, what types of aircraft they have, whether they have a museum, and their flying tour schedule.

You can also buy a ride for a veteran. My friend, the late Robbie Robinson (at left), a TBM Avenger pilot in WWII, got a ride in a TBM in 2005 here in Idaho. “It brought back a lot of memories, good and bad!” he said. But he talked about that ride for the rest of his life. He is pictured here with his friend, the late Nat Adams of Boise, Idaho, who piloted a Hellcat during WWII, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (twice!) plus other medals, and saved the life of George H.W. Bush after Bush was shot down. Photo courtesy Robbie Robinson.

Units often schedule open house events when you can see the aircraft both up close on the ground (including inside) and watch them fly. Better yet, arrange to fly in one yourself and feel the rumble of those big engines! While you experience this thrill and imagine what it must have been like during the war, your fees will allow others to do the same. Most rides can be reserved online for a discount. The B–17 Sentimental Journey and B–25 Maid in the Shade both live at Airbase Arizona at Mesa’s Falcon Field. In summer, the aircraft visit airports farther north; Sentimental Journey made a tour of Idaho airports near my home a couple of years ago. Another favorite is the B–17 Texas Raiders; look for her all over the southern United States. Aerial tours generally last 20 to 25 minutes, but with engine run-up, taxi, shutdown, and disembarking times, the experience is usually about 45 minutes.

The CAF B–29/B–24 Squadron is based at Dallas Executive Airport. Each year these two aircraft, plus others, embark on an Air Power History Tour that makes some 30 stops across North America. As a former Los Angeles resident, I well recall each time this tour visited the CAF Southern California Wing in nearby Camarillo. The magnificent B–29 Fifi, accompanied by the equally rare B–24 Diamond Lil, would roar low over the city, prompting me to run outside and wave, jumping up and down, usually with tears streaming down my face. I’m sure thousands of others looked out their windows in amazement as the huge bombers lumbered overhead. A ride over the hills of southern California in the SoCal Wing’s P–51–D Mustang Man-O-War is definitely on my bucket list!

Nose art on the B-17 Flying Fortress “Sentimental Journey.” Her home is at the CAF Airbase Arizona, at Falcon Field. Photo by Mark Holloway.

CAF aircraft perform in over 300 airshows per year, several of which are produced by the CAF itself. The biggest by far is simply called “AIRSHO” and is held annually at Midland International Air and Space Port in Midland-Odessa, Texas, and hosted by the CAF High Sky Wing. Most Ghost Squadron aircraft tend to fly most of their appearances relatively close to their home bases, but each year nearly half of all CAF aircraft fly in the AIRSHO. This makes AIRSHO the largest warbird airshow in the world. Other standout airshows include Wings Over Houston at Ellington Airport and the WWII Air, Sea and Land Festival (the Air Power Squadron will be there) at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, home of the National WWII Museum. EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh always hosts CAF warbirds; in 2017 the CAF B–29 Fifi flew in formation with the newly restored B–29 Doc, an unforgettable sight.

This year, come see what hundreds of volunteer members and contributors have helped provide and maintain for all of us: an incredible squadron of beautifully preserved aircraft that will fly for and inspire generations to come. When you hear them roar overhead, you will give thanks to those of the Greatest Generation, reaffirming that their sacrifices were never made in vain.

This year, visit a local fly-in when a CAF airplane is scheduled to appear or come to a CAF airshow, take a flight, or buy a flight for a veteran, and watch history come alive again. There’s nothing like seeing, hearing, and touching these airplanes for yourself. Photo courtesy Air Power Squadron.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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