World War II Aviation at the Lyon Air Museum

While visiting our daughter and two granddaughters at Christmas, I received a very nice Christmas present from them: an afternoon at the Lyon Air Museum, in Southern California! The Lyon Air Museum is located at Irvine’s John Wayne Airport and contains many vintage World War II airplanes, all beautifully restored, most in flying condition. In addition to the airplanes, many other vintage conveyances from the era are displayed, including one of Adolph Hitler’s personal staff cars, presumably used by him to ride into Paris after conquering the French in 1939.

One of the museum’s prized flying airplanes is the B-17 heavy bomber, Fuddy Duddy. The tradition of painted “nose art” on World War II aircraft was prevalent particularly on heavy bombers such as the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the B-24 “Liberator.” These four-engine, long-range bombers were as instrumental to the defeat of Germany as any weapons in the U.S. arsenal. The B-17 earned its renown by destroying much of Germany’s military and civilian infrastructure, flying out of large air fields located in the English countryside.

I relished the afternoon we spent in the museum with our girls, not only because I have long appreciated the history of World War II aviation, but also because I had a rare chance to give my grand-daughters an up-close-and-personal awareness of another time, the “greatest generation,” and aviation’s important role in defining the path of world history. There is no substitute for experiencing, up-close, the mystique of these great airplanes in order to appreciate their role in that history.

Peering up into the underbelly of Fuddy Duddy through the crew entry hatch is bound to stimulate any teen-ager’s appreciation of the courage it took for crew-members to clamber up inside such a large, complex airplane for dangerous mission after mission over enemy territory. So many crews and men never made it to the magic mark of twenty-five completed missions which would give them a one-way ticket back home, perhaps to become a flying instructor training pilot-recruits. Many thousands of B-17 and B-24 crew members went down in the gunsights of swift and deadly German fighter planes whose mission was to intercept and destroy the “heavies.” And there were the thousands of huge, long barreled German flak guns on the ground, poised and ready to fill the high skies with exploding shell fragments, any one of which could rip apart men and machines alike.

It was gratifying to observe the curiosity and interest which quickly developed as we began our tour of the museum! Soon after we started at the B-17, we spent a half-hour in the museum’s mini-movie theatre to watch a film documentary on the air war over Europe which included much aerial footage and commentary from Andy Rooney. Rooney was the long-time, now deceased, CBS commentator on 60 Minutes. During the war, he served as a war correspondent experiencing, first hand, the B-17 during actual missions. I was pleased to note that the film was one included in my personal DVD collection of worthy war documentaries; one cannot help but be impressed by the viewing experience!

A museum docent approached us as we examined the B-17 and produced two dummy bullets to illustrate the fire-power of the thirteen .50 caliber machine guns positioned at six locations around the airplane. Alongside the .50 caliber sample, the .22 bullet looks downright puny, and, yet, these airplanes were still very vulnerable to German fighter interceptors until late 1943 when the fabled P-51 Mustang fighter was introduced which could escort the bombers deep into German territory and back. The .50 caliber machine guns on the B-17 fired thirteen rounds per second, all fed from long cartridge belts. After a protracted aerial battle with German interceptors, the waist gunners stationed inside the fuselage at both sides of the airplane were typically ankle-deep in empty brass shells ejected from hot, rapidly firing guns!

One of Hitler’s several Mercedes Benz personal staff cars –likely the one in which he entered Paris after the Nazi victory in France.

A sign on the wall provided a summary of the debt owed to the men of the Mighty Eighth Air Force which operated B-17’s out of England. Among its stats:

“Hitler started boasting that he converted Europe into an impregnable fortress. But he neglected to provide that fortress with a roof.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, message to Congress, September 17, 1943.

-2,300,000 sorties flown
-24,228 enemy aircraft downed
-350,000 served in the Eighth Air Force.
-47,742 killed in action.
-696,351 tons of bombs dropped.

Of course, these numbers pertain only to the Eighth Air Force, not including the other arms of the Army Air Force and their theatres of operation.

Douglas A-26 Attack Bomber


North American Aviation AT-6 Trainer

Douglas DC-3: The backbone of the airline industry

 

All in all, we had a very fine afternoon at Irvine’s Lyon Air Museum. I heartily recommend it for adults and youngsters, alike! Our thanks to the spirit and generosity of Gen. William Lyon for preserving this important collection and for making it available to the general public.

Time to say goodbye: our Southwest Airlines 737 pulls into the gate at John Wayne Airport for the trip home.

The Iconic P-51 Mustang: The Fighter That Destroyed Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Won the War

Last month, I had yet another opportunity to ride in and fly one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time, the North American P-51 Mustang. Sadly, it did not happen. Maybe next year!

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The chance to ride in a P-51 materializes yearly when the Collings Foundation and its “Wings of Freedom” nationwide tour of restored World War II aircraft lands at nearby Moffett Field. For nearly a week, the public has the opportunity of getting up-close-and-personal with several “survivors” from the mass post-war scrapping of airplanes which defeated Hitler and Japan not so long ago.

The Betty Jane P-51 is a flying survivor from 1945, one of the very few Mustangs outfitted with two seats and dual flight controls (that’s her pictured above in a Collings Foundation photo and below, in one of mine). For $2200 along with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” attitude, a visitor can reserve a half-hour ride over the San Francisco bay area in that venerable war-bird along with the opportunity of briefly guiding her through a gentle turn or two.

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Linda and I took our two young grandsons to Moffett for an afternoon of gawking at and clambering through the foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. These two aircraft were the major weapons used to dismantle Hitler’s war machine by destroying German factories, airfields, and infrastructure. Implementing a revamped allied strategy in late 1943, these four-engine airplanes commenced attacking the civilian populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden in a successful effort to erode the German people’s support of Hitler’s war effort. The Collings Foundation’s B-24, Witchcraft, is the lone remaining flying example of its genre (close to nineteen-thousand of them were built during the war)!

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The B-17 Flying Fortress was the more storied of the two workhorse bombers early in the war, and the Foundation’s Nine O’Nine is a beautiful example. It was anticipated that the multiple 50 caliber machine guns protruding from the aptly named “Fortress” would provide an adequate defense against German fighter-interceptors. That soon proved to be misplaced idealism as the Luftwaffe and flak from the ground took its toll on the “heavies.”

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But the airplane on the tour that, as in years past, captured my imagination even more than the others, was the Betty Jane. The P-51 Mustang rapidly became the best friend of the B-17 and B-24 bomber crews who flew mission after mission in large formations from their airfields dotting Great Britain’s countryside. Their destination: Targets deep into German airspace. Earlier in the war, the slow-flying four-engine bombers and their deadly cargo were initially escorted during the long flight into Germany by allied fighter planes like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane of limited flying range and mediocre maneuverability. Typically, well before the heavy bombers reached their targets over Germany, the fighter escorts were forced to break-off and return to base due to their limited range (fuel). At that point, the bomber formations became sitting ducks for the agile and deadly German fighter planes which came up to meet them.

The P-51 Mustang: Just-In-Time Delivery to Allied Fighter Groups

The deeper the penetration into German airspace, the greater the allied bomber losses. The turning point came during the infamous raid over Regensburg, Germany, where 60 bombers were lost, each with a ten-man crew – 600 men. Just at this critical point, the newly-developed P-51 Mustang reached operational status and became available to the fighter groups based in England. Designed from the get-go to be a superior fighter, the P-51 was just that. With its fine maneuverability and the powerful, in-line, twelve cylinder, liquid-cooled engine conceived by Rolls-Royce but built under license by the Packard motor car company in the United States, the Mustang was superior to its German counterparts, the Messerschmidt Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190.

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 A German Me 109 caught in the gun cameras of a P-51

 Critically important was the Mustang’s superior range, aided by external, under-the-wing, drop-tanks carrying fuel. Now, the bombers had an escort fighter which could not only accompany them deep into German territory in a defensive, protective posture, but could inflict losses on the Luftwaffe as its pilots attacked the bomber formations. In this dual sense, it can justifiably be said that the P-51 both destroyed the Luftwaffe and won the war by allowing the “heavies” to reach and destroy their targets.

At about that time, allied commanders expanded bombing targets to include the populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden. Late in the war, General Jimmy Doolittle also famously altered the successful defensive role of the P-51 from solely  a long-range bomber escort by ordering the fighter groups to adopt a more offensive posture, attacking Luftwaffe fighters wherever they could be found. The mandate was to leave the bomber formations, when feasible, and destroy the German interceptors before they could locate and reach and the bombers. Doolittle wanted to strafe and destroy German planes on the ground – at their airfields – when possible. The goal: To gain complete air superiority prior to the planned ground invasions central to D-Day. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen by D-Day, thanks in large part to the effective dual role of the P-51 both as bomber escort and Luftwaffe killer.

Firing-Up the Big Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.

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Lt. Jim Brooks and his P-51, February – 1945

Perhaps next year, when the Collings Foundation tour returns, I will have an extra $2200 to go up in Betty Jane as well as the requisite moxie to do so. I cannot think of a greater, more meaningful thrill.