Group preserves nation's military air history - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Group preserves nation's military air history

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2008 1:06 am | Updated: 11:39 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Like sentinels frozen in time, hulking bombers and sleek fighter jets stand side-by-side in a hangar at Falcon Field, reminders of campaigns fading now even for those who once flew and fought.

For many air combat veterans and aircraft enthusiasts, the search for the past ends at the home of the Arizona wing of the Commemorative Air Force. It's a place where vintage warplanes are not only displayed but maintained and flown.

"You can go to the Smithsonian Institute and some of the other aviation museums and you can look at the aircraft, but you can't go in them and see them fly," said Rick Sneffner, the Arizona group's wing leader. "For the public, it's a way to get a history lesson shown to them in real life. The aircraft aren't just sitting static in a museum somewhere."

For $425, visitors can take a ride on the museum's restored B-17 Flying Fortress, nicknamed "Sentimental Journey." The 64-year-old aircraft, now on a summer tour of the Midwest, took about four years to get ready for flight after being donated to the nonprofit organization in 1978.

Mechanics are busy restoring a B-25 Mitchell, a veteran of 15 bombing runs during World War II, hoping to have it available for flights this summer.

"Most of the planes that flew combat missions during the war didn't survive," said Brian Smith, a museum docent. "At the end of the war, there weren't any considerations given to saving them, so many of them just ended up being scrapped."

The museum also offers rides on its T-6 SNJ fighter trainer and C-45 transport for $250.

Money from ticket sales goes back into fuel and maintenance of the aircraft, and all of museum's mechanics, pilots and docents are volunteers.

Like many of the docents, Buck Buchanan is a military veteran but not a trained pilot. The 81-year-old, a gunner in the U.S. Navy air service from 1944 to 1946, described his two days a week here as a labor of love.

"I've always liked airplanes," Buchanan said. "As a kid I read every airplane magazine I could get my hands on, so this is fun for me."

Aviation enthusiasts began the Commemorative Air Force in the 1950s after a Texan named Lloyd Nolen began buying surplus military aircraft to save them from destruction. Known as the Confederate Air Force until 2002, the group is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of WWII-era planes. Today, the organization boasts a worldwide membership of about 1,000, with more than 70 wings located across the country.

The Arizona wing's museum also displays memorabilia from WWII through Vietnam - uniforms, medals, photographs, and other artifacts obtained through private donations. Special exhibits recognize WWII heroes such as ace pilot Maj. George Preddy, the top P-51 ace, and "Tuskegee Airmen," a unit of black fighter pilots.

Other displays honor fallen airmen such as the crew of "Chow Hound," a B-17 bomber shot down over France in 1944 and recovered 60 years later.

Visitors also can see Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom and MiG fighter jets and replicas of early biplanes. The authenticity of the museum encourages older veterans to reconnect with their pasts, said Sneffner, the wing leader.

"Their families have told us they've never heard their father or grandfather talk about things that happened to them," he said.

"You'll hear a lot of these guys say, 'I've had more memories come back to me today then I've had in the last 50 years," he said.

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