Eastword column by Jim Jones: Warbirds visit to SRQ represents a homecoming

January 20, 2013 

The B-17 Flying Fortress scheduled to soon visit Rectrix Aviation at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport should feel right at home.

During World War II, Sarasota Army Airfield, as SRQ was called back then, was home to B-17 pilot training, until it was determined that the heavy bombers were doing too much damage to the airfield.

Subsequently, fighter pilots trained there.

World War II history buffs and anyone who has a fascination with aviation are in for a treat Jan. 23-25, when a B-17, a B-24 Liberator, and a P-51C Mustang touch down for a visit, part of the Collings Foundation Wings of Victory Tour.

Collings strives to restore and preserve important aircraft throughout the history of aviation, and to share the story with the public.

"One of the things we are approaching is the passing of the World War II generation," Hunter Chaney, director of marketing for the Collings Foundation, told me in a phone interview from Massachusetts.

The classic warbirds help to engage people with the history of World War II. That's especially important now that many of the people who lived that history have passed on.

The planes are living history exhibits, and seeing them makes it easier to imagine what a ball turret gunner might have experienced, or the challenge of a pilot trying to fly to a target and survive flak.

"It's the interaction with the aircraft that makes the public want to learn more," Chaney said.

If the Flying Fortress is the World War II aircraft that first comes to the public's collective mind, then the P-51 Mustang, a hot, high-performance number, has to be the sexiest.

The P-51C set to visit Rectrix is the world's only dual-control Mustang, Chaney said.

"The P-51 was arguably the finest designed fighter aircraft in history," he said.

Tim Hyden, training officer for East Manatee Fire Rescue, assisted Collings in making arrangements for the local visits of the three warplanes.

He is a U.S. Air Force veteran who performed maintenance on the F-4 Phantom fighter jet and the F-15 Eagle fighter jet back in the day.

He still has an attachment to the two aircraft, and through his wife, was able to track down the F-15 that he worked on 16 years after the fact. They actually visited the F-15 at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City in Florida's panhandle. The aircraft has been retired to Davis Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, where many military planes are put into mothballs.

"I've had an interest in aviation since I was 8 or 9 years old. It began with an interest in the sky, during the pioneering days of the U.S. space program," he says.

With a B-17 coming to Rectrix, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

Walk-through tours of the aircraft will be available. Cost: Adults $12; children 12 and younger $6.

For a flight aboard one of the aircraft, it will cost you considerably more. A 30-minute flight aboard the B-17 or the B-24 costs $425 a person. The same 30 minutes in the P-51 is $2,200. The fees help defray the very expensive costs of maintaining the aircraft.

For more information: http://www.collingsfoundation.org/menu.htm.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet@jajones1.

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