A high-flying history lesson


FREDERICK - The gut-rumbling, eardrum-busting sounds of World War II-era fighter planes and bombers rattled the Frederick area yesterday as war and aviation history buffs came together under a picture-perfect sky.

And it was quite a picture: Planes bristling with machine guns and bombs relived their glory days, with the help of pyrotechnics and sound effects. They made bombing runs and strafed imaginary targets on the ground. Speakers blared the simulated rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire, followed by neat rows of explosions that indicated the pilot had hit the targets.

Thousands of people lined the wide expanse of Frederick's municipal airport, keeping their eyes trained on the flying vessels of American military history circling overhead. Yesterday was the second and final day of the city's 10th annual Wings of Freedom air show, and it had gone off with more than a few bangs and booms.

"I love this show," said Abby Lewis of Rockville, who was walking the tarmac with her boyfriend and brother. "We usually come every year. ... It makes you feel all patriotic."

The show - which was cut 45 minutes short Saturday because of bad weather - was produced by a local chapter of Commemorative Air Force, a Texas-based nonprofit group that has worked over the years to save and restore World War II-era planes, and give a few history lessons along the way.

The Frederick-based Stars and Stripes Wing chapter hopes to use proceeds from the show and other fund-raising events to eventually build a museum, said David Delisio, the group's finance officer and show director of flight operations.

But yesterday, the airport's tarmac had become an informal museum of sorts. Many of the more than 70 "war birds" and other aircraft and helicopters were parked in a long row, their cargo and cockpit doors swung wide to offer visitors a look inside.

Among the attractions was Panchito, a B-25 Mitchell bomber nicknamed after a Disney cartoon caballero. With 13 .50-caliber machine guns sticking out of every side and at every angle, it looked like aviation's version of a porcupine.

The plane, which could carry 1,500 pounds of bombs, flew 19 missions in the Pacific during World War II. A crew of six to seven was required to operate it in combat.

"This was made as a war machine," said Paul Nuwer, Panchito's pilot. "The [pilot] seat is quarter-inch armor-plated steel. ... Of course, back then you sat on your parachute pack, which wasn't too comfortable."

Comparing the bare-bones technology of these aircraft to the high-tech jet airplanes of today was a common refrain among aviators and military enthusiasts attending the show, whose admission prices ranged by age from $6 to $15.

Pilots who flew planes such as the SBD-5 Douglas "Dauntless," a two-person scout and dive bomber used extensively during World War II, didn't enjoy the relative security of being miles away and pushing a button to drop a bomb.

"You aimed the plane at the target," said J.B. Stokely, the pilot of a rare Dauntless - one of only three restored in the country, he said - while sitting in the shadow of one of its wings.

"It's sort of the original smart bomb: The pilot is the brains," Stokely said.

The history wasn't just in the air. A few hundred World War II re-enactors set up camp in the northern part of the airport, complete with vintage tents, gear, clothing and vehicles.

"Some get into it for collecting, others are more into it for the re-enacting," said Patrick Kiser, who was playing the role of a captain, or Hauptmann, in the German army.

But the show wasn't just a big history lesson. Perhaps the most curious part was an aircraft hybrid: a 1940 biplane with a jet engine strapped to its belly.

The plane, flown by air show regular Jimmy Franklin, has a single-propeller engine that generates 450 horsepower. But the jet engine underneath gives it an additional 2,000.

The result? A biplane that practically hopped off the runaway, and after the takeoff roared straight up several thousand feet, much like a rocket blasting into orbit.

Combining the loud buzz of the propeller engine with the guttural roar of a jet, the plane made long, screeching turns and harrowing dives and tumbles, before the pilot recovered and blasted off into the sky again.

Adults and kids winced and covered their ears.

Five-year-old Zarek Drozda had his fingers firmly planted in his ears. He had come to the airport last week to watch the planes land for the show, and stood enthralled by the jet-powered biplane as it went through its turns and loops.

Asked if he wanted to fly planes someday, Zarek said: "I want to be a train conductor, because I like trains, too."

A photo caption in the Maryland section yesterday incorrectly identified the type of airplane shown on a runway as flames rose from a simulated bombing explosion Sunday at the Wings of Freedom air show in Frederick. The plane was a Douglas SBD Dauntless.Additionally, the chairman of the air show said yesterday the explosion was detonated as planned and was not, as stated in the caption, an accident in timing.
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