Just like the mix of our weather this week, the close of the 2012 Gathering of B-25s brings with it a mix of emotions: the joy of its existence and sadness that is complete; elation at its accomplishment and fatigue from the long hours; pride in everyone who made it possible and humility in the presence of many veterans.
AN EVENT HARD TO DESCRIBE
Describe the Gathering in a single word? You can’t. An event such as this requires, involves, demands, taxes, and needs so much from so many people, its description cannot be winnowed to a single word. But if pressed, perhaps many of the people involved would agree with “more”. Everyone at Grimes Airfield and the Champaign Aviation Museum knew from the Gathering of 2010 that this year’s event was going to be more involved, more difficult, and require more planning than previously. Tasks were well defined from 2010 but for 2012 there would be more tasks; volunteers from 2010 knew their responsibility but in 2012, they would be called on to do more; the Gathering of 2010 ran for three days but there would be more days in 2012; in 2010 there were 17 airplanes but there would be more in 2012; crowds were very good in 2010, but there would be more people in 2012. Whatever issue or concept existed in 2010, whatever achievement was made in 2010, whatever the Grimes Gathering of B-25s was in 2010, 2012 would be more and require more!
IT’S NOT THE AIRPLANES. IT’S THE PEOPLE WHO FLEW THEM
Despite the expansion of duties and responsibilities, the one constant is the reason we are here: the valor of the Armed Forces of the United States. The dates of the Gathering 2012 are centered on the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Japan in 1942. This audacious raid, yielded little tactically but it changed the course of the war in the Pacific. And while this weeklong event is rooted in a raid that occurred across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean decades ago, it is also a celebration and appreciation of the sacrifice, dedication, and valor of our military forces who defend us yet today.
FRIDAY the 13th
Yankee Warrior and Executive Sweet, Show Me, Barbie III, Tondelayo, were the first airplanes to arrive Friday April 13. The skies were mixed and the wind was beginning to freshen out of the south. The calling card of a storm was brewing across several states to the southwest. That storm would play havoc with schedules, as many of the airplanes wisely chose, or were simply forced to, wait out the weather.
SATURDAY WAS A REAL WASH
Friday brought rain late but Saturday morning the skies began to darken, the wind increased out of the south and by 1000, people were seeking shelter in any hangar they could find. Flying was largely scrubbed by noon but a number of hardy souls braved the wind and rain and checked out the bombers that were on the ramp. Fortunately, the storm was strictly rain with no lightning.
Sunday dawned with clear skies but a constant wind which was blowing right up runway 20. The crowds came out in droves to enjoy the sunshine, airplanes, the airport and to buy rides on these flying history lessons. State Route 68 was jammed with cars throughout the day. Many people remarked that the drive from Urbana’s town square to the airfield, normally a three minute jaunt, took 45 minutes. A golf cart shuttle system helped move people from their cars to the gate. With this many in attendance, volunteers had to keep a sharp eye to ensure that anyone on the ramp had the proper badge.
There were several focal points to the event: the Champaign Aviation Museum to the north; the admissions gate/restaurant/concessions hangar and the hot ramp in the center; and the grass parking area to the south. Volunteers from the Champaign Aviation Museum towed and parked airplanes; a fuel truck drove from plane to plane to provide gas; program and T-shirt sales were brisk throughout the event; the Urbana Fire Department was on hand to handle any contingencies. The event was very well coordinated and managed—but while it might have appeared smooth to the attendees, it required and received constant attention from the chairmen and managers, Two way radios were essential to ensure all the problems that cropped up were addressed quickly and professionally, with the calls going frequently to Jim Bob White or Dave Milner. .
Yet, whatever part of the field you were on, your attention was frequently drawn to the ramp, or to the runway, as an airplane cranked engines, or made its takeoff roll. Several airplanes were selling rides and Sunday saw many B-25s climbing into the sky and carrying their passengers back in time. The final number of rides sold is yet to be tabulated but it is safe to say dozens and dozens of smiling people climbed down the crew ladders of these airplanes with a much keener appreciation of the rigors of flying in a bomber bound for combat.
Near the end of the day, four fighters rolled in! A P-40, P-51, a rare Corsair, and an even incredibly rarer Japanese Zero Fighter rolled in on our airfield. Their arrival had been delayed due to the weather but they made it in fine fettle and thrilled the crowd with a brief arrival show and then were recovered and parked. They were soon available for the crowds to inspect and admire and they joined the two Mustangs that were there already. The Zero Fighter is impressive in its lightness…the skin is very thin and its construction can only be appreciated under close inspection.
While Sunday was a day of almost constant flying, it is a testament to the maintainers and aircrews of these airplanes that there were no major maintenance issues throughout the day, nor through the entire week of flying. That is a lot of sorties to cycle through but all the airplanes and crews came through with flying colors.
At the end of the day, due to lingering weather concerns, the fighters were parked in hangars overnight. As the day faded, we were treated to the sight of a Japanese Zero Fighter and an American Corsair sharing a hangar. Seventy years ago, these airplanes were weapons of the bitterest of enemies, yet today Japan and the United States are staunch allies. In light of the current world situation, such a sight is evidence that we can find common ground with all nations.
FLYING CONTINUES MONDAY
Monday brought more sun and while the crowd was slightly and understandably less than a weekend day, the ramp was still crowded and the ride programs were still in full swing with strong ride sales throughout the day.
After a full day of flying, Monday evening required the airplanes to be re-spotted to facilitate their 0700 departure Tuesday to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio. The setting sun gave way to a gorgeous starlit sky but the parking crew could not yet appreciate the beauty of the night. In the diminishing light, a Mitchell certainly seems longer than 52’11” and we would definitely agree that the darkness adds at least four feet to its 67’7” wingspan! Every few seconds, the scene took on a surreal white or green glow, as the rotating beacon of Grimes Field swept across the ramp. But patience, caution, and Randy Kemp’s steady hand on the wheel of the tug, ensured that all airplanes wound up safely chocked in their proper position. Only then could the crew appreciate the diamonds overhead as Venus, Orion, Ursa Major, and the Pleiades wheeled across the clear, black Ohio sky.
PILOTS, MAN YOUR PLANES!
Tuesday morning dawned crisp and clear. The crews gathered in the Champaign Aviation Museum to fortify themselves with coffee and discuss final details of the flight to Dayton. Everyone soon migrated to their proper station and airplane. As the moments ticked toward engine start, with very little imagination, we were transported from the friendly confines of Grimes Airfield; we were now on an airfield from the war. At 0640, with lightening skies in the east, the morning calm was broken by a sound not heard in decades: forty Wright R-2600 engines cranking into life. For a few minutes, the ramp was shaken by 80,000 horsepower as the twenty crews warmed their engines, monitoring rpm, oil temperature and pressure, cylinder head temperatures, and a host of other parameters pursuant to taxi and takeoff.
The fences were lined with spectators as these airplanes and crews evolved from individual enterprises into a bomber squadron. As the airplanes idled and warmed, every few moments, a shudder ran through their airframes, reminiscent of a thoroughbred in the starting gate, the stored energy waiting to be unleashed. It was a moment from history reborn decades later. Anyone who witnessed those few moments at Grimes Airfield on the morning of April 17, 2012 could fully understand how compelling April 18, 1942 must have been for the sailors on the Hornet, as the United States of America got its turn at bat.
With Panchito in the lead, the airplanes taxied to the north end of the field and what so many of us have only seen in black and white, we now were seeing in color: twenty B-25 bombers, engines thundering at idle, lined up on the taxiway and waiting their turn on runway 20. Soon Panchito was rolling! In rapid succession, the other 19 airplanes followed and within minutes, Devil Dog made the final takeoff into the beautiful clear sky, and the squadron was gone.
A LINE UP FROM HISTORY
Arrival at Dayton was routine… as if a sight such as this could ever be routine. The squadron landed on the closed runway at the National Museum of the United States Air Force and soon, all aircraft were parked wingtip to wingtip. Overcast skies could not mute the excitement as hundreds of people walked around, inspecting the airplanes, chatting with the crews, and marveling at such a sight. Yet, at 1730, the most important review took place. The four attending Doolittle Raiders came down the flightline, stopping at several airplanes, spending a few moments with several crews. What a moment! Seventy years ago, as they faced the uncertainty of the first combat mission over Japan, could those Raiders have imagined this moment taking place? Could we spectators ever have imagined such a moment? Words cannot do that afternoon justice.
We also appreciated greatly the presence of several Chinese families, who represented those brave Chinese soldiers and civilians who assisted the Raiders after their crash landings in China. The Japanese military exacted a horrific toll for this and the sacrifice of the Chinese for their assistance must always be as much a part of this story as the raid itself.
Tuesday evening, in the museum’s World War II gallery, a reception was held for the Raiders and aircrews. A presentation was made to the Raiders and each aircrew in and around the exhibit dedicated to the Raid. Even at the end of a long day, the four Raiders and two sailors from the Hornet were gracious with their time and many attendees could hear what those weeks and days were like, firsthand.
WEDNESDAY: VISIBLITY UNLIMITED, CROWDS IN THE THOUSANDS
Wednesday was the actual anniversary of the raid. Thousands of people came to the NMUSAF to witness the takeoff and fly over of this newest squadron of the United States Army Air Force. The airplanes took off to the west at 1230, and by 1300, sixteen had joined in formation, passing over the Memorial Garden. They circled, and the other four planes joined in, passing in review a second time. After this, four airplanes circled the field again and conducted the poignant Missing Man flight.
Three of the airplanes departed to other destinations but that left 17 to return to Grimes. On arrival, some needed gas to resume their ride programs while others sought their assigned parking place.
HISTORY IN THE CHAMPAIGN AVIATION MUSEUM HANGAR
Thursday morning brought more than 200 people to our Champaign Aviation Museum hangar for a breakfast for the Raiders, aircrews, and dignitaries. The raiders arrived right on schedule and took their place at the head table. Jim Bob White and Dave Milner were recognized for their leadership of this event; they would be the first to list and express their appreciation for the many people who ably assisted them and made sure this was an event that would be well spoken of for years to come.
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END
Every event has its timeline and we are now winding down. Our crowded hour that was the Grimes Gathering of B-25s 2012 is now complete. The wind now blows across a ramp no longer populated by a bomber squadron. The Raiders, other veterans, the airplanes and aircrews are heading home or going on to other airfields. Grimes Airfield will return to its normal pace and our ramp on Saturday will hopefully hold its normal complement of GA airplanes that transported their pilots to the restaurant for the $100 hamburger. Yet, for those of us who were part of this marvelous, historic, and exceptional event we we will ever after look at our ramp with a different perspective and memories: “Yankee Warrior was there.”, That family climbed into Tondelayo there.”, “We met a Fifteenth Air Force veteran here”, and so many other memories.
We were treated to a symphony that lasted eight days. It was performed by an orchestra comprised of airplanes, aircrews, veterans, chairmen, volunteers, weather, flying, history, families, and noise. And as the final airplane flies away, we strain to hear its thunderous exhaust as long as possible. We want to applaud but we don’t want the house lights to come up. It was a mix of wonderful emotions all the way till the end…