Bringing Pieces of World War II History to Life
It was a day like any other at Camarillo’s Commemorative Air Force (CAF) museum when a former World War II pilot walked in. Hal flew a P-51 Mustang in the US 8th Air Force out of Steeple Morden, England. Volunteers helped him onto the wing of the museum’s own fully-restored P-51 Mustang and marveled at the veteran warrior who easily found his way around the cockpit. Settling into the seat, chuckling at the sight of the automatic radiator doors that often failed and forced him to go manual, Hal recalled the thrill of the flight. It may have an 85-gallon fuel tank, he said, but we never filled it over 65 so it wouldn’t become unstable. His wisdom hadn’t come easy—he’d seen a lot of warbirds go down. Just before he stepped off the wing, he kissed the palm of his hand. Reaching into the cockpit, he patted the throttle and gave it a little squeeze. “Goodbye, baby,” he said. The Commemorative Air Force, much like Hal’s wings, began with a P-51 Mustang. Back in 1957, a fellow named Lloyd Nolen pitched an idea to a small group of ex-service pilots from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. “Let’s pool our money together, buy a plane, and share the costs and joys of maintaining it”—or something to that effect. It wasn’t long before the group added a pair of F8F Bearcats to their collection and came to recognize the value of what they were doing. Not only was this a unique and rewarding hobby but with each aircraft they bought and restored, they were preserving a piece of history. The Commemorative Air Force was born. Its mission? To collect an example of every aircraft flown during World War II—the first mission of its kind.
Having collected nine warbirds, CAF was officially chartered as a nonprofit in 1961. The United States produced nearly 300,000 aircraft during the war but setting out to find them 15 years later wasn’t easy. Very few remained in flying condition. The majority were scrapped or abandoned having been decommissioned and stripped of armament and instruments. But the group marched on and the CAF fleet continued to grow. Soon they’d added medium and heavy bombers to their collection including the B-29, B-25, B-17, and B-24. Half a century later, CAF—with its 13,000 members and fleet of 175 aircraft—ranks as one of the largest air forces in the world. Its mission has expanded to include aircraft from other countries and other conflicts since World War II. In Camarillo, it’s the passion and dedication of over 200 members who volunteer their time and skills to CAF’s fleet and museum. Pat Brown, one of five remaining original members, recalls when the group first partnered with Camarillo’s former military airport to build CAF’s SoCal Wing back in 1982. She’s since put her sewing skills to work on restoring dozens of aircraft and flown to over 200 air shows around the United States. Roland Fogel joined CAF in 2011, though he started flying in 1992. Over the years, he’s strapped many passengers in for unforgettable warbird rides and he’s yet to have someone land without a big smile on their face. The group of volunteers do all of the restoration and maintenance work on the Camarillo fleet themselves and are proud to see it showcased on Ford commercials, James Bond movies, and more. When they started, they had no big plans, money, or idea that they’d reach the milestones they’ve reached. Their hangars are impressive, their museum offers fascinating tours, and their wing manages one of CAF’s largest flying fleets. Still, their favorite part is the ride. Robert Heinlein once wrote, “A generation which ignores history has no past and no future." Keeping his words in mind, CAF remains committed to preserving warbirds as perpetual reminders of the spirit in which they were flown. It’s true, they are beautiful aircraft. But they also serve as tributes to those who built, serviced, and flew them, and reinforce the lessons learned from defining moments in history.