On a recent trip to Florida to visit friends, we attended the Valiant Air Command Warbird Air Show at the Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville. The show was in honor of and dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle raid by Lt. Col. James Doolittle and his crew.
Almost every era of aviation was represented – World War I, World War II, Vietnam and Desert Storm. We toured the flightline, where we saw “Panchito,” a North American B-25J Mitchell Bomber, the most famous twin-engine bomber used during World War II, named for General Billy Mitchell. The B-25s achieved fame in 1942 when, under the command of Doolittle, 16 B-25Bs were launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in a secret raid on Japanese cities. The 80 airmen who participated in the April 18 mission became known as “Doolittle’s Raiders.”
One of the Doolittle men, Richard Cole, was at the show and eager to talk about his experience. The retired lt. col. said they could not land on the short deck of the carrier and instead they were to land in parts of China that were not occupied by Japanese troops. The 16 aircraft were to take off at dusk, but about 600 miles from Japan the carrier encountered a boat that could have warned the Japanese that they were coming, so the raid began earlier than planned and farther away from their targets. Because of launching early, they knew the fuel would be short. Cole was a co-pilot on the very plane flown by Doolittle himself. Cole, at the age of 96, is only one of five surviving Doolittle Raiders and he came from his home in Texas to attend the show. He has the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star, among other military decorations. After training in short runway takeoffs, the airmen knew their mission was going to be dangerous and that they would be taking off from a carrier, but never guessed their mission would be immortalized in history books and movies such as “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.” He said the plan was to bomb Japan, hitting military and industrial targets in Tokyo and other cities. The crew bailed out at night in the rain and he landed in a tree where he slept using his parachute as a hammock.
“The Chinese guerillas were very helpful in re-assembling the crew,” he said.
All the planes involved in the raid except one either crash-landed or had the crew bail out over China.
Many other pilots were there with their planes and they love talking about them, showing them off and telling the history of the plane. Other planes that we saw in addition to the B-25 Bombers were U.S. training planes, DC-3s, German trainers, U.S. navy trainers, a U.S. Cargo plane and a couple of Beechcraft C-45s. The first Beechcraft contract was announced on July 4, 1939. It served in World War II from North Africa to Burma and the D-Day beaches, doing its bit for the war effort.
During a down pour of rain that soaked us to the skin, I was sure the crowd of thousands would thin out, but they did not. After all, this was Florida and after 30 minutes the sun came out and it was beautiful. We then watched a simulated dog-fight between a WWI tri-wing German Fokker and a U.S. WWI fighter bi-plane. The Fokker, as seen in the picture, was the plane used by the Red. We watched an aerobatic exhibition of the planes going straight up, rolls, stalls and coming straight down. Very scary. One of the pilots performed in a Laser 200 aircraft, pulling negative and positive G’s. He became an airline captain at the age of 23 years and has more than 8,000 flying hours. He said, “You have to be in good shape for that kind of flying. I am as tired after that exhibition as though I had put in a two-hour workout at the gym.”
Two retired pilots manned the display of an F-8K Crusader supersonic fighter, the type of plane that they both flew while in the service. One of the planes took two years for restoration. They call this plane ‘the last of the gunfighters’. Some of the pilots had authentic weapons, uniforms and other equipment from 1943 and 1944. The precision flying was a beautiful sight to see. The finale included a pass-over with the plane standing up on the wing tip. Very impressive.
Helicopter rides were offered to those in attendance, also a B-29 Superfortress was available for rides and cockpit tours. You do not see B-29s that often, nor do you get a chance to fly in one. The attendance for the three-day air show reached 40,000 people from all across the United States. My interest in aviation peaked in 1972 when our eldest daughter married an F-14 Navy pilot. He has now taught our granddaughter to fly also.
It was a wonderful air show and a great tribute to the men of the Doolittle Raiders.