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This week, a World War II-era B-17 tragically crashed in Connecticut. Words fall short in trying to provide comfort to the loved ones of those departed. Prayers are extended for them and those recovering from their wounds.
As we absorb what happened, it is important to understand the context behind the flight. Across America, a select number of educational organizations have restored historic military aircraft to flying condition to honor veterans, serve as educational tools, and inspire future generations. These are not “fly by night” operations as some in the media have conjectured. These organizations are comprised of incredibly talented individuals subject to Federal Aviation Administration standards and oversight specifically formulated for this class of vintage aircraft. These rules cover the aircraft restoration process, ongoing maintenance, pilot qualifications and flight operations.
Harnessing considerable private resources, these organizations seek to make history come alive for the general public. It comes down to a simple principle: Watching historical aircraft roar to life, thunder down the runway and soar into the sky is far more interesting, engaging and memorable than viewing a dust-covered plane hanging from a museum ceiling.
The opportunity for members of the public to fly in one of these historic aircraft—a wholly different experience than flying on a modern commercial airliner—increases the impact even further. You can read a book or watch a movie about flying and fighting in World War II, but it is impossible to truly grasp what aircrews endured unless you fly in a vintage warbird yourself.
These aircraft serve as traveling museums, able to visit communities across America and engage people who are not able to journey to the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, or the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Attendees include school groups, veterans, and the general public. Several U.S. presidents have even stopped to visit with these veteran warbirds to say, “thank you.”
In years past, World War II veterans were a common sight among the attendees, coming to show family members their contribution to the nation in decades past, often opening up about their wartime experiences for the first time. Other veterans were coming to say goodbye to “their” aircraft one last time.
As President George W. Bush explained during the dedication of the Air Force Memorial in 2006, “a soldier can walk the battlefields where he once fought. A Marine can walk the beaches he once stormed, but an airman can never visit the patch of sky he raced across to defend freedom.” These aircraft are as close as veterans can get to their past—they serve as memorials for many. I brought my father, a World War II Army Air Force veteran, to visit these aircraft and we went for a flight. To share that moment with him was such an incredibly moving experience that I cannot describe how much it meant to both of us.
With the passage of time, our World War II veterans are nearly all gone, including my father. But their aircraft remain. They are now visited by sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren seeking to better understand their family’s heritage. The visits remain powerful, far more impactful than looking at grainy black and white pictures.
A quick scan of social media posts relating to the recent crash reveals that the loss of the B-17 was not simply the destruction of a physical artifact. The aircraft had a soul—thousands of lives, people who hold very personal memories are intertwined with it. People are grieving for that loss.
These historic aircraft have assumed an increased significance to our nation and our public, given airpower’s greatly diminished presence across America. Ever since the end of the Cold War, it has been more difficult for American citizens to realize the impact of airpower. From an Air Force perspective, the end of the Cold War saw its total size decline by over 30 percent; its total number of fighter aircraft cut by almost 50 percent; total number of bombers cut by over 70 percent; numerous bases close; and the aerospace industrial complex consolidated from dozens of companies into less than a handful of major aircraft production facilities. Put simply, airpower’s longtime grassroots presence is fading away. This has had a deleterious effect upon our veterans and the public’s understanding of the value of airpower to the nation—past and present.
For over 100 years, American Airmen have taken to the skies in defense of our nation. Whether during the advent of combat aviation in World War One; the massive air campaigns of World War Two; battles over MiG Alley; air crews sitting alert throughout the Cold War; the valor displayed by airmen over Vietnam; flying missions into the world’s most defended airspace in Desert Storm; air campaigns over Bosnia and Kosovo; and more recently the air operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria—American Airmen have repeatedly put their lives on the line to defend our nation. It is important to honor the sacrifices in dedication to duty and service by the Airmen who made them.
That is precisely why the Collings Foundation, the organization which owned and operated the B-17 that crashed, dedicate so much time, energy, money, and heart to this undertaking. It is a mission fundamentally centering around service—to veterans, younger generations, and the public at large. It comes down to honoring and educating about what it means to be an American warrior aviator.
In reaction to the crash, stories are now circulating in the media, several based upon inaccurate conjecture, calling for the curtailment of vintage aircraft operations—many driven by lawyers seeking to exploit this tragedy and cash in on the disaster. That is the wrong approach. We must let the investigation proceed and implement lessons learned to make such operations even safer. However, the reality is that nothing in life is free of risk. Seventeen people died in the Grand Canyon last year. That does not mean the government should close all National Parks.
This week’s tragedy weighs heavily upon us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost their lives, those injured, and their families. The mission of honoring veterans and educating members of the American public about their history remains vital. Historic aircraft must continue to fly.