Soar into the wild blue yonder of history
Gasoline leaked from the nose of the antique World War II era TBM-3E “Avenger” as pilot Bob Thompson hand-cranked the retractable wings into their open position.
The work made him sweat, and he paused for a moment to catch his breath before firing up the single-engine plane that was flown by the Royal Canadian Navy in the coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.
With a spark, the gasoline caught fire in the engine’s cylinders, sending out a cloud of black smoke and oil.
“That’s normal,” shouted Denis Godfrey, public information officer for the Commemorative Air Force, as he and other volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Wing looked on.
The plane sputtered like an old International truck, not instilling much confidence as to its ability to actually get off the ground.
Other Avengers, such as this one, dropped torpedoes and were used in aerial combat in the Battle of Midway in 1942. It is the type of plane that former President George H.W. Bush flew over Chi Chi Jima, where he was nearly captured by the Japanese.
Slowly, the propeller increased speed, spinning faster and faster. The smoke cleared, and the 65-year-old beast of a plane roared into all of its glory. It was easy to see why the Avenger had once been the pride of the U.S. military.
And, yes, it can still fly safely, thanks to the 85 Commemorative Air Force volunteers in Grand Junction who are dedicated to maintaining the plane and educating the public about the events which took place in World War II.
The public will have the rare opportunity to catch a ride in this historic Warbird during the open house taking place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at the Commemorative Air Force Museum, 780 Heritage Way, near the Grand Junction Regional Airport.
Avenger rides are available for a tax-deductible donation of $375 per rider. Flights in the museum’s other plane, the J3 Cub, also known as “The Grasshopper,” will cost $55 per rider.
Other commemorative and historic aircraft will be on the ground for viewing, and the museum will be open for public tours. Hot dogs and drinks will be sold.
“This is going to be a great opportunity to bring the kids and relive a piece of American history,” Godfrey said.
All proceeds from the event will be used to continue the maintenance on the planes, which costs more than $30,000 annually, Godfrey said.
“We feel very strongly that in order to understand World War II, people need to be able to see the planes, touch them and even experience a flight,” said Thompson, wing commander of the local Commemorative Air Force chapter.
He said many people want to fly in an actual World War II plane in order to feel what their parents or grandparents might have felt during the war.
“For some, it’s just on their bucket list to fly in one again,” Thompson said.
Nationally, the Commemorative Air Force maintains more than 150 World War II era aircraft. Unlike other museums, all of the planes are in flying condition. Many are displayed at air shows.