WWII bomber flies in for Rifle air show

Sharp-eyed folks scanning the skies Thursday afternoon in Parachute would have noticed a noisy but sturdy aircraft circle town, point its nose east and head back toward Rifle. If someone was equipped with a telescope, they might have been tickled to see country music singer Aaron Tippin as the pilot of that B-25J Mitchell.

The nearly 70-year-old bomber and Tippin are slated to be highlights of a free air show today and Saturday at the Garfield County Regional Airport. Members of the U.S. Army Parachute team have planned jumps on both days, with their first main show tonight.

“I’ve been told when they jump out it looks like a huge comet. Their record of calls (to 911) for looking like unidentified flying objects is 97,” Garfield County Airport Director Brian Condie said with a chuckle. “Hopefully we won’t have that here.”

Garfield County Airport is billing the event as a celebration of a host of recent improvements. The air show has been an annual staple at the airport, except for last year when workers leveled out the 7,000-foot airstrip that was plagued by a road grade that was less than ideal for takeoffs and landings.

The five-seat medium B-25J Bomber, with its depiction of a pinup girl, 14 machine guns, some on turrets, and bombs in the bomb bay may be a treat for World War II buffs and anyone in need of history lesson. This particular plane had not been deployed in battle, but was used to shuttle generals and other high-ranking military officials. But on April 18, 1942, 16 similar planes were the first American bombers to fly into Japanese skies after the attacks at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

“We get guys who are 80 or 90 and they grab the stairs and get up there and act like they’re young,” said Col. Bob Moore of the Commemorative Air Force, the nonprofit group which owns and displays the plane. “Some veterans touch the planes and start sobbing.”

Soldiers entered the bomber just past the bomb bay from a short set of pull-down stairs underneath its belly. Rounds of ammunition line the uninsulated fuselage. A tailgunner would have sat at the rear on a large bicycle-type seat, shooting simultaneous rounds from a perch encased in glass.

“They have nine yards of bullets,” Moore said. “When you hear the saying, ‘the whole nine yards,’ that’s where the phrase came from. If you’re over Germany and you’re out of bullets, you’re in trouble.”

Nose gunners, or those in the bubble underneath the pilots, were responsible for dropping the bombs, Moore said.

In its day, the planes held 3,000 pounds of bombs, or six, 500-pound bombs, Moore said, a capacity that’s quite minimal compared with today’s standards.

Those soldiers also fired machine guns, one off the tip of the bomber and two guns stacked on the plane’s right front. Getting into the nose of the plane is a tight squeeze through a short tunnel underneath the cockpit.

“You talk to servicemen who were 18 or 19 at the time,” Moore said. “They flew all day and drank and ran around all night. Then they did it all over again the next day.”

The CAF has since added two seats to the plane to better accommodate riders. Flights in the plane today or Saturday are $395 a person, which includes a complete tour, Moore said.

On Thursday, rain leaked in from the top turret, and the roar of the engines seemed ear-splitting, offering the slightest glimpse into conditions endured by soldiers.

The views, however, of mesa tops and the shapely uplifts around Battlement Mesa offered a new perspective from the Interstate 70 grind.


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