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No D.C. aerial tribute, but WWII history mission accomplished
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No D.C. aerial tribute, but WWII history mission accomplished

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Everyone gave it their best shot, but Mother Nature just wouldn’t cooperate.

Low cloud ceilings and a tight timeframe prevented pilots and World War II planes from massing in the skies over Washington for last week’s long-planned Arsenal of Democracy Flyover.

Authorities planned to close Washington’s Reagan National Airport for 90 minutes to make way for 24 formations of warbirds, so organizers had a narrow time slot to attempt the aerial tribute on Friday or Saturday. Friday’s weather for flying was poor, and Saturday’s was worse, so no go.

A de Havilland Tiger Moth led the way on Friday’s attempt, followed by a covey of Boeing Stearmans, all heading toward a rendezvous west of Leesburg. But when the biplanes quickly returned to Culpeper and word spread that the overflight was canceled, disappointment was writ large on pilots’ and volunteers’ faces.

CAF member Daryl Jacobs, who shepherded flight crews and visitors around the airport all week, expressed sadness Saturday that the event couldn’t share the war’s you-can’t-make-this-up history with more of the public.

“The work we do connects generations,” Jacobs said of the national nonprofit’s educational efforts. “So many come and say ‘My grandfather or great-grandfather flew this or that; can you show me?’ They tell so many stories, and love to hear more—anything to help them get that insight into those who went before.

“It’s for family history and the sacrifices made for the life we live today. Seventeen, 18- and 19-year-olds got into these machines, putting everything on the line, with very little reservation. It’s incredible.”

Pulling off the complex, three-site event required hundreds of volunteers, who came to Culpeper, Manassas and Washington, D.C. from a wide variety of states across the country. Some 250 volunteers—including more than 80 local Commemorative Air Force members from across the nation—flocked to Culpeper to staff the weeklong flyover.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, all the CAF members who could be there were there, said Virginia warbird pilot Rob Krieg, leader of the Capital Wing. The D.C.-area wing cleared its big hangar at Culpeper Regional Airport to welcome participants and host flight briefings for most of the flyover’s pilots.

The aerial tribute, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, had been postponed to Sept. 25 from this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

World War II veterans, a rapidly dwindling group, came to Culpeper and Manassas to see the aircraft that were so much a part of their young lives.

The event's VIP veterans included Connie Palacioz, a worker in Boeing's Wichita, Kansas, factory who inspired Boeing the war's famous "Rosie the Riveter" poster; Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Vaucher, a B-29 Superfortress pilot who flew 117 World War II combat missions and led the flight of 525 B-29s over 1945's Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the USS MIssouri in Tokyo Bay; and Marine Sgt. Paul Hilliard, a radioman and gunner in SBD Dauntless dive bombers in the war's Pacific Theater. They spoke to flyover participants in Culpeper and Manassas, the latter time for a press conference in an airport hangar.

On Thursday, pilots flew a dress rehearsal of the flyover in Culpeper County, with the big bombers and other heavy planes coming in from Manassas.

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Capital Wing member Dave Whitbeck, from Elkton, Md., said the event accomplished its goal—”bringing all these aircraft together in one place and honoring the WWII vets and the ‘Greatest Generation.’ ... By the time the war’s 80th anniversary rolls around, there will likely be very few left. We won’t have an opportunity to do this again, for them.”

Many WWII veterans came to see the planes and stroll around the airfields. The CAF and other organizers gave them special access and shuttled them around.

History and aviation fans can watch an online version of the week’s events and a special 75th commemoration pre-filmed program via the arsenal’s Facebook page and website, ww2flyover.org, or the Commemorative Air Force’s YouTube channel. The video tribute includes the rarest World War II aircraft and interviews with WWII veterans who took part in the flyover.

Originally, the flyover was going to involve 100 airplanes. Only 60 aircraft could make it because of the COVID-19 crisis. Some groups couldn’t raise enough money to come here, he said. Some couldn’t come because of the considerable effort it takes to ferry the historic planes here, Some couldn’t cross the border from Canada, Whitbeck said.

“What I missed was all the planes running at the same time and lining up, getting ready to go,” Whitebeck said. “There’s nothing like that feeling and the sound and the smell of them all taking off one after another, all these incredible planes. It reminds you of an old newsreel showing hundreds of planes taking off, it transports you back in time.”

On Saturday, Krieg explained the difficulties presented by the low cloud ceilings.

“We had a very short window for our backup plan for weather—the clouds would have had to clear up a lot more, and they didn’t,” Krieg explained. “They have to be high enough to see all the way from the bottom of the clouds to the surface because we’re doing all this by sight. We have to be able to see the other planes—nothing can be in the clouds, we have to maintain spacing, and all the planes are stacked up on top of each other as we’re lining up.”

About 55 historic aircraft were based at Culpeper, with the remainder—including the giant B-29 Superfortress bombers “FIFI’ and “Doc”—based in Manassas.

“Unfortunately, the weather is not going to safely allow the aircraft to fly today through Washington, D.C., airspace,” Leah Block, vice president of the Commemorative Air Force, which owns most of the event’s historic aircraft, said at mid-morning Saturday. “Since our authorization to fly through that restricted airspace will expire today, we won’t be able to reschedule the flying portion of the program.

“We’re sorry we couldn’t put on the flyover we’d planned,” Block said. “... We thank you all for your support and understanding.”

In particular, the CAF thanked the flyover’s presenting sponsors, the Bob and Dolores Hope Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense.

On Friday night, with fliers hoping for the best but expecting worse come Saturday, the Capital Wing hosted a “survivors’ party” for pilots and participants at its Culpeper hangar. World War II dance tunes wafted over the tarmac on the airport’s loudspeakers, as dozens of vintage planes waited for a last chance to fly over the nation’s capital. That opportunity didn’t come.

But as with so much of life in the COVID-19 era, much of what the flyover brought to the region can be enjoyed virtually.

More photos and video clips can be found on Twitter at #ww2flyover.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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