Today, a morning with the Commemorative Air Force. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I recently visited the Texas Raiders Group of the Gulf
Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force or CAF. Remember the CAF's
tongue-in-cheek original name, the Confederate Air Force (as in
"Save your Confederate dollars, the south will rise again".) It was and is made
up of scattered WW-II vintage airplanes which have, indeed, risen like Phoenixes
out of the ashes of forgetfulness. But, on an increasingly large public stage, the CAF needed a name that was less
of an in-group joke -- one that better expressed its real purpose. That purpose
is to commemorate the heroes of our darkest hour -- to resurrect the planes in
which some 88,000 Americans died fighting a truly desperate war. [The name was changed in 2002.]
Yet the horrors of that war seem so distant in the still air, this cool sunny day.
The most obvious occupant of the remote hanger is one of the few still-airworthy
B-17 Flying Fortresses -- the iconic bomber of the war. But before airmen got to
the big bombers or fast fighter planes, they had to learn to fly.
WW-II pilots learned the rudiments of flight in primary trainers. On the eve of
the war, those were usually Stearman biplanes. We're familiar with them, because
so many became crop-dusters after the war. Who can forget the
Stearman attacking Cary Grant
in Hitchcock's movie North by Northwest. Then Fairchild provided a trainer
with a single low-wing, the PT-19. It had more the shape of current fighter planes,
but with tandem open cockpits. Fairchild provided the Canadians with a closed cockpit
version in 1944 -- the PT-26. They were then naming training planes after universities.
This one became the Cornell.
My host owned a Cornell which sat, all cheerful yellow, in the shadow of the olive-drab
Flying Fortress. "Would you like to go for a ride," he asked. I would indeed. He
strapped me into the rear instructor seat, and took the forward student pilot seat.
And I was suddenly living in another time. The sun glowed through the translucent fabric
-- all that separated me from the air outside. The flight gave an intimacy with the
air unlike I've had in an airplane -- feeling every minor correction and gust in the
drafty cockpit. This was no jet hurtling along like a missile, but actual flight.
We moved through the air rather as a bird might do.
The Army Air Force, in desperate haste, ordered 6400 of these trainers. And many of
the 13,000 airmen who died before combat, died in planes like this. Then, those still
standing were hurled into the chaos with minimal experience.
So CAF volunteers create this colorful Air Force of reconstituted airplanes -- American,
Japanese, German. CAF planes are housed in scores of remote hangers. Air Shows provide
only partial support for their vast effort. But they are where this living museum emerges
publicly. And, when it does, we glimpse just a bit of the texture of the worst war in
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we are interested in the
way inventive minds work.
My deep appreciation to Wing Leader Don Price of the Texas Raiders Group of
the CAF who hosted my October 29, 2011 visit. Price is also the owner of the
Fairchild PT-26, Cornell. For a video clip of the takeoff and landing
from within the airplane CLICK HERE.
(This large file might load slowly.)
See also the Wikipedia entry under
Commemorative Air Force.
And VISIT THIS SITE
to see how combat and training losses were distributed among aircraft.
All photos, and video of the Fairchild flight, by John Lienhard.
See also Episode 2650 and
this set of pictures
to see CAF airplanes taking part in an Air Show.
US military fliers flew as the Army Air Service until 1926. They then
became the Army Air Corps until 1942 when the Army Air Force was
formed. In 1947, the US Air Force became a separate branch of the US military.
However, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard also have a considerable
variety of airplanes today.
This episode was first aired on November 7, 2011
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.