Parked near runways and hangars full of modern airplanes at the Glacier Jet Center, a World War II-era B-25J Mitchell bomber looks a little out of place – a museum piece rolled out on a sunny afternoon. But when pilot David Thompsen climbs aboard and starts the 68-year-old plane, it’s anything but antique.
The Commemorative Air Force Missouri Wing landed in the Flathead Valley on Aug. 2 to show off its historic B-25J airplane during a six-day visit to Montana. The Commemorative Air Force is a nationwide group dedicated to preserving historic military aircraft. And even if the USAAF 44-1385 was built nearly seven decades ago, Thompsen is confident it will be flying for years to come.
“This was the leading edge of technology in 1938,” Thompsen said, while working on the plane at the Glacier Jet Center. “These (other) planes around here, they won’t be flying in 70 years, but this one will.”
The B-25J Mitchell bomber was built in 1944 toward the end of World War II and sent to California to be used on training missions. It is the same type of aircraft that was used during the historic Doolittle Raid over Japan in 1942. In 1960, the plane was purchased by a private citizen and then changed hands numerous times until the Missouri Wing purchased it in 1984.
Since then, volunteers have spent countless hours working on the old plane making sure it stays in the sky. Every summer the group makes about two dozen trips around the country. Thompsen has been involved for the last few years and when he’s not flying the 68-year-old plane, he’s piloting massive jetliners for a commercial airline. He said flying the old bomber is a much more sensory experience compared to modern jets where almost everything is automated.
“This is a rare opportunity,” Thompsen said. “Some people like old cars, some like antiques and I’m drawn to an old plane.”
Another member of the crew is Bob Moore, who helps show the plane to the public and organize 30-minute rides at stops around the country, including in the Flathead over the weekend. The crew offered tours and rides to the public on Aug. 4-5 at the Glacier Jet Center.
Moore said he had always been interested in flying and when he was at an air show in the late 1980s he saw a plane from the Missouri Wing. He joined immediately.
“When you’re a kid you build toy airplanes with paper and balsa wood and when you’re older you just want to fly,” he said. “The main thing is keeping the history alive and preserving the memory of veterans.”
Through the sale of souvenir merchandise and donations, the 120-member group is able to maintain the old aircraft. Every week volunteers work on the plane at the group’s hangar in Portage Des Sioux, Mo. Mechanic Pat Fenwick said one of the greatest challenges is keeping people interested in volunteering. He’s been with the group for nearly 30 years and on most trips he can be found messing with one of the two massive engines that keep the plane flying. While maintaining the plane takes a rare skillset, original parts are not in short supply. When the B-25 bombers were made during World War II, the government made a large supply of spare pieces and many are still available today.
As Thompsen, Fenwick and the rest of the crew washed the plane, tested its engines and inspected the craft at the Glacier Jet Center, they drew a small crowd of pilots and airport employees. Moore said it’s a common commotion and sometimes, when they make what is supposed to be a 15-minute fuel stop, they end up parked for two hours.
“We just like showing it off,” Moore said.
For more information about the Commemorative Air Force Missouri Wing, visit www.cafmo.org.
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