Saturday, June 03, 2017

Ukiah Municipal Airport (KUKI) Day shows how the past has been preserved in planes

Ukiah Airport Day, a show of aviation and family fun, could be seen as an intersection of the past and future. Rare war planes took turns flying on Saturday at the Ukiah Regional Airport, as pilots showed off their skills and told bystanders of each airplane’s history and how they came to know it.

Clarence Giacomini, 91, watched the planes take off and land as children pointed and shouted in awe of the old aircraft. Giacomini flew once or twice in a war plane like the ones in the sky on Saturday, with the Army during World War II. A witness to the past these planes hark back to, Giacomini remembers them in their heyday.

Getting to experience the living memory of these planes is something airport manager Greg Owen wants to give to Ukiah’s children every year on Airport Day.

“When I was a kid, I used to come out to the air shows, and that’s how I got interested in aviation,” he said. “That’s how you get people started.”

A clan of children clambered into a Korean War helicopter for a photo, the only survivor of its fleet of five for a mission in 1953. Others oohed and aahed at the two fighter planes zooming through the sky in tandem, a feat that takes skill, although the pilot of one of those P-51 Mustangs said it’s not as hard as it looks.

“The planes make us look good,” he said.

Two other planes, Vultee BT-13 Valiants, were basic trainer aircraft during World War II. Nick Bishop, who piloted the one named “Miss Fort,” helped rebuild the other in his shop, West Coast Wings, on the airport grounds.

According to Bishop, only 100 BT-13s are still around from the near 12,000 that were built, and only 40 are capable of flight. West Coast Wings is involved with six of the 40 planes still suitable for the air. Bishop, who has run the shop with his wife, Tammy, for more than 20 years, intends to pass the work onto his son, Eli, now 12 years old.

Nick Bishop is one of the BT-13 caretakers, a small circle of people who maintain the planes’ pasts.

“We are very passionate about these planes staying intact because of the history,” he said.

Named after Cornelia Clark Fort, “Miss Fort,” flown from the Chico Air Museum, honors the lesser-known women who flew the World War II planes. Called WASPS, an acronym for Women Airforce Service Pilots, they ferried the planes between training sites within the states, sometimes flying cross-country.

“In many ways, the women ended up being better pilots,” said Miss Fort’s owner, Rene Vercruyssen, meaning they had more stamina.

Vercruyssen pointed to a small circle on his plane, containing a few signatures of the WASPs who had piloted it. He has never shined that spot, he said.

Cornelia Clark Fort received a separate tribute, her photo in a small square near the nose of the plane, one of the original WAFS, or Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, who later merged into the WASPs. She is known for being the first American pilot to encounter the Japanese air fleet during their attack on Pearl Harbor, while conducting a civilian flying lesson.

She later became the first woman pilot in American history to die on active duty, killed March 21, 1943, when her BT-13 collided with another in mid-air during a ferrying trip, according to WW2 Research Inc.

Fort’s story and others’ live on in these planes, waiting for those who inherit them to carry them on. And that is just what their heirs did at Airport Day, a chance for these pilots to show us what they do.

Story and photo gallery:

1 comment:

  1. Man I wish I knew; I woulda been there! High respect for all vets from all wars! Your sacrifice is greatly appreciated by me and my family!Thank you and God bless you, your family and families to come! It would have been an honor to thank you myself in person!