My stomach flipped as the Disabled Americans Veterans‘ B-25 Mitchell Bomber began climbing into the Florida sky. I sat in the back of the plane looking out the window and watched as buildings, cars and boats shrunk as we ascended. Earmuffs protected my ears from the engine’s outlandishly loud roar and the only means of communication were smiles and thumbs ups.
I was the guest of the DAV and Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda, Fla., last Friday, and one of a few members of the media invited to experience a flight in a B-25 bomber flown in World War II and sponsored by the DAV. Prior to takeoff, Jen Wulf, photographer from Sun Newspapers, and I were given an orientation for riding in the back of the plane. Most important thing to remember? Don’t stick your head out of the window, it’ll snap off the camera. Another important piece of advice? Don’t point machine guns at other planes. And don’t accidentally trip the hatch emergency release, doing so would detach the emergency door somewhere over Charlotte County. Good tips. Ones my mother didn’t share.
Larry Kelley, owner of Panchito, the B-25 Mitchell Bomber, explained how the DAV acts as an advocate for disabled war veterans to ensure they receive the benefits they are entitled. Importantly, the vets don’t pay for the service. The organization’s mission is to help disabled veterans build better lives for themselves and their families.
Panchito flew 19 missions between Dec. 1943 and Oct. 1944 and was flown during the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan which changed the direction of WWII. Kelley arrived in Punta Gorda the day before, flying in from Sarasota with Doolittle Raider Lt. Col. Dick Cole as his copilot. Cole was copilot to Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle who led the raid.
Kelley described having Cole as his pilot as, “a thrill for me.” He added, “At age 96 he hasn’t lost a bit, he could still fly just as good as he did back then.”
Soaking up the history of the plane, which was eventually retired from military service and used to fight fires, spray orange groves, spray for mosquitoes, totally rebuilt and placed back in the air in 1986, it was time for me to climb into Panchito’s nearly 70-year-old belly. With a good tailwind, the plane’s cruising speed is 190 to 200 miles an hour and consumes about 130 gallons of fuel an hour.
Soon after buckling into my seat, Mark Buck, with the DAV Flight Team, handed both of us a pair of earmuffs. He explained many WWII pilot veterans are deaf because decent ear protection wasn’t used and sometimes the pilots chose not to use them or would in only one ear.
When we reached a cruising level, we unbuckled our belts and sought photo opportunities. I cautiously peered out of the porthole (which was probably used by parachute jumpers in the day) and nothing separated me from the open sky. Wind pummeled me and tried to knock around my Flip cam, camera and iPhone but I held steady because the view of Punta Gorda, the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor was spectacular.
Assured I would not be sucked out of the B-25, I crawled into the tail of the plane and shot a few photos. Again, there was nothing separating me from the open sky. Incredible views of green spaces, sparkling waterways and organized urban development.
Returning to the Punta Gorda Airport, I wondered what it was like sitting in the back of the plane during WWII. I thought about how young the pilots and soldiers were back then and how young they are today. Were they scared? Did they think/know of the impact they were making? I thought of the sacrifices made by those serving in the military back then and today. And I wondered about families impacted by war.
Called the DAV Airshow Outreach Program, Disabled American Veterans is reaching more than three million spectators and raising awareness about their non-profit organization when displaying Panchito at more than 25 air shows across the country and reaching an audience of more than 3 million. Sacrifices fsafdmembers of the military and their families have made should not be forgotten.
Founded in 1920, the DAV represents more than 1.2 million disabled veterans. Whether visiting the Florida International Air Show in Punta Gorda or elsewhere in the U.S., stop by and visit with the DAV Flight Team to learn more about their good work. Or, check out their Facebook page and website (www.dav.org).