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Warhawks, FiFi and Youth Revisited

I read a lot as a kid, which should come as no surprise, I guess, considering what I do for a living. I got started early, and one of the first things to grab me were historical books — fiction and non-fiction. I can remember sitting in my third grade class and reading about the Flying Tigers, the volunteer outfit of American flyers who took to the skies to protect China from the Japanese prior to our involvement in World War II.

I fell in love with the idea of those World War II aces back then, and I haven’t lost the notion I have of them even today. Unlike their World War I counterparts these guys were on the cutting edge of aircraft fighter development, engaging in true high-speed dogfights in the air. Today, missiles can be launched at another plane from miles away, marking the enemy as a bright spot on the electronic sight glass. It’s just not the same, even though the pilots have that same sense of daring and bravado.

Back to those Flying Tigers. Those guys were my first heroes (well, them and Roger Staubach) and I read everything I could about them, continuing to do so today. Along the way I developed a true affinity for the aircraft used in that time frame and studied them with typical single-mindedness of the obsessed. For years I longed to see these fighter planes and bombers in person, but something always came up to delay what would be a long road trip to do so.

Thankfully, they came to me.

Over this past weekend, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) held its AirExpo at the Collin County Regional Airport and I dragged the lovely Mrs. Williams along with me to the show. Finally, I was going to see and touch the planes I had been obsessing over since third grade.

Walking through the gates of the airport and seeing the planes on the hanger lot and runway, my skin tingled. I can’t say that’s happened often, but it made me feel like a little kid again, and I’m sure my wife wondered what was wrong with me. My attention wandered and so did I. It was amazing to touch the shark’s mouth on the P-40 Warhawk, photos of which have adorned my wall or computer at some point for the past 30+ years, and know that this plane defended the skies against Axis forces and the wall of my study against…something.

The bombers were particularly awesome. The scale of these — well, words can’t do it justice. Line four or five UPS trucks back-to-back and six of them side-to-side and that’s about the length and width of a B-29 bomber, of which the last remaining one of these that actually flies was on display. Her name is FiFi, and she was without a doubt the star of the show.

I knew the planes would be awesome. What I didn’t expect was to get choked up seeing the World War II veterans gazing longingly at these planes and slowly, lovingly, running their hands along their steel skins. These vets were showing up on walkers, canes and wheelchairs and seemed to regain just a bit of bounce in their step as they spent more time around the planes.

Those of us in attendance who weren’t WWII veterans simply said “Thank you” over and over to these vets and the volunteers who ran the show and talked us through the inside of these bombers.

It was a great day and made me feel like a kid again.

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