Crew members ready WW2 bomber for first flight of the year

Ernest Henderson, bottom left, monitors as the Devil Dog Squadron pulls the World War II bomber out of its hangar in Georgetown on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Ernest Henderson, bottom left, monitors as the Devil Dog Squadron pulls the World War II bomber out of its hangar in Georgetown on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — After months of work to replace an engine on a historic plane, crew members on Monday prepared to take the World War II bomber out for its first flight of the year.

The mechanics and pilot are part of the Devil Dog Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force, the Texas-based organization committed to restoring fighters, bombers and other planes from the war. Over the years they’ve put in countless hours and around $350,000 in donations to keep the B-25/PBJ-1 Mitchell bomber in the air.

Thursday the group tested the new engine, which they’ve been working since November to install, at the Georgetown Municipal Airport where the plane is based. Monday will be their first flight of the new year ahead of their first appearance with the plane later this month. The public can also come visit it at the Pilots Choice hangar at the airport.

“We’re out here almost every day of every week doing something on the plane,” said Earnest Henderson, one of the crew chiefs. It took a bit of coaxing before the engine sprang to life, but once it warmed up, the hardware hummed along while the aircraft sat stationary on the tarmac.

“Our sole purpose is to keep this airplane flying,” said Beth Jenkins, who pilots the plane at air shows around the country. “And, what we do is keep this history alive.”

Jenkins continues to climb into the cockpit because the Marine pilots who flew this iteration of the bomber can’t. “We’re losing these guys daily,” she said. “I’m not seeing the veterans coming to see the airplane, but I’m seeing their kids.”

Henderson is one of them. “It’s an honor for me” to work on the plane he said. “My dad used to fly these in World War II.”

It wasn’t until he died a few years ago that Henderson found his way to the Devil Dog Squadron. “He’d really be proud of it. I wish he’d had an opportunity just to see it and climb back inside of it after all those years.”

Because of their efforts, Henderson, Jenkins and the rest of the crew give dozens of veterans that chance. The bomb bay features signatures of people who once piloted B-25s, a collection the group has built up at air shows around the country.

“We had a guy come up in a wheelchair,” Jenkins remembered from a show in Wisconsin. “He was in a wheelchair, his kids brought him up. And … my mechanic spent a lot of time with him and he asked him if he’d like to get in the airplane, and he got up and crawled in it like he was 18 years old.”

But those moments are becoming less frequent. The B-25 made its debut a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Lt. Col. James Doolittle led a team of the bombers on an incredibly dangerous bombing run over Tokyo and other targets on the Japanese home islands in what became known as the Doolittle Raid. Lt. Dick Cole, of Comfort, Texas, south of Fredericksburg, was Doolittle’s copilot and is now the last living member of that mission at 102 years old.

“Every time I crawl into that airplane I think of these guys, 18, 19, 20 years old,” Jenkins said. A lot of them are gone now, and that’s why the crew members, all of them volunteers, are so committed to keeping this piece of history alive.

“It’s something we can’t lose for all the heroes that fought in World War II,” Henderson said.

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