Cottrel: Clark County has front row seat to aviation wonders

Grimes Field is hosting a gathering of B-17 bombers. Bill Lackey/Staff
Grimes Field is hosting a gathering of B-17 bombers. Bill Lackey/Staff

Although the skies over western Clark County have always been interesting, this week should prove to be one of the more fascinating.

For generations since the days of the Wright Brothers residents of Bethel, Mad River, and Pike townships have had front row seats to witness the progress of aviation. Watching from fields, yards, and the back of Model A Fords at the ends of runways, our grandparents watched aviation progress from the awkward spindly Wright Flyer to colorful biplanes, to P-51 Mustangs. The next generation progressed from B-52s to the Stealth bombers that sometimes land at Wright Patterson Air Force Base as they pass through this area.

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This week we get to go back in time 75 years to see an airplane that our grandparents respected, a World War 2 bomber, the B-17. This is all thanks to our lucky location between the runways of Urbana’s airport on the north end of town and Wright Patterson’s runways.

On Monday and Tuesday, Urbana’s Grimes Field will host the gathering of the B-17 bombers, of World War 2. There are not very many of these huge bombers that are still flying. On Wednesday these famed flying fortresses will fly over us to land at the Air Force Museum for a special celebration. Among those flying over will be a B-17 painted like the most famous of the B-17s, The Memphis Belle.

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Now the flying days for the real Memphis Belle are over. This aviation legend has been fully restored and has just gone on display in the U.S. Air Force Museum. That is the reason for all this gathering of flying fortresses.

The younger generation may be wondering why there is all this hoopla over that old airplane going on display. To today’s teenagers, 75 years ago is ancient history. It is our job to tell this story to a new generation since schools don’t spend much time on World War 2 history any more.

Now if you have not seen the movie Memphis Belle, I recommend that you make viewing that movie a priority this week. This movie is probably the most accurate depiction of the height of the air war in World War 2. If you can, make some popcorn and invite a teenager to join you on the sofa. This is not a glorification of war, but instead it is a movie to show what our country had to go through to defeat a great evil. And that is was won by real people just like us working together. The story of the Memphis Belle is real and not fiction.

Teens love the stories of Hunger Games, Divergent, and Maze Runner that challenge ordinary young people to do something extraordinary. They like the tales of young people linking arms to stand up to great evil. Sadly most are unaware that in the 1940s our greatest generation did just that.

Our youngest generation has no comprehension of the dark days of World War 2. The skies over Europe were so dangerous that a single bomber had very little chance of returning from 25 different bombing runs.

Twenty Five missions was the goal. Those who could survive that many bombing runs were promised that they could return home. That was the unattainable dream, the Quest, of all flight crews. Scores of airplanes were shot down and hundreds of men died trying to get to that 25th mission.

The Memphis Belle was the first to complete 25 missions. The message that it could actually be done gave America, Britain, and other aircrews hope.

This week we can visit the old bombers and other historical aircraft at the Urbana airport until Wednesday when the bombers take off for the festivities at the U.S. Air Force Museum which are also open to the public. At least one of the B17s will return to Urbana for the weekend of May 19 and 20. Admission is charged.

Two of the B-17s will be giving rides, which might seem expensive to some of us but to others this is the flight of a life time and worth every penny.

Luckily watching the B-17s fly over head is free.

Over the last few years we have also enjoyed a fly in of the two-engine B-25, a medium weight bomber, to commemorate the Doolittle Raid in 1942. This time we get to see the much bigger B-17s which has four huge prop engines and is classed as a heavy bomber. This fly over will be noisier.

This week when we hear the roar of massive four engine heavy bomber and run out of our houses to see a B-17 flying overhead, we will be traveling back in time.

As I stand in the yard with my head tilted back to watch them fly by I am in awe. I am amazed that they were able to do all they did with that primitive technology and no computers.

I’m surprised that some planes still remain. It is a testimony to a strong basic design enhanced by faithful restoration and modern maintenance methods. Thanks to all who perform this magic.

When I see the bombers overhead I’m reminded of a letter my uncle wrote from a foxhole in Belgium in 1944. He was thrilled to see the formations of scores of bombers and escort fighters flying overhead leading the way to an end to the war. When I hear those engines, I feel connected to that man who did not make it back.

As I thrill to the roar of those engines, I give thanks for every brave pilot, gunner, navigator, and crew member who flew on them. It had to be so scary flying into hostile skies.

I’m thankful for the ground crews that maintained the aircraft and managed to piece it together again after each mission. They did this every day and night for years.

I’m thankful for those women and men who worked long hours on the assembly lines to make bombers faster than they could be shot down.

And with gratitude I remember the families who sent their loved ones off to fight an air war in unfriendly skies.

Look to the skies and remember. Be grateful to those who unselfishly gave of themselves so that we might still be free. Never forget.