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World War II rarities dazzle crowd at Colorado Springs air show

Gazette - 9/24/2017

Sept. 23--View Gallery View Comments

The Pikes Peak Regional Airshow dazzled audiences on an overcast Saturday, showcasing some of the rarest restored World War II planes in existence before rainstorms forced the Air Force Thunderbirds to cancel their precision flying show.

For some, like Bob Frantz, the show is part of their life story.

"Planes and flying have been a part of me for my entire life," said Frantz, a Korean War veteran from Pueblo. "Whenever something like this comes, that's my kind of day."

Few in the audience at the Colorado Springs Airport, though, know what it really takes to restore, maintain and fly these irreplaceable antiques.

"Our job is to take a piece of history and put it in the air," said Bill Klaers of WestPac Restorations. WestPac restores and maintains for the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs and private plane owners.

WestPac's crown jewel at the air show this year was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning called "White 33." The company had found it buried in a jungle of Papua, New Guinea, in the 1990s and completed its full restoration in 2012.

Klaers said the wings were cut off to be used for spare parts before it was abandoned during World War II.

Although the plane had some of its parts, WestPac had to either scour the world for someone who owned a necessary part or manufacture it themselves, just as they do with many of the planes that they restore.

"These planes are 75 or so years old. You can't just go to a store and find what you need for them," Klaers said. "The days that stuff shown at the air show this weekend will fly are getting shorter and shorter because of that."

Bill Janitell, one of the museum's board members and owner of four restored World War II planes, added that the number of people who know how to work with these planes is declining.

"Just like World War II vets, we're losing all the people who know how to maintain the warbirds," Janitell said. "The new kids coming out of school, most of them would have no idea what to do if we put them in front of one of these planes and asked them to diagnose the problem and fix it."

The other major roadblock for people interested in owning, repairing or flying these types of planes is the cost. A new airplane that sits two people burns 8 to 10 gallons of fuel an hour, Janitell said.

A similarly sized warbird burns about 32 gallons an hour, and a large twin-engine warbird burns about 180 gallons of fuel.

Janitell says he's lucky. Now that his twin sons, who work in the plane industry, are old enough, he has begun to pass down his knowledge to them.

The aviation museum has set a similar goal. At the air show, the museum has a kids' area where people can build miniature planes with all the same moving parts as a real plane and then try out those mechanics in the shell of a stationary plane.

"Their experience here might just be something interesting, but it also might be the first step towards a career in aviation," said Mark Earle, one of the museum's board members who is in charge of its education programs.

The Kid's Zone is a small sample of those programs, which range from a course for kindergartners on the basic principles of flight science to a high school aircraft design class. The program, which started in 2012, reaches 4,000 students from across the state every year.

Earle said the program's goal is not to give a kid a career path but rather to inspire them to explore a field that traditional education does not offer.

The museum has not measured how many students in the program go onto aviation-related secondary education. Right now, Earle rates the success of their efforts by the enthusiasm of the students leaving the program.

"We can really tell when you got a kid who you've inspired. You can see it on their face. The light goes on, and it's hard to stop them after that," Earle said.

The Colorado Springs aviation museum offers students a particularly special experience. Many aviation museums across the country only have stationary planes, and the exhibits do not change much, Earle said. In Colorado Springs, new planes are introduced as soon as WestPac restores them and are regularly flown for visitors and students to see.

For Janitell and Klaers, the ability to fly their planes is what completes the experience of owning one.

"We just love those warbirds," Janitell said. "It gets in your blood."

The air show continues Sunday with a planned demonstration by the Thunderbirds, weather permitting.

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(c)2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)

Visit The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) at www.gazette.com

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