Wings of history

World War II planes available for tours, flights in Coeur d'Alene

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JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Tubbs Hill comes into view through the canopy of the bombardier's station as the B-25 bomber flies over Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The noise at takeoff is jarring.

Pilot Dale Churchill counts off slow, "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven."

The propeller left of the cockpit grinds into action, producing, as Churchill had warned, a sound "like 50 Harleys gunning."

Another count, and the propeller to the right explodes into full volume. Both whipping at nearly super sonic speeds, in stereo around the cockpit, sounds like driving through a car wash during an earthquake.

A vibration builds, throbbing the thin, leather seats and the cramped interior, all the same sterile, military green.

The scent of exhaust rises, and the B-25 fighter plane jerks forward, like an antsy horse. As it rolls, a cacophony of noises chime in from all around, the mechanization of this grand jalopy popping, grinding, chugging, thrashing.

There is no forgetting, this hasn't been brand new since 1944.

A map on the wall shows limited emergency exists - through the tiny hatch above the pilots' heads, out the pilot's window, through a hatch at the tail.

Like the kind of escapes James Bond maneuvers.

But Churchill is at ease. It's like he's just changing the radio station, one elbow resting out the window as he fuddles with dial after dial, at last grasping the wheel.

The background drone becomes a roar, then a scream then a banshee wailing in the eardrum, and the magnificent, historic thing is lifting off, thumping mildly.

The bomber coasts above lake and hills and houses, compared to the days when it headed for the Mediterranean and infrastructure to obliterate.

Inside it holds joyous tourists, where once there had been nervous and deadly teenagers.

Restored and still respected, the plane is ferrying good times, where once it delivered doom.

"Hearing it start, that's what gets your blood going," Churchill says with a chuckle before Tuesday's takeoff.

Churchill is the kind of pilot with jet fuel in his blood, the kind who says his favorite plane is the one he's in. Maybe because he grew up tinkering around on World War II planes with his old man.

"I was raised working on fighter planes," the 53-year-old says.

So he's nostalgic about the 52-foot-long, B-25 sitting at the Coeur d'Alene Airport, how it was constructed in 1944 and ran 15 missions in World War II.

The battered fighter plane took 28 years to restore, starting when Churchill was about 20 years old, by volunteers who share the love he speaks with.

"Volunteers and money and finding parts, it took a long time. I was worried it would never fly again," says Churchill, a U.S. Airways captain with a kind face and a soft-spoken manner. "But it did, and now I'm part of it. So that's fine."

He and other pilots this weekend are giving passenger flights on the B-25, as well as a B-17 plane also from World War II, part of the Coeur d'Alene Airport Association's Heritage Wings event. The planes are kept up by the Commemorative Air Force Arizona Wing, of which Churchill is a member.

The silver B-25 is worn, but beautiful. Though just for decoration now, machine guns are still positioned in the nose, the waist and far back at the tail.

Its insides, which can be explored by weekend visitors, are eerie, submarine-like. The cockpit feels intimate, two seats squeezed before a board replete with gauges and dials, levers cropping up like weeds.

Crawling on hands and knees through a tiny space will place a visitor into the gunman's seat in the claustrophobic nose, where there is just enough room for a cloth seat by a mammoth gun.

"Remember, this was designed for 18-year-olds," Churchill says. "Imagine crawling around there with a parachute. All of those guys were heroes."

Guiding veterans through the bomber can be poignant, Churchill adds, admiring some who have recalled the ghosts of lost comrades and missions forgotten to the world.

"We're ambassadors," Churchill said.

And fans. Like Tom Lewis, Coeur d'Alene Airport Association spokesman, who describes the B-25 as nimble and responsive, ideal for low flying and bridge bombing.

Lewis is of the tribe that worships these planes. His eyes redden and water when he describes Doolittle's raiders, who steered B-25s in the U.S.'s first attack on Japan in 1942.

The bombers' guns were replaced with sticks so the planes could make the journey, Lewis recalls, but most still crashed because they weren't given proper directions.

"Many of those guys didn't come back," he says.

The cost of the rides this weekend are steep, Lewis acknowledges.

But it must be so, he says, or flying these ancient behemoths would be cost prohibitive. The ticket prices are the only way to afford the planes' costly upkeep, and fuel at $6.50 a gallon, with the planes consuming thousands of gallons at a time.

Charging for the flights is what keeps the planes up in the air at all, after nearly 70 years.

"For people who are veterans of World War II who never got a chance to fly in one of these things, it's a wonderful thing," Lewis says. "For younger people, where else can you fly in a chunk of history?"

The cockpit is sweltering by the end of Tuesday's half-hour flight.

The passengers' shirts are slick with sweat, after they've rotated sitting behind the copilot, the pilot and in the nose. Each position offers a daunting view of the dwindling landscape, the nose in particular like sitting in a transparent, floating eyeball.

"Another mission completed," Churchill teases after the plane touches down, the landing gear plucking like a bicycle kick stand.

Passenger Dave Lamphier is grinning, speaking of how he has been in simulators, but in those "you don't get that sound."

He gushes about crawling to the nose as the plane heaved up and down, about the heat in the cramped interior.

"Imagine doing that in war time, in uniform," the Coeur d'Alene man says. "I absolutely loved it."

Churchill is smiling too, though earlier he was worrying how long these flights will continue.

There are only four pilots in command for this B-25, he notes, and recruiting younger pilots is challenging.

"Someday you're only going to be able to see these in museums. They're not going to be running," he says, speaking slowly over the tragedy of it all. "I really think I'll be the last generation to fly these things."

Or maybe not.

Also worshipping the planes on Tuesday is 10-year-old Jake Collett, who journeyed from Canada with his mother, Sylvia, to take in the bombers he has been obsessed with for years.

Although they can't afford a ride, Jake has explored every inch of the planes, Sylvia says.

"He's crawled up and down and in and out, they've let him go at it," she says, adding that Jake has always been enamored with planes. "The crew has been phenomenal."

Churchill tells her he admires the boy's enthusiasm.

Who knows, she says.

"Maybe he's going to be the next pilot on that plane," she says.

JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Dale Churchill scans the skies as he pilots the B-25 bomber "Maid in the Shade" over Coeur d'Alene.


JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Jack Collett, 10, from Peachland, British Columbia, inspects the gun in the bombardier's station of the B-25 bomber on display at the Coeur d'Alene Airport.


JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Dave Lamphier makes his way through the crawl space from the bombardier's station to the jump seats behind the pilots of the B-25 bomber.

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