Propeller Heads

Published in The Ventura County Reporter, Winter 2004

Propeller Heads
Where can you find a Zero, a Mustang, a Lightning, a China Doll and a genuine Russian Yak with wings of wood? In Camarillo.

Story by Mark Storer

Bill Main once helped save the world. He doesn’t talk about it too much. Perhaps he doesn’t need to, for like so many of us, his memories are his and he wants to keep them that way.
A friendly, affable gentleman with a smile that broadens as you get closer to talking about airplanes, Main was the pilot of a B-17 bomber in 1944 flying missions from England into Germany. He flew 35 missions over Europe and was never shot down. The average lifespan of a B-17 pilot was between 10 and 15 missions, so Main is something of a phenomenon.

“It wasn’t really a big deal,” he says. “I got there toward the end, so we didn’t deal as much with fighters attacking. It was the flak I worried about.” Flak is the term used to commonly describe shrapnel launched into the sky in clouds of smoke. Its purpose was to hang in the air long enough to have the planes run into it. His never did.
After a 34-year career at American Airlines, Main finally retired as a pilot of DC-10’s and 747’s, the last three years of his career spent flying to Hawaii. “I can’t complain much about that,” he says.

Main is one of the few remaining WWII combat pilots, and he is also a member of the Southern California Commemorative Air Force Wing, based at Camarillo Airport. His is a history that, along with so many others, is being preserved by a volunteer organization formerly known as the Confederate Air Force. Political correctness made fundraising harder for organizations with the term “Confederate” in their name, so it was changed. With all of the interest currently surrounding the Boeing 707, formerly Air Force One, which is being delivered to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, it is really just another addition to Ventura County’s veritable stockpile of historic aircraft.

The majority of these extraordinary airplanes can be found at the CAF WWII Aviation History Museum at Camarillo Airport, which is a busy place. There are hundreds of stories here, and the museum sees more traffic each week. School groups come in to look at the planes and talk to the docents; people come and go through the exhibits, and the sounds of metal working, aircraft repair and excitable voices carry through the hangars out to the flight ramp, where more planes sit.

According to Wing Leader Casey de Bree, the Confederate Air Force was born in 1953 when two men, Lloyd Nolan and Lefty Gardner, former fighter pilot instructors and postwar crop dusters in Texas, decided they “wanted something a little hotter to fly than their crop dusters.” Seeing a colleague with “Confederate Air Force” painted on his plane, the two set out to take the joke and make it legitimate. They purchased their first surplus WWII fighter for around $1500.00 and, over time, formed a non-profit organization “dedicated to preserving the history, heroic deeds, and the planes that were flown by the heroes who fought and served in WWII,” as stated in the CAF mission statement.

The museum at Camarillo Airport is a source of revenue for the CAF. That, along with airshow sponsors, provides the money necessary to keep the wing flying. The museum is also a true warehouse, not only of aircraft, but also of WWII stories. It boasts a Japanese “Zero” that has been restored to flying condition, one of only three such planes left in the world. After the war, most of Japan’s planes were left abandoned where they were; Germany’s, too. Many of them, such as this one, were found on deserted Pacific islands waiting to be either destroyed or salvaged. The American government was anxious to make certain these planes would not fly against them again.

The museum also houses an American P-38 Lightning and a P-51 Mustang, both workhorses of the European campaign that were ahead of their time in engineering, speed, maneuverability and combat power. There is even a Russian “YAK” fighter plane, assembled primarily with wood because aluminum was in short supply in WWII-era Soviet Russia. Even so, it was an ample fighter and, because not much dog fighting was done on the eastern front of the war, the plane’s primary role was ground support. This particular aircraft has a Russian blurb printed on its fuselage indicating that it flew over Red Square at the end of the war in a celebratory parade.

One of the wing’s more recent acquisitions is a British Spitfire fighter restored to flying condition. “After WWII ended, this aircraft was turned over to India of all places,” said de Bree. “We don’t know the whole history there, but it almost certainly took part in some of India’s early conflicts with Pakistan.”

While still based in Van Nuys, the first plane that the Southern California Wing of CAF purchased was a C-46 cargo carrier. Christened “China Doll,” the large twin-engine aircraft, seen now quite often in the skies above Ventura County, is not actually WWII surplus. It was built in the 1950’s, and in a twist of fate that would foreshadow the plane’s future home, it briefly served as an oversized agricultural sprayer before it wound up in the hands of CAF volunteers. I was discussing her history with de Bree when we were politely interrupted by yet another friendly CAF flyer by the name of Jeff Whitesell. After settling business with de Bree, Whitesell discussed his role in the CAF wing. His interest in aircraft, like that of so many of the wing members, is forged from passion, curiosity and good old-fashioned luck.

While a young man and the son of an Eastern Airlines pilot, Whitesell received his own pair of wings and began flying, which he still does for a living as a pilot for Delta Airlines based out of Los Angeles. But CAF is not his only avocation.

Formerly a pilot for the now defunct Western Airlines, Whitesell’s passion has turned to developing a sort of CAF for passenger planes. “Very few people know how the airline industry has been built on the backs of its workers,” says Whitesell, his hands indicating his commitment to telling this story. “It was our sense of humor, our esprit de corps, our sweat and blood. And there’s no tribute to that. There’s a Marine Corps museum, a Navy Museum, an Air Force museum, and rightly so, but there’s no airliner museum.” With that history in mind, Whitesell has formed Airliners of America with a single Martin 4-0-4 airplane and a lot of hard work, passion and dedication to the men and women who built the airline industry, namely its air and ground crews.

Whitesell’s plane is also a flying history lesson, one related directly to its owner. When his father was laid off from Eastern Airlines, he purchased an airplane to begin a charter service in his hometown of Philadelphia.
Whitesell learned to fly at his father’s feet and their business flourished. They contracted with NFL Monday Night Football and flew the likes of Howard Cossell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford around the nation to the Monday night games. Even Muhammed Ali flew on the plane at one point. That was 1970, and the plane was a Martin 4-0-4.
As time passed, Whitesell began to dream of creating Airliners of America. Through a series of serendipitous accidents in 1994, he came across the very airplane his father and he had flown way back when, derelict at an old airport in Pueblo, Colorado. He bought the plane on his 40th birthday that year, spent six weeks making it airworthy and took it home to Seattle. When Delta bought Western Airlines, Whitesell wound up being stationed out of Los Angeles, moved to Camarillo and sought a home for his family heirloom. Not only did he find it at CAF, but he also found one of his airplane’s former pilots in CAF wing member Russ Derosendhal. In the plane’s former life, Derosendhal flew the plane for TWA. So, when Whitesell landed safely in Camarillo, the plane truly returned home; it now serves as the flagship for Airliners of America. If you get the flying itch, you can fly the Martin 4-0-4 and even qualify as a co-pilot or chief pilot, for a fee. Whitesell guarantees a high fun factor. “Listen, I get more visceral satisfaction out of flying this bird in one day than I get on a 757 in five months,” he says with wide eyes and broad smile. “This is hands-on flying. With that [the 757] you just punch in the computer information and take off.”
Whitesell, along with his colleagues in the CAF wing, have created a community that lives almost daily in the first half of the twentieth century, reveling in it with childlike glee, as though each day were their first trip to the airport. What keeps them hooked is the allure of the past and the desire to know it better. In focusing on the details, the minutiae of keeping these old airplanes flying, they are helping generations of newcomers to know their past—an important component of our culture that is often overlooked.

Recent events like the push to build a WWII memorial in Washington, D.C.—spearheaded by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks—and even the best-selling success of such books as David McCullough’s John Adams, remind us that the past is prologue to the story of the present, and the future depends on what we know and how we apply it. At the WWII Aviation Museum, a handful of ex-soldiers and enthusiasts have created a real sense of time and place that takes you out of the 21st century and drops you off in a remarkable era that changed the course of history forever.

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