Vintage airplanes flying into Kenai for stopover at airport

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

Two World War II vintage heavy bombers will spend the better part of three days at the Kenai Municipal Airport this weekend.

The planes, a Douglas B-17G Flying Fortress and a Consolidated B-24J Liberator, are owned and flown by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass., and will arrive at the Kenai airport Friday afternoon.

"We're very excited," said airport manager Rebecca Cronkhite. "This is a unique opportunity for the people of Kenai and the airport."

People will be allowed to drive onto the tarmac to park and see the planes up close. The Boys and Girls Club will be at the site selling refreshments.

Airport commission chair Henry Knackstedt headed up a group that coordinated the visit to Kenai.

"I am absolutely excited," Knackstedt said. "As a matter of fact, I've been putting up posters and other people are getting excited, too."

He said the Collings Foundation wanted to come to Kenai and contacted Cronkhite to see if there was any interest locally.

Knackstedt's job was to help coordinate the logistics on the ground for the visit.

"Their mission in life is to get these aircraft out for the public to see," he said. "And they're looking for us to find them a place to stay and cars and help with fuel."

The aircraft cost $2,000 per hour each to operate.

"They're certainly not up here to make a profit from us," Knackstedt said. "They've just never seen the land of the midnight sun."

The planes have been restored to factory-mint condition at the cost of millions of dollars.

The B-17G is named "Nine-O-Nine" in honor of a World War II bomber that completed 140 missions over Germany without an abort or loss of a crewman. The plane coming to Kenai was rolled out on April 7, 1945, too late to see any combat. However, it did see service in the Air-Sea Rescue Squadron and later in the Military Transport Service.

In 1952, the plane was subjected to three nuclear explosion tests. After sitting for 13 years, the plane was sold as scrap but was restored by Aircraft Specialties Company. For 20 more years, the B-17G served as a water bomber, fighting forest fires. In 1986, it was sold to, and restored back to military trim, by Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft. The plane needed a third restoration after running off the end of the runway during a visit to western Pennsylvania.

The B-24J is named "Dragon and his Tail." The Collings Foundation knows little about the aircraft except that it flew in the Pacific during the war. The plane was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces in August 1944 but was transferred to the Royal Air Force in October of that year. The British used it for patrol and bombing missions against Japanese shipping.

At the end of the war, the plane was abandoned in Khanpur, India, and did not fly again until 1948 when it was restored by the Indian Air Force. It served for 20 years before it was retired. In 1981, it was bought by a British airplane collector who sold it to Collings in 1984.

The foundation originally named the plane "All American," after another B-24 that holds the record for most enemy aircraft shot down. Last year, Collings renamed the plane "Dragon and his Tail," to go along with a reproduction of nose art showing a dragon holding a damsel in distress.

The painting, which extends almost the full length of the fuselage, is only on the right side of the plane. Bob Collings, the foundation's founder, called the artist who originally created the nose art design, "the Michelangelo of World War II aviation art."

The Collings Foundation has 15 stops scheduled in the next month in Oregon, Washington, western Canada and Alaska. Besides Kenai, the planes will visit Ketchikan, Sitka, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Wrangell.

The foundation also has aircraft from World War I and before, including a 1909 Bleriot and two 1916 Fokkers. Besides the B-17G and B-24J visiting Kenai, it also has several other planes from World War II, including a B-25 Mitchell. From the Korean War era, the organization is restoring an A-26B, an F-4U-5 Corsair and a T-33. From the Vietnam war, Collings has the only F-4D Phantom in civilian hands. The plane is capable of flying Mach 2.5, or roughly 1,600 mph.

The B-17G and the B-24J are scheduled to be on display on the tarmac near the control tower from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Knackstedt said the planes will probably arrive earlier on Friday and circle town a few times before landing.

Tours of the planes are available for $7 per person, while flights are available for $350.

"At first blush that seems like a hefty chunk of change, but a chance to fly in aircraft like this is pretty slim," Knackstedt said. "Especially the B-24, since it is the only one flying in the world."

Cronkhite said that in conjunction with the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau, tickets for a chance to ride in the planes will be raffled off for $10 each. One in 50 tickets will win a ride, and all proceeds will go to pay the expenses of bringing the planes to Kenai.

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