Time Capsule: 1989 Visit to the Commemorative Air Force Museum
In 1989, I was an instructor pilot flying the T-37 trainer at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Although I had a previous assignment in Oklahoma teaching basic students to fly in the T-37, this tour was different because we were teaching qualified pilots to become instructors in the T-37. Like all pilots, we had proficiency requirements that we had to meet to stay current in our aircraft. Instructors would often fly proficiency flights to log their requirements during holidays when our students were not flying. So, it was in November (Thanksgiving Holiday) of 1989 that two of us set up an out and back mission to Harlingen Airport in South Texas to log navigation requirements. It was no coincidence that we decided to go to Harlingen because at that time it was the headquarters of the Confederate Air Force (later called the Commemorative Air Force). We planned to fly a sortie early in the day to Harlingen and then return after dark to log some night requirements. The time between the two sorties would be set aside for an exploration of the CAF museum.
Two interesting things happened after we arrived in Harlingen. The first occurred as we were completing the post-flight inspection of our plane. We noticed two gentlemen watching us who had just finished refueling their plane, a Piper twin. They walked over and asked if they could look around, so we gave them the twenty-five-cent tour. As we talked, they commented on how good the paint scheme looked on our plane and how we obviously took good care of it. It finally occurred to me that they thought our plane was a restored warbird that we were flying around. They were surprised when I told them the T-37 was still the primary jet trainer for the Air Force. It seems the son of one of them had flown the T-37 in pilot training some 30 years before and they couldn’t believe the Air Force was still using them. The T-37 was actually in U.S. service from 1957 to 2009 and lasted longer in other air forces.
Shortly after the first two left, an older gentleman walked over and also asked to look at our plane, saying he would “show us around” in exchange. It turns out he was one of the “Colonels” in the CAF (I think every member of the CAF was called a colonel). He not only got us into the museum for free, but he also gave us a guided tour of the CAF hangars. Outside we got to see several aircraft, including an AT-6 Texan. The hangars held aircraft in various stages of restoration, including an F4F Wildcat, an LB-30 (B-24 transport), a PBY Catalina, a P-39 Airacobra, and a B-26 Marauder. If you look closely at one of the photos in the hangar, behind the engines, P-39, and LB-30, you will see the nose of the He-111 we got to climb inside and explore.
The hangar was also filled with a number of examples of World War 2 nose art, cut from a variety of aircraft. It is easy to identify nose art cut from B-17’s and B-24’s, but there was also nose art from other aircraft that weren’t as easy to identify. Some of you may have better luck identifying the less common sources of the nose art in some of the photos. Everyone we met during our visit treated us like VIPs, and it was much appreciated. The CAF headquarters later moved to Odessa, Texas, and is now in Dallas, Texas. I understand the nose art collection was also moved there.
20 additional images. Click to enlarge.