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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.


18 responses to Time Capsule: 1989 Visit to the Commemorative Air Force Museum

  1. Thanks for the “tour”…enjoyed it – (love the nose art, too). 🙂

  2. The “P-39” is actually the P-63A that flies nowadays. The C-87 (Liberator cargo transport) has now been restored back to the real LB-30/B-24A that it originally was. The He-111 was restored, flown and in the 80s crashed back in the late 1990s. The B-26 was lost in an inflight fire in the 80s. I think the Wildcat is still around.

    I had a pretty good flight in a T-37 – up into the Sierra Nevada – back in 1980. Gave the Mather AFB museum a bunch of models and got the ride in return – turned it into an article in Air Force Magazine in 1981 – “Navigating can be fun too.” Yes, that’s El Capitan with the lead T-37 in front of the massif.

    4 attached images. Click to enlarge.

    • Thanks for the update on the planes. Great photos of your flight in an area with really great scenery. I spent 10 years in the T-37, as well as 10 years in the C-141. I really liked instructing in the T-37 because your student sat next to you. You could monitor them better than in a front and back configuration. I only had one student freeze up on me in 10 years, and it was nice to be able to reach over and pull his hands off the stick before something catastrophic happened.

  3. Nice pics George, unfortunately in today’s PC world most if not all of the nose art wouldn’t be allowed. Times they do change but it’s great to view some of the very creative nose art from the past.

    • I was thinking about that when I got ready to post, but I decided these reflected history rather than anything unseemly and provided a glimpse of a time before political correctness made people so touchy. Hopefully everyone is OK with these photos. Maybe next time I can add some strategically placed black lines to cover potentially offensive areas. :o)

  4. George @gblair, Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Yes, we are all Colonels as members. The minors are the rank of cadets. To bad we don’t have enough of them these days. The nose art collection is on loan to the EAA Museum in Oshkosh at the moment. The new facilities in Dallas are still growing. Once the display room is secured, the collection will return to HQ.

  5. Thanks for the info. Now that I am retired, I should have time to go visit HQ in Dallas. I kept up with what was going on in the CAF until they moved out of Harlingen, and then I lost track. CAF airplanes were a prominent part of a lot of airshows that I went to. I don’t go to as many airshows now as I used to. As I get older I like big crowds less and less. I plan to post some pictures of some of the airshows I went to as far back as the early 70s. Some really cool planes back then.

  6. Wonderful story George – wonderful nose art too – thanks for the pics!

  7. Thanks for sharing the pictures with us. I was fortunate and saw the LB-30 / B-24A a few years ago. It’s painted up as “Diamond Lil” and looks great……………… Here’s a few pictures I took that day. Enjoy !!!!

    6 attached images. Click to enlarge.

  8. Hey George! @gblair
    Thanks for sharing the great photos! I really love the Tweety Bird and wish I could fly / ride in one. Cessna sure made a winner there. (Too!)

  9. Nice photos and recollections! Every aircraft that I worked on are all gone and almost every ship that I’ve been on are either scraped or in mothballs. The C-9 is at Nav Air museum Pensacola.

    1 attached image. Click to enlarge.

  10. What a great piece, thanks for sharing this, George.

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