Above: Commemorative Air Force’s PO-51 Mustang taking off from Falcon Field. Photo by Joe Earle.
In the hangar, Andy Cash slowly and carefully fitted a rebuilt engine to the body of a World War II warplane. In a cluttered workshop nearby, Malcolm Lelliott was restoring a simulator used decades ago for training pilots. Outside, on Falcon Field’s runway, the engine of a 74-year-old P-51 Mustang roared loudly to life.
On this quiet late winter afternoon, vintage aircraft enthusiasts had gathered at the Commemorative Air Force’s home building in Peachtree City with things to fix or to fly or to get ready to fly.
“We have fun out here,” retired airline pilot Willard Womack said. “It gets us out of the house. There’s no doubt it keeps us young. It gives us a purpose.”
Their purpose is to keep vintage warplanes flying. Womack, who’s 81, is one of about 300 pilots, mechanics and historic airplane enthusiasts who are members of the Atlanta-based chapter of the Commemorative Air Force. The Atlanta chapter, called the Dixie Wing, operates from a hangar and office building on Falcon Field in Peachtree City.
The national organization, dubbed the Confederate Air Force when it was founded in 1957 and then formally renamed in 2001, started in Texas. Its goal is to own, restore and preserve in flying condition combat aircraft flown by the U.S. military and selected aircraft from other countries.
On its website, the nonprofit CAF claims about 13,000 members nationally. Womack said the group owns more than 140 aircraft, and that about 100 of them still are flying. The CAF claims it ranks as one of the largest air forces in the world.
The Atlanta chapter, among the larger ones, owns and operates seven airplanes, six of them World War II-vintage planes. The seventh dates to the 1950s. The group’s showpiece is its 1945 North American P-51 Mustang.
Dixie Wing pilots fly the plane around the country, offering 20-minute rides to fans for $1,600. “It’s one of our biggest moneymakers,” said Womack, who has given up flying himself, but stays active with the wing.
Members pay $248 a year for membership. The group’s mechanics tend the planes and the pilots fly them. “These are antiques being worked on by antiques,” joked mechanic Charles Kennedy, who turns 77 this year.
The wing exhibits its planes at air shows around the country. Dixie Wing planes will appear in about 10 air shows this year, Womack said.
Once a year, the group hosts a gathering at Falcon Field called World War II Heritage Days that brings together re-enactors and displays of vintage vehicles and aircraft. “This is a living museum, versus a dead museum,” Womack said.
The Dixie Wing also keeps its own small museum of World War II artifacts. The museum, set in a corner of the hangar, includes uniforms, military and civilian pieces, and hundreds of model airplanes. The museum includes a group of wooden toys from the 1940s, so guides can show visiting schoolchildren what they would have had to play with during a time when metal was reserved for military usage.
But the main activity in the Dixie Wing’s building and hangar at Falcon Field remains preserving airplanes and their history. And that means keeping them flying.
“It surprises people,” Womack said. “They look at the airplane and it looks flyable, but they’re surprised it’s still flying.”