Air Show Ottawa 2006 takes place this weekend. I went to the media event thinking that the air show was about fancy machines and fancier aerobatics. It turns out to be equally about preserving aviation history and honouring those who gave their lives in combat.

  • Show ID and Intro
  • Preparing to take off
  • Interview with Jim Terry, owner of the Pacific Prowler
  • Interview with Michael Potter, vintage aircraft collector
  • Air Show Ottawa 2006

Transcript of Portrait – Preserving Aviation History

[Portrait theme music] Podcasting visual insound, this is another edition of Portrait on Electric Sky.

Mark Blevis: Air shows aren’t just about flashy aerobatics. To many, it’s an opportunity to preserve aviation history. Some of that history is coming to life at the 2006 Air Show Ottawa. I’m your host, Mark Blevis. On this edition of Portrait, Jim Terry takes me on a flight in the Pacific Prowler, a World War II B-25 bomber, and collector Michael Potter introduces me to one of his spitfires.

Jim Terry: We’re required to tell you by our FAA that this is not a commercial airliner. It does not have the safety redundant systems that commercial airliners have. It’s designed to fly with pieces shut off. So, if we have any pieces shut off over the capital today, we think we can come back.

Crew member: Okay, no one fall out this hole or I get in trouble. Alright. [unintelligible] We’ve got a fire extinguisher on board, a first aid kit, and we’re out of sick bags so don’t get sick.

Passenger: Good to go!

Crew member: The window’s open. In case of any emergencies, move out this way if we can land. If we land with wheels down, you’ll go out the same way you came. If we land wheels up, that will be your exit or this will be your exit; whichever is safest.

Mark Blevis: If we land, what? Wheels up?

Jim Terry: Wheels up. Hopefully we won’t land wheels up, but you know…

Mark Blevis: How many B-25 bombers were there?

Crew member: There’s almost 10,000 made and there are only about 35 that are in flying condition.

Mark Blevis: How many of those 10,000 came home with their crew alive?

Crew member: About half. Half of those came home and with their crews.

Jim Terry: My uncle flew these in World War II and I grew up with him and as a child, his stories were amazing and remarkable and crazy. It was very inspiring. All my whole adult life we knew when we were growing up that we wanted to a B-25. This one came available. It was in a junk yard. It had to be saved. It was my duty to go save that airplane.

Mark Blevis: How did you end up owning the plane? What were the circumstances that led to that?

Jim Terry: Well, she was in the junkyard. We just took out a second mortgage on the house. We sold the pick-up trucks and the junk we didn’t need. We made the down payment. We got possession of it. Now, we are just doing everything we can to support it and keep it and keep it flying.

Mark Blevis: It must be expensive to maintain a plane like that. Just buying it was expensive, but you must have had to invest heavily in getting it up to flight condition again.

Jim Terry: It was insanely expensive. We maxed out all our credit cards. We borrowed money everywhere we could. We’re in the process now of just trying to keep our heads afloat financially and keep the airplane flying.

Mark Blevis: Can you tell me a little bit about the type of person who would be on that airplane starting with the pilot and working backward to the tail gunner.

Jim Terry: The pilot generally was the old man and the old man at that time might have been 21 years old. So, we were turning 21-year-olds with a machine like that, loose, to go fly it at 20 feet above the water and bomb and strafe and do all those things that they had to do, stuff we would not even think about doing today to our young men.

They came from all over the country. They came from farms. Most of the guys, of course, have never been away from their home states, let alone flying the airplanes across the Atlantic and across the Pacific and landing in Algiers.

You got a pilot and co-pilot and they were in their early 20s. Then you had a navigator that sat behind them, also an officer. In the nose, you had the bombardier who was also an officer. So, we had four officers on board. You had a top turret gunner who was an enlisted man. We had a radio operator who sat in the center section, also operated the waist guns, and a tail gunner. Those were both enlisted men.

It took seven men to operate the airplane. She carried 3500 pounds of bombs. It took seven men to get 3500 pounds of bombs on target, which of course today, a single man flies an airplane that weighs twice that weight, carries three or four times that amount of ordinance and puts it on target.

Mark Blevis: You said something before we took off which was oddly reassuring and that was these planes are designed to fly with pieces shut off. I actually felt a little bit more uncomfortable being on the plane with that piece of information. How is it possible to design a plane that can fly even though it’s missing pieces?

Jim Terry: If you look in the plane, I can show you the control cables. The airplane’s very simple. It’s all fly with control cables. When I pull back on the yoke, it moves the cable which activates the…

Mark Blevis: Which is all the banging sound, right?

Jim Terry: No, that was the backfiring in the engines. That’s also normal.

The cables physically move the services and I physically move the yoke that moves the cables. They have double redundant cables. We have cables running down both sides of the fuselage. So, if any one side of the airplane is hit and those cables were cut, you have the cables going down the other side.

Mark Blevis: How does somebody who lives in — well, I guess you picked us a plane up in the nineties, so how does somebody, an adult, in the nineties learn to fly a plane that was built in the forties, I guess?

Jim Terry: Exactly the way you learn anything. They start you out in a Cessna. You work your way up to a twin engine and then you fly in the right seat of this airplane for a year or two. I’ve been in that right seat for two years. I’m just working my way into the left seat, just a very slow progression.

Obviously, World War II, they moved them incredibly fast. They were training crews, but a lot of those guys got killed. Most of the accidents were in, believe it or not, in training accidents. Most of the guys were lost in training. More guys were lost in training than were lost in combat. As insane as that sounds, but they were in a hardcore pressed to get them trained and get them on the road and get them in combat. They were expendable.

Mark Blevis: What can you tell me about the names that are signed on Bombay Doors?

Jim Terry: Those are the men flew that these airplanes in World War II. They have come to see us since we have been on tour. We have asked them to sign the inside of the airplane. They are our nation’s heroes. We want to make the airplane a living memorial to them. We are losing those men at the rate of about 1500 a day and because of all these things that we just talked about, we owe them everything.

[inflight audio: squeezing past another passenger to get to the tail gunner’s position]

[interview with Michael Potter]

Mark Blevis: What got you into airplane collecting?

Michael Potter: Well, first of all, I’ve been flying for nearly 40 years, although not these kinds of airplanes — that goes back about six years. It’s just what you do after retirement. I was in a position to — I was flexible enough with my time and the resources to do something interesting.

I first bought a Staggerwing and then a Spitfire and one thing led to another. What really made it take off is that we saw the level of interest there was particularly with the Spitfire; interest by people who saw this not just as a cool airplane, but as a little window on history. We saw the tremendous response from veterans and their families. Once you start seeing that, you realize that this is really an opportunity to do something more than just have fun flying airplanes. You can really reach out to people tell them what these airplanes mean, what they did, recognize some of the veterans that flew them, some of the older folks that remember them when they were doing the job. One thing’s led to another. We now have 10 airplanes or eight airplanes and two more on the way in the hanger.

Mark Blevis: You treat this as not just a hobby, but you actually treat it as preserving history?

Michael Potter: Correct. I am a collector in that sense. I enjoy owning the airplanes. I fly them all. It’s a great pleasure for me. We really put together a different kind of enterprise, a foundation that uses these to expose them to the public and tell people, particularly young people, a little bit about history.

It’s amazing how you can take a young teenager or even my kid’s grade three class have done a tour of the hanger. Put them in front of a veteran, teach them a little bit about where they came from, and all a sudden, what might be — history is almost considered boring by kids of that age when it is just being read out of a book, but you can make it come alive by looking at the airplanes and talking to people who flew them. All of a sudden, they are fascinated by it, but it is history, they’re learning history.

Mark Blevis: What can you tell me about this aircraft that you flew today?

Michael Potter: Well, I flew the Spitfire and it is a Mark XVI. It was built in 1945 before the end of the war. It didn’t see combat, although it had quite an interesting life after the war, until 1951, as the personal airplane of Air Chief Marshall James Robb.

Mark Blevis: What can you tell me about the type of pilot that would be in that seat?

Michael Potter: Well, they were very young people. These folks often started before they turned twenty. They might do their primary training at age eighteen or nineteen and be with an operational squadron before they were twenty. In fact, I understand that at some point in the war, it was decreed that no pilot, no matter how successful, over the age of twenty-eight was going to be continuing to fly operationally. I think the point there was — perhaps they were speculating there would be a degradation of skills as they got older, funny for me to say. Also, they were too valuable with that kind of experience and they wanted them to teach others, help others.

It must have been — One can only imagine, they must have been very confident, skillful young men. What they did was tremendously dangerous. The odds were clearly running against you. And how could you do this? I believe that people fly under those odds because they have a fundamental belief that they’re learning skills will keep them alive. I don’t think people volunteer for jobs that have such a large loss of life unless they feel they’ve got the capability to do it. I’m speculating, but I imagine they were not only very capable, very well-trained men, but they were awfully confident in their skills.

Mark Blevis: You prefer to fly these things in your retirement, I assume?

Michael Potter: Yeah. It’s entirely different. It’s great to feel you’re sitting where they sat and indeed it’s a great adventure, but let us not kid ourselves. There’s absolutely nothing to compare with the kind of flying we do under ideal conditions, carefully regulated, mostly straight and level, nobody shooting at us. It’s the only way to do it these days. The airplanes are too valuable let alone how you feel about your own life, but it’s certainly not what these young men faced sixty years ago.

[inflight audio]

Mark Blevis: I’m sitting in the tail-gunner section now. I don’t know if any of these could be heard, because it’s really friggin’ loud up here.

[Portrait theme music]

Mark Blevis: Links to resources discussed in the show can be found in the show notes on my website, electricsky.net. While you’re there, be sure to check out my Podcast archives. Electric Sky is a proud member of the Rogic Podcast Conglomerate. Thanks for listening and please stay subscribed.

Send feedback to markblevis@gmail.com.