Clarksville, TN – Clarksville Regional Airport’s Director, John Patterson reached out a couple of years ago to the Commemorative Air Force B17 Texas Raiders from Conroe, Texas, to arrange a visit. But, COVID-19 Coronavirus issues delayed things. He was thrilled when the group contacted him recently to say they wanted to put Clarksville on their schedule this year.
The CAF unit based in Conroe, TX, flies the B17 Flying Fortress, the Navy SNJ Advanced Trainer, and the Navy JRB Transport, they recently brought the B17 and the Trainer to CRA for a three-day visit, during which time aviation and WWII enthusiasts could tour the planes, learn about them and their history, and even take a ride in the historic aircraft.
“I was concerned that a weekday schedule might be a challenge,” Patterson said. “But, they were covered up, and very pleased by the turnout. They added two extra flights in order to accommodate everyone interested in flying aboard the B17.”
Nancy Kwiecien is the Executive Officer of the Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, a national 501(3)(c) nonprofit organization.
“Our mission is to acquire, restore, and fly vintage military aircraft for public education and recognition of the veterans who flew them,” Kwiecien said. “We had a great time in Clarksville, we felt so welcome there. We arrived on Monday the 12th and stayed thru Thursday. We were open to the public for three days, during which we offered cockpit tours of the B17, as well as an opportunity to get an up-close look at the Advanced Trainer.
“We also offered living history flight experiences on both aircraft. So the public actually got to fly on the vintage military aircraft. Sadly, the weather was a bit problematic, so our schedule was a bit disjointed. We did manage to fly the B17 a half dozen times with the public aboard during the three days we were there. We also flew the Advanced Trainer four or five times each day.”
Kwiecien said the response was great, and her team was excited to see people waiting for them to touch down when they arrived on Monday.
“It was great seeing so many people there during our visit,” Kwiecien said. “I have to mention our hosts at CRA, and John Patterson the airport manager, who were all wonderful to us. They really helped support our crew and our operation while we were there.
“People came out every day, and sometimes waited for a long while to get out onto the ramp and see the aircraft. Our crew mans the aircraft, escorts people aboard, and talks to them about the aircraft and what it means to the history of U.S. Military aviation during World War II. Events like this are a chance for the public to put their hands on history, in a way you cannot do in a classroom.”
This particular B17 actually had its 76th birthday on Monday the day it touched down in Clarksville. It rolled off the assembly line on July 12th, 1945.
“It is an amazing experience to be up close to these aircraft,” Kwiecien said. “To see them, and stand in the places where very young men stood and fought 75 years ago. We had two pilots, one who brought it in and another joined us later. John Cotter is Chief of Flight Operations for our unit. He is a commercial pilot for United Airlines.”
A crew of fourteen travels with the aircraft. Ten or eleven flew in on the big bomber, a couple came in on the Advanced Trainer, and another team member drove in with a truck and trailer, a support vehicle carrying parts, supplies, and merchandise for sale.
“We campaign the aircraft from the 1st of April thru the middle of November every year,” Kwiecien said. “The number of trips varies. We can spend one or two days somewhere, or three or four weeks, depending on the season and the type of event to which we’re invited. We attend a lot of air shows and civic events.
Patterson also hopes they will come back soon. “They almost sold out of their retail products, and I think they were overall very happy with their visit,” Patterson said. “Public outreach is very important to CRA’s success. We are semi-publicly funded here to offset our costs of operations. We’re not really set up for easy access like a public park, so any type of public outreach we can do to bring the community in to see the airport is very important to us. Seeing something unique, like the B17 was an amazing opportunity.”
CRA is growing, demand is up, traffic and sales are up, all of which reflect a ten-year trend. Patterson says they are looking at new construction to satisfy the current high demand for storage, maintenance, and corporate hangar space. CRA is also set to host this year’s Flying High, a fundraising event for the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Commemorative Air Force Gulf Coast Wing can go to www.Facebook.com/B17TexasRaiders
You can like and/or follow their page to see where they’ll be in the coming months.