DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. --
A small crowd gathered near Deane Mitchell, a World War II veteran, pilot, and Ohio native, as he toured modern Air Force fighter aircraft and vintage warbirds parked on the flightline at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base March 3.
The base hosts the annual Heritage Flight Training course prior to the air show season as a familiarization opportunity for active duty pilots to fly in formation with WWII and Korean-era planes. Each morning prior to the day’s training sorties, the ramp is open to service members, veterans, and their families.
For those who thanked Mitchell or stopped to watch him interact with a few of the aircraft he used to pilot in the Pacific Theater, the chance to see vintage warbirds was briefly superseded by the opportunity to meet a WWII veteran – a man who could give them a glimpse into American history and legend.
“The P-51 is a fine airplane, and it brings back a lot of memories (seeing them again) . . . just like being home again,” he said, then jokingly pointed out, “But ours were never this shiny.”
The first Heritage Flight was conceived as a tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the Air Force in 1997. The popularity of the aerial demonstration grew and led to a formal collaboration with the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation that was mostly recently displayed at Super Bowl LII.
“The Heritage Flight program to me tells an extremely compelling story, and I’m very proud to be a part of that story,” said Greg Anders, a P-51 Mustang Pilot, retired Air Force colonel, and former pilot of the F-15E Strike Eagle, A-10 Thunderbolt II, and B-52 Stratofortress.
“The F-22, I don’t think people really understand the capabilities of that aircraft, but for some reason when they see it flying next to a P-51 a light bulb comes on, and they say ‘oh, I get it, it’s the P-51 of its day.’”
Anders, whose father, Col. William “Bill” Anders, was an Apollo 8 astronaut and Air Force pilot involved in Heritage Flight, said there is a direct line between these aircraft and modern fighter aircraft. Many of the same attributes – such as speed, maneuverability, lethality -- valued during the heyday of the P-51 were maximized through future generations of aircraft.
“It’s pretty incredible that what was designed so many years ago still carries on a tradition within the airframes we have now,” said Anders.
The display is emotional for the veterans here for this training and at air shows across the country and is also the stuff of dreams for active duty pilots.
“It’s chills and goosebumps. Every kid dreams about flying a P-51, let alone flying in a formation with a P-51. This was the workhouse of WWII -- look at the history of the Tuskegee Airman, flying with the Red Tails,” said Maj. Paul “Loco” Lopez, the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team pilot. “It’s just a phenomenal aircraft.”
As a kid, Lopez was inspired to become a fighter pilot when Navy F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets flew over his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, as they trained out of Naval Air Station Oceania. He recognizes his role in inspiring the future generation of Airmen.
“I always tell (young people in the crowds) to be enthusiastic to learn. If you are enthusiastic to learn, people will bend over backwards to help you achieve your goals and reach your dreams,” he said.
As the morning wears on, Mitchell is humbled by the attention he gets for his service because, as he would tell anyone, he wasn’t a hero, just a regular guy who served. He hints that he’s just as young at heart and eager to fly as he was back then. Of the crews and pilots he met at the training, he said, “I wish I was flying with them, that’s the truth.”
Visit www.acc.af.mil/home/aerial-events to find the schedule for upcoming Heritage Flight performances.