Local pilot Joe Birkinbine tests the replica machine gun in the forward nose section of the Pacific Prowler, a World War II-era North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber. The plane was produced during the war, but it never saw action. However, the plane flew in earlier this week to be a part of the Wild West Air Fest on Saturday and Sunday.

Photo by John F. Russell

Local pilot Joe Birkinbine tests the replica machine gun in the forward nose section of the Pacific Prowler, a World War II-era North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber. The plane was produced during the war, but it never saw action. However, the plane flew in earlier this week to be a part of the Wild West Air Fest on Saturday and Sunday.

War bomber lands for Air Fest

WWII-era Pacific Prowler still flying after more than 60 years

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Air Fest lands in Steamboat

B-25 bomber pilots Steve Swift and Patrick Mahaffey touch down on the Steamboat Today morning show set as they gear up for this weekend's Wild West Air Fest at Steamboat Springs Airport.

B-25 bomber pilots Steve Swift and Patrick Mahaffey touch down on the Steamboat Today morning show set as they gear up for this weekend's Wild West Air Fest at Steamboat Springs Airport.

If you go

What: Wild West Air Fest

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Steamboat Springs Airport on Routt County Road 129 north of Steamboat

Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 12; cost buys a button that allows access all weekend; children 5 and younger get in free

Call: Eric Friese to reserve a ride on the B-25 bomber for $350 a person, 875-7004

— Inscriptions in the bomb bay of a B-25 Mitchell Bomber tell abbreviated tales of World War II.

"Pearl Harbor survivor," "9 missions over Munich & Berlin" and "16 missions on B-17 tail" are legible under scrawled names of veterans. One tells a succinct version of a storied tour of duty: "shot down once, floated a day in a raft, shot down 7 zeros, double ace."

The pilots of the Pacific Prowler, a plane built during WWII that never saw combat, love hearing veterans' stories. That's the best part of flying the B-25 Mitchell Bomber across the country, Steve Swift and Pat Mahaffey said. The plane will be at Steamboat Springs Airport this weekend for the fifth annual Wild West Air Fest.

Mahaffey recalled taking up an older veteran who had to be helped onto the bomber.

"Once they got up here, 40 years dropped off them," he said. "They were crawling around everywhere, smiling, and they got down and were bouncing around everywhere. It's great."

Swift and Mahaffey will offer 25-minute rides this weekend for $350 a person. The rides are tax-deductible, Swift said.

The nonprofit John L. Terry Heritage Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, owns the plane. Terry was a B-25 pilot during WWII, and his nephew bought the plane and donated it to the foundation in his honor. The Pacific Prowler bears a cartoon of the grim reaper holding a lightning bolt and a tattered American Flag, markings that Swift said weren't on the original plane.

The Prowler is named after a B-25 that flew in the Pacific Theater in WWII. It was never shot down and never lost a crew member, Swift said. That plane was scrapped after the war, and the copy of the Prowler carries the war story of the original. Markings near the nose show the plane flying 25 missions, leading 21 of them. It took down four ships and two Japanese planes.

Thousands of B-25s were built, but only 15 to 20 remain in the sky, Swift said. The Prowler carried VIPs and did training missions before a career in Hollywood. It was used for Disney's Circle-Vision filming and for movies including "Around the World in 80 Days," "How the West Was Won" and "Catch-22."

Its last movie was "Memphis Belle," Swift said. That movie is about a WWII bomber.

The B-25 was built in Kansas City by North American Aviation. Swift estimated that 99 percent of the plane is originally from the WWII era.

"You figure that these airplanes were built to last four and five months, and here it is 65 years later," he said. "It's amazing."

Airport Manager Mel Baker said he hadn't seen a B-25 at the airport in the 20 years he's been there. Pilot Joe Birkinbine helped arrange the appearance, Baker said.

"Joe got in touch with these guys and knew about the airplane," Baker said. "It just fell together."

The Air Fest will include plenty of other vintage airplanes, vintage cars and flight simulators for children, Baker said. Maj. Gen. Patrick Halloran will speak both days, and radio-controlled airplanes will provide added entertainment, Baker said.

But he expects the B-25 Mitchell Bomber to be the main attraction. Baker flew from Yampa Valley Regional Airport to Steamboat Springs in the Pacific Prowler.

"It was the coolest airplane I've ever been in," he said with a grin.

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