History takes flight: The Commemorative Air Force keeps the past alive

Heritage Way is a most appropriate address for one of the best-kept historical secrets in the Grand Valley. Located at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, just east of the terminal, visitors will find a dedicated group of volunteers keeping aviation history alive as part of the Commemorative Air Force’s (CAF) Rocky Mountain Wing.

Since its formation in 1981, Rocky Mountain Wing members maintain a museum filled with interactive exhibits and artifacts from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, including magazines, photographs, autographed items, uniforms, artwork and other memorabilia. Most items have stories, which are passionately told by the museum’s curator and CAF member, Dorothy Dutton.

The local wing also houses and operates two planes as symbols of America’s heritage: The 1946 Piper J3 Cub, the smallest World War II aircraft, and the 1945 Grumman TBM Avenger.

“These are not museum pieces, per se, like you would normally see roped off,” said Wing Commander Kent Taylor. “These are real airplanes that you can touch, hear and smell.”

The TBM Avenger, the largest single-engine World War II-era torpedo bomber, was recently designated “historic property” by History Colorado. It’s the first airplane in Colorado to receive such a designation and only the second in the nation.

“We are proud to fly and display this aircraft, which is now an even more valuable asset to the Western Slope and surrounding areas,” said Taylor. “This historic designation will open doors to our organization for future expansion and educational efforts that will benefit Grand Junction and the entire Intermountain West.”

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Saving our heritage

The Commemorative Air Force began in 1957, when a small group of ex-service pilots in Texas decided to do something about the high number of stripped and abandoned World War II aircraft. The mission was, and remains, to educate American generations about the valuable contributions military aviation played in ensuring our nation’s freedom.

During the second World War, approximately 300,000 aircraft were produced. Just 15 years later, almost none remained. One by one, planes have been salvaged and rehabilitated into working aircraft. Today, the CAF has 13,000 members nationally and owns and operates the largest collection of military aircraft, a fleet of 170 airplanes representing 60 various models.

Though the CAF’s American Airpower Museum retains ownership of the airplanes, more than 80 wings and squadrons have been assigned the responsibility of maintaining the aircraft.

“We’re the stewards,” Taylor said. “We’re responsible for restoration, maintenance, upkeep, flying, etc.”

When it comes to funding, the Rocky Mountain Wing is self-sufficient, receiving no financial support from the organization’s headquarters. They must be fiscally responsible, as restoring and caring for aircraft is not easy, nor cheap.

“We’ve spent about $300,000 and a lot of years and man hours getting the TBM in the shape that it’s in,” Taylor said.

The group is in fundraising mode after some landing gear collapsed in Arizona three years ago, damaging the plane. But rather than whine about paying off their debts, Taylor said that wing members are using this as an opportunity to think big.

“Rather than just focusing on how to pay off our debts, let’s focus on moving into a bigger hangar, bigger museum and think about having more airplanes and more exhibits. That’s where we’re headed,” he said.

Honoring those who served

The Rocky Mountain Wing celebrated the TBM Avenger’s new designation with a special open house in April, which attracted veterans, area pilots and community members, inviting them to view—and touch—this incredible piece of history.

Philip Wilmot, 94, attended the open house with great enthusiasm. After earning his pilot’s license in 1942, he served in the Naval Air Force, flying a Corsair in the Pacific.

“I was in Iwo Jima, Okinawa and on the first big carrier to hit air strikes on Japan,” said Wilmot. “I shot down one enemy Japanese plane, although every fighter pilot wants to shoot down five, which makes you an ace.”

Wilmot loves flying to such a high degree that he built a tandem RV-4 over the course of 11 years as a younger man. To this day, he still flies at least once a week.

“It’s so beautiful when you can fly over the mountains like an eagle,” said Wilmot.

With a twinkle in his eye, Wilmot said flying is the second most thrilling thing a man or woman will ever do. Because of his age, he doesn’t talk about the first thing anymore.

“A spiritual thing”

Charlie Huff, 75, can remember looking up at planes in the sky and knowing that was his future when he was just 2 years old. He only wanted one thing each Christmas—toy airplanes. He was in the Armed Services for three years, first at the Air Force Academy and then in the Army Aviation Program as a mechanic. After leaving the service he obtained his pilot and instructor licenses, and flew commercially 36 years. The morning of the CAF open house, Huff flew to Grand Junction from Crawford in the Kitfox plane he built himself.

“For me, flying is almost a spiritual thing,” said Huff. “After 25,500 hours of flying time, it still never gets old.”

The CAF is significant to Huff because it keeps an appreciation for the planes and the people who flew them alive. Most members of the CAF are not ex-military or pilots—just people who love keeping aviation history and want to see it thrive.

The Ninety-Nines

Adrenaline was emanating from pilots Sharon Delay, Judy Allerheiligen and Vonda Burch, who also attended the CAF celebration. Their stories vary, but they share a love for flying and are members of an international organization of more than 1,000 women pilots called the Ninety-Nines. This nonprofit was established in 1929 and is still going strong today.

Delay, 80, was in the Navy and always wanted to fly.

“I was assigned to Pensacola, Florida, where the Blue Angels were, and that just whetted my appetite even more.” she said.

Delay said flying is an expensive pastime and takes a lot of discretionary income, so many people get their licenses at age 50 or 60.

“I always had a fascination with flying. I think I inherited that gene from my father who owned a Piper Cub,” said Allerheiligen, 68, who got her license in Grand Junction. “Flying gives you such a sense of accomplishment. There’s an extra art to flying at altitude.”

Burch, 73, got her pilot’s license for both land and water in Lake Havasu.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but flying was the most challenging and most fulfilling.”


Visit the CAF Rocky Mountain Wing Museum

Located at 780 Heritage Way, the museum is open most Saturdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. but appointments are recommended. To schedule a visit, call 256-0693.

To schedule a ride on the 1945 Grumman TBM Avenger or 1946 Piper J3 Cub, call 970-921-3700.

To join CAF Rocky Mountain Wing, call 303-668-4420 or visit www.rockymountainCAF.org.

To join the Ninety-Nines, call Sharon Delay at 243-8928.


Check out the planes at these upcoming events

August 19
Glenwood Springs Airport Open House

Explore the CAF’s Cub and several other exhibits at this airshow.

September 16-17
Montrose Tribute to Aviation

Tour the Cub and the TBM at this free, public event. Meet the pilots and learn more about aviation through information booths. There will be both military and civilian static aircraft displays. For information, call 249-3203 or visit www.tributetoaviation.com.

September 23
Telluride Festival of Cars and Colors

Vintage War Birds are on display at this festival. This static display will be at the Telluride Regional Airport from 10 a.m.-9 p.m.

September 30-October 1
West Star Aviation
Grand Junction Air Show

Western Colorado welcomes back one of the most exciting air shows in Colorado. This two-day event featured performances by a variety of talented aviators along with many additional military and non-military aircraft and static displays. The theme for the 2017 air show is “Colorado Proud.” General admission tickets are available, along with a limited number of VIP tickets, at www.gjairshow.com. For more information, call 242-6663.

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman is passionate about writing and loves sharing the stories of family, love, volunteering and adventure of the people she interviews. Raised in Wisconsin, she has called western Colorado home for more than 30 years. She loves traveling, reading, photography, hiking, camping, biking, cross-country skiing and exploring the outdoors with her husband, Dan, and Papillon, Abby.
Melanie Wiseman

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