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The Final Countdown

In Camarillo, a newly expanded museum prepares to take flight.

By Mark Storer

Photo by Michael Montano

“China Doll,” the C-46 that launched the Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.

 

eing a best-kept secret is good for some things. A local corner restaurant with your favorite table comes to mind. Or perhaps a little-known hiking path shared with just a few people. But when it comes to museums, they’re not meant to be secret. And word about the one located smack in the middle of the Camarillo airport is getting out… fast.

The Southern California Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, or CAF, has been housing and rehabilitating WWII era aircraft since 1981, when the wing opened with one plane: a C-46 transport at Van Nuys Airport. In less than a year, the wing moved to Camarillo and set up two hangars, one for the museum and one for aircraft maintenance and repair. The members are part of the Commemorative Air Force, which recently moved its headquarters from Midland to Dallas, Texas and has a global reach of committed pilots, mechanics, historians, aficionados, and others whose motto is, “We keep ‘em flying.”

At the CAF museum in Camarillo, visitors now pay a $7 donation for a tour of the facility and up close and personal views of 12 different airplanes, including one of only four Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros still flying in the world. There’s a British Spitfire, rebuilt in part by mechanics from England, that served in WWII. There are also an American P-51 Mustang, an F6F Hellcat, and F8F Bearcat fighter planes, along with the C-46. There is also a rare Marine Corps PBJ bomber that was meticulously researched and renovated over the course of more than 20 years.

Now, the So. Cal. Wing is expanding to nearly three times its size, with current construction more than doubling the 30,000-square-foot two-hangar facility. According to the wing’s commander, the aptly named Ron Missildine, the new hangar should be finished by November and will also house the Camarillo airport headquarters of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The two organizations share some members, and the facility will help turn the CAF’s So. Cal Wing into the largest branch of the CAF in California, where there are currently seven wings.

“Within the next year, we’ll not only have this new hangar, but after that we’ll also build to the east of the current hangars for a $10 million expansion of the museum,” said Pat Brown, public information officer for the So. Cal. Wing. “The new construction, when its finished, will more than triple its current size and have a number of exhibits and flying aircraft,” she said. The current construction to the west of the hangars cost $1.3 million and was funded by donations from Si and Betty Robin, owners of Sensor Systems, Inc., and a $375,000 grant by the Texas headquarters of CAF.

“The Texas headquarters is interested in us becoming a base,” said Brown. “CAF airplanes are either flyable or they’re being made flyable. That was the intent from the start of CAF in the 1950s.” The So. Cal. Wing’s purpose is to keep the planes in the air. A base, by contrast, is a larger operation, according to Brown, that allows the CAF to house not only flyable planes but also non-flyable ones that have historic value. “Sooner or later, a time will come when many of these planes aren’t flyable anymore,” Brown said. “But we’ll want to have a place for them to be seen.”

For now and well into the foreseeable future, there is enough equipment and parts to keep the low thrum and rattle of prop-driven engines hurtling through the sky. On any day over Ventura County, the familiar low, guttural sound of the WWII era fighters is a sharp contrast to the smaller, modern private planes or the roar of modern supersonic jets flying in and out of Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station.

In a small office across from the CAF hangars, Brown keeps a notebook tracing the history of the organization and its roots that include such practices as giving every member the rank of Colonel; there are also humorous letters from the organization’s fictitious founder, Colonel Jethro E. Culpepper. “I wanted to make sure that this history is known here, in case something happens to me or the others that know these things,” Brown said, echoing for the So. Cal Wing the larger mission of the CAF as a whole.

The CAF started in the 1950s as the Confederate Air Force. The popular myth is that the organization changed its name because the word “Confederate” was too polarizing. In fact, the Confederate name got started as a joke when Lloyd Nolen, the founder of CAF, had a P-51 Mustang he wanted to preserve in Texas near his home. One morning, he came out to find his brother had painted “Confederate Air Force” across the plane to mock the tribute. The name stuck.

But commemorative was always a better choice for a grass roots group who went from a semi-serious hobby of flying the old airplanes to what it now says is “an urgent mission to preserve history,” and in 2002, the name changed.

Steve Barber is the So. Cal. Wing’s executive officer and a pilot who is licensed to fly all of the aircraft the organization owns. As a pilot and self-professed history nut, Barber, who works as a stockbroker by day, said that working with the CAF is an honor. “I pinch myself sometimes because I can’t believe I get to fly these planes,” Barber said. “You have to remember that the people who were sent to fly these planes in serious combat conditions were nothing more than kids. They were 19 and 20 years old, and had a total of maybe 250 hours of flying time when they were introduced to combat.”

Barber, who is heading up efforts to raise the $10 million needed to expand the museum, has had a few close calls of his own. In one instance flying the F8F Bearcat, the engine froze, leaving Barber with few options other than an emergency call to Burbank Airport, the closest runway he could find. The tower shut down operations and Barber brought the plane down “deadstick”—without any power. It took weeks of repair to get the plane back out to Camarillo again.

Pilots like Barber fly air show circuits around the U.S., and occasionally pack up the planes on ships to go to overseas air shows. Along with a number of other fundraisers, the air shows are the bread and butter of the organization, keeping them visible to the public and bringing in dollars.

The So. Cal Wing also rents out its facility to various groups to hold what both Brown and Barber refer to as a unique entertainment venue. Barber’s wife, LaTanya, serves as the hangar’s event coordinator, and everything from weddings to corporate parties to small concerts are staged there. In one instance, Ventura’s Foothill Technology High School held its prom at the museum’s hangar.

Between the roar of high-lead aviation fuel engines and the constant drone of building equipment cutting concrete and putting up metal walls for the new expansion, it’s hard to believe that the CAF museum is a secret. But perhaps all of that noise is not just sound and fury as the members of the So. Cal. Wing prepare for the future of preserving the past.

The CAF Museum is open six days a week (closed Mondays and certain holidays) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and houses some of the world’s rarest WWII aircraft. Docent-led tours take between one and two hours. School and group tours are available.

For detailed information, visit cafsocal.com or call 805.482.0064.

The museum hangar, with a good portion of the CAF’s WWII fighter craft (and other planes) in view.

“Executive Sweet,” a privately owned B-25 Mitchell WWII bomber.

The WWI aviation exhibit in the newly expanded museum.

Pat Brown in front of the CAF museum hangar.

10-1-2015

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