Throughout his career and retirement, 74-year-old Ronald Smith has kept his eyes to the sky.
Smith entered his sixth year — fifth as the crew chief — for the B-25J Mitchell bomber with the Flying Legends of Victory Tour.
Prior to volunteering at Commemorative Air Force Airbase in Arizona, Smith was peaking into space as he worked for NASA for 40 years.
Smith said it has been special to have the opportunity to travel across the United States and into Canada to show off the WWII aircraft “Maid in the Shade” to the public.
“Veterans, which there are fewer and fewer that flew during (WWII), will look at a plane like this and they will start telling you their stories about it,” Smith said. “They will tell you things that their kids have never heard. It’s really kind of special to be able to evoke those kinds of feelings in people. To hear some of the experiences from people that didn’t fly these for fun, it’s very special.”
The B-25J Mitchell bomber will be on display until Sunday at the Commemorative Air Force High Sky Wing at the Midland International Air and Space Port.
Citizens are welcome to observe the bomber while tours of the aircraft are $10 per person or $20 for a group of four. Flights are also being offered at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon on Saturday and Sunday. Each flight can hold seven passengers — three in the flight deck and four in the gunner compartment. The cost to ride in the bomber is $650 on the flight deck and $325 in the gunner compartment. Total time in the plane is about 45 minutes with 20 minutes in the air.
“It’s always special when we take to the air in that airplane,” B-25J Mitchell flight crew member Marc Ludwig said. “It’s a lot of fun to ride and to fly in.”
Smith believes it’s the first time in about a decade that “Maid in the Shade” has returned to CAF High Sky Wing. He also explained it took about 28 years of restoration before the bomber made its return to the air in May 2009. He said the bomber has had both engines replaced within the last five years — the left engine was replaced four years ago and the right engine was last year.
The B-25J Mitchell is classified as a medium bomber and it took its maiden flight on Aug. 19, 1940. It flew 15 combat missions — 13 over Italy and two in Yugoslavia — between Nov. 4 and Dec. 31, 1944. It has 12 .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns in eight locations and it has the space for 5,000 pounds of bombs. The bomber was retired in 1979.
“It’s a slice of history and it comes from a different time,” Smith said. “The way it’s built and the way that everything operates is different from things now. Our pilots like to fly it because you actually fly it. Everything is analog.”
Over the next four months, the B-25J Mitchell will travel to 15 locations across the Midwest and Texas.
The next stop for the bomber is in Waco from Monday to June 9.
Flight crew member Tim Thorstad, 66, is eager to enter the Midwest as he was born in Fargo, N.D., and spent time in Iowa and South Dakota. The bomber will make six of its 15 final stops in Iowa and South Dakota.
“Talking to the people wherever we go is really interesting, especially when you get some of the people who are veterans and they open up a little bit like they never have before,” Thorstad said. “That’s really a great part of it. It seems like everyone has a dad, an uncle or grandpa that did something during the war. When in the states, everyone did something.”