This Easter weekend there’s a good chance of someone in Urbana will be exclaiming to another person, with good cause, these famous words: “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s….”
While it won’t be Superman, it most certainly will be an airplane. However, it won’t be just any old airplane. Instead, it will be a piece of American history that many historians argue changed the course of World War II – the B-25 Mitchell bomber.
Known for their role in the Doolittle Raid in which the U.S. retaliated for the attack on Pearl Harbor by bombing Japan on April 18, 1942, many of the B-25s still in flight today are expected to make a pit stop at Grimes Field in Urbana before heading to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the famous raid.
While none of the 16 B-25s used by the Doolittle Raiders made it back to U.S. Soil, Grimes Field Manager Elton Cultice said 17 similar aircraft are expected to touch down at some point in Urbana between April 14-16. He cautioned, however, that Mother Nature and mechanical issues could affect the number of B-25s in attendance.
“These planes weren’t the actual planes that bombed Tokyo, but this is the exact same airplane that 75 years changed the tide of the war,” Cultice said. “You read about it in school, you learn about it, and you hear about it. This is a chance to actually experience it.”
For the third time since 2010, Grimes Field in Urbana will be the site of a B-25 gathering. Between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on April 15 and 16, visitors to city-owned airport will have the opportunity – possibly for the final time in Urbana – to get an up-close look at various B-25 medium bombers, some of which have made the journey from places like Texas and California.
With B-25s burning through an average of $600 worth of gas per hour, the trip to Champaign County isn’t a cheap one. While several local businesses – KTH, White’s Auto Group and Heritage Cooperative – have come aboard as co-sponsors of the B-25 gathering, Cultice is hopeful visitors will also lend a hand in helping reduce the financial burden the owners of such aircraft face in order to put their planes into service.
“We technically don’t charge admission, but we do ask for donations,” he said. “Any money raised goes back to helping pay to get these guys here. Donations will help us reduce the price of the gas at the airport and pay for meals for the B-25 crews while they are here.”
While some of the B-25s are in for a long journey to Urbana, the same can be said about some spectators scheduled to travel across oceans just to be in attendance.
“We have people coming from as far away as the Netherlands,” Cultice said. “As soon as I found out we were going to have the gathering, I put it out on Facebook. There are people planning their vacations around this and coming cross-country just to be here.”
If providing visitors to Grimes Field with a chance of a lifetime to view B-25s on static display wasn’t enough, Cultice said some of the aircraft will be providing tours, while others will offer the public a chance to experience taking to the skies in a B-25, just as the Doolittle Raiders did 75 years ago.
“We expect six to eight of the aircraft will be offering rides,” he said. “A 30-minute ride will cost $450, and tickets can be purchased at the Champaign Aviation Museum.”
Even though the B-25s won’t be taking off for Wright-Patt until 7:30 a.m. On Monday, April 17, Cultice said anyone wanting to see the planes up close must do so by 5 p.m. On April 16.
“For safety reasons with all the propellers spinning on Monday morning, the airport will be closed to the public,” he said. “The public will have to view the planes taking off from behind the fence.”
To help send the B-25s off on Monday morning, a priest will give a blessing and Urbana High School band members will perform.
The ideal spot to gather
Cultice believes there are two primary reasons why B-25 pilots have made Grimes Field their staging area prior to making the short flight to Wright-Patt for the Doolittle Raider reunions in 2010, 2012, and the upcoming 75th anniversary commemoration set for April 18 – logistics and knowledge of the historic aircraft.
“Wright-Patterson has military airspace, and even though these are old military planes, they are now being flown by private individuals or museums, so they need special clearance to fly down there,” Cultice said. “On Monday morning, they will open up the airspace for a certain period of time, and a plane coming from California of this generation or age can’t really come that far and hit the window.
“It just makes it logistically easier to gather here, sell a few rides while they are here, and they enjoy showing their planes off to the public,” he added.
While there are other airports close to Wright-Patt capable of hosting the B-25s, Grimes Field has one distinct advantage – the Champaign Aviation Museum.
“We have so many veterans and ex-military volunteers up at the museum that the B-25 crews like to come here because the guys here know how to handle the planes,” Cultice said. “It helps that the museum here also has a B-25 (“Champaign Gal”) that flies.”
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-508-2304 or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.