During a pre-flight talk to the passengers, Historic Flight Foundation President John Sessions warned that, although no injuries have occurred on previous flights, one possible side effect can be facial strain caused by excessive smiling. Preparing for take off, only moments after boarding, it appears that World War II pilots Elden Larson (left) and Art Unruh, both 93, are already showing symptoms. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

During a pre-flight talk to the passengers, Historic Flight Foundation President John Sessions warned that, although no injuries have occurred on previous flights, one possible side effect can be facial strain caused by excessive smiling. Preparing for take off, only moments after boarding, it appears that World War II pilots Elden Larson (left) and Art Unruh, both 93, are already showing symptoms. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Old fliers take to the skies at Vintage Aircraft show

MUKILTEO — The Historic Flight Foundation is hosting its annual Vintage Aircraft Weekend air show at Paine Field.

The event features all the typical air show features: fly-bys, dogfight reenactments, aircraft rides and displays of vintage equipment and memorabilia.

This year the show commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack (a few months early) and the Boeing Co.’s centenary.

On Thursday, one of the attractions for the show, a 1944 Douglas DC-3, was taken for a spin around Puget Sound.

As is often the case when a vintage aircraft goes up in the air, a few vintage pilots go up with it.

Elden Larson, 93, flew 30 missions over Germany as a B-17 bomber pilot. After the war, he joined the Air Transport Command, ferrying planes, including the DC-3, from Great Falls, Montana, to airfields all over the country.

“Some of them I didn’t get very much time to get much more than checkout time,” he said. That was the case with the DC-3 as well.

Compared to others, though, the DC-3 had good handling, he said.

“It was a pretty docile airplane to fly,” Larson said.

The DC-3 on display at the Historic Flight Foundation was built in Long Beach, California, in 1944 as a Douglas C-47, the military variant of the plane. It was sent across the Atlantic and Africa to India, where it became one of only 300 of its kind used in flying over “The Hump,” said John Sessions, the founder and chairman of the foundation.

That was a route over the eastern Himalayas the U.S. and British used to resupply the Nationalist Chinese army at Kunming, because Japan had blockaded all the land and sea routes.

It was a dangerous journey, because the pilots had to fly over mountains up to 15,000 feet high in the unpressurized C-47 carrying weapons and supplies, often at night and in bad weather to avoid the Japanese fighter planes in Burma, Sessions said.

It continued in this role in the last days of the Chinese civil war. After the Communists took over China in 1949, the plane was sent to Hong Kong until a court ruled that the Nationalist government on Taiwan was awarded ownership.

The plane was damaged in an explosion, however, and was instead sent back to Long Beach, where it was rebuilt as a civilian DC-3.

It then began a second career as a corporate jet. When Sessions bought it in 2005 from an undergarment manufacturer, its wing still had the Nationalist Chinese sun logo painted on it, and its tail was adorned with a Latin phrase that translated as “Always wear underwear.”

Sessions explained that they restored the plane’s interior decor to 1950s standards, when it was owned by the chairman of Johnson &Johnson. The paint scheme was from a 1949 Pan American Airways System plane, including a 48-star flag, in honor of its wartime service: Pan Am was the minority owner of the China National Airways Corporation, which flew the relief flights.

The quick flight Thursday was uneventful. A turn up north over Whidbey Island, then south to get an eye-level view of the Space Needle and Seattle skyscrapers, then back north over Lake Washington and the Highway 520 floating bridge.

The plane did do one inner-ear-spinning maneuver: a 270-degree turn with about a 30-degree bank to get out of the path of a float plane.

“That wasn’t considered a steep bank,” said pilot Eugene Vezzetti, who once flew Boeing 747s for Northwest Airlines.

“It wasn’t airline banking,” he laughed.

Back on the ground, Arlington’s Art Unruh, 93, another wartime B-17 pilot, deplaned with a spring in his step.

“Just like the old days,” he said, “but they weren’t shooting at you.”

Larson, walking more slowly with a cane, said riding in the plane is a lot different from flying one, but he still did it to help keep the old stories alive.

“There’s one thing I know, it’s the history people are forgetting,” Larson said. “That’s why I keep doing it.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Vintage Aircraft Weekend

An air show featuring vintage aircraft, speakers, demonstrations and rides is being held Saturday and Sunday at the Historic Flight Foundation, 10719 Bernie Webber Drive in Mukilteo on the west side of Paine Field. Tickets per day are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors or veterans and $10 for youth ages 11-17. For more information, go to vintageaircraftweekend.org, send email to visitorservices@historicflight.org, or call 425-348-3200.

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