Your Stories: The CAF’s Harlingen Days

Your Stories is a collection of memories sent by our readers and readopted as article for this website. If you are interested in sharing your memories and stories with us please contact us HERE.

Mr. Paul Cicci was a Technical Instructor  for Purdue University’s Department of Aviation Technology. The Confederate Air Force (now Commemorative Air Force) had contacted Purdue University in 1980 offering student A&P mechanics the chance to work on their museum aircraft.  Mr. Cicci, having family near Harlingen International Airport, requested to work for the CAF and was accepted. This is his story.

It is hard to believe 40 years have passed since I worked for the Commemorative Air Force during the summer of 1980. I packed up my family and we spent the summer in Brownsville, Texas with members of my wife’s family. I commuted to the Commemorative Air Force headquarters at the Harlingen International Airport, otherwise known as Rebel Field. The CAF had a small museum, a large WWII era hangar for maintenance of aircraft and two smaller hangars for storage of aircraft and numerous parts. Back shops and store rooms were packed with donated WWII fighter and bomber aircraft parts and assemblies. It was as close to a WW2 air base as one could expect to see in 1980.

When I arrived at Rebel Field, I was assigned to work on the B-29 bomber “FIFI”  This aircraft was going through a heavy maintenance check and engine change-out. I thought this would be an excellent chance to photograph maintenance on “FIFI” and little did I know there would be interest in my photos taken at the CAF 40 years later. During breaks and lunch, I would wander the base photographing planes, parts, and people. Some of the maintenance personnel were retired US Air Force while others were younger A&P mechanics learning the business of maintaining WWII aircraft from personnel that worked on these very aircraft in the service.

You have to remember that many of the aircraft located at Rebel Field were loaned out to Hollywood movie studios for movie work or were accepted as payment after a movie was completed. The B-29 “FIFI” had just returned from filming the made for TV production “Enola Gay” starring Patrick Duffy. The B-29 had been painted to replicate the actual “Enola Gay” and had the paint job removed before returning to Rebel Field. Though the words “Enola Gay” were removed from the nose, you could still see where it was painted. The TBM Avenger was used in the opening scenes of “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” Several of our aircraft came from filming the “Battle of Britain” The Casa 352L (Ju 52/3m) had just been flown from England when it appeared at Rebel Field. The T-6 “Zero” aircraft came from the movie “Tora Tora Tora”

NBC TV’s weekly show  “Real People” sent Byron Allen to film a segment on the Tuskegee Airmen . The CAF brought their B-17 “Texas Raiders” down from the Gulf Coast Wing as well as a visiting PBY Catalina for the segment. Byron got the ride of a lifetime in the CAF SBD Dauntless dive bomber. I got the ride of my lifetime flying in the B-17 “Texas Raiders” while in formation with the PBY Catalina, a “Tora” T-6 Zero, and Byron Allen in the SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber.

After “FIFI” returned to Rebel Field, she was put through a thorough engine run inspection before going into the hangar for maintenance. A large crew of people started working on “FIFI”  and we prepared number 2 engine for removal. The massive Wright R-3350-57 engine was going to be replaced with an engine that was overhauled and still in its original, pressurized can. While inspecting “FIFI” some corrosion was found under the vertical fin and it was decided to remove the rudder and fin to treat the corrosion. Corrosion was a concern since the aircraft were based so close to the Gulf of Mexico.

When we weren’t working on “FIFI” we often found  ourselves assigned to work on other aircraft, performing pre-flights and parts replacement. One major restoration that was underway was the Martin B-26C “Carolyn” Another aircraft undergoing major restoration was the P-51D “Gunfighter.”

Towards the end of the summer of 1980, a hurricane formed and moved across the Gulf of Mexico heading close to southern Texas. Hurricane Allen would go on record as being the fifth strongest hurricane ever recorded. We would go on record as the most active CAF base ever, I’m sure, as we were instructed to pre-flight all aircraft that crews could be gathered for to get them out of south Texas. It was an “all hands on deck” endeavor to pre-flight so many aircraft and then figure out how to stack the remaining aircraft in the hangars. The activity on the flight line could only be compared to what must have gone on during WWII to get aircraft ready for a mission. One exciting thing for me was being told to sit in the right seat of the P-82 Twin Mustang during the engine run-up. After the P-82 and all other aircraft were evacuated, we had to move every piece of ground support equipment  inside the hangars. “FIFI” was not flown away, but was kept inside the big hangar. This hangar was build during WWII and was designed to withstand hurricane force winds. When “FIFI” was placed in the hangar, smaller aircraft were placed under her wings like a mother bird protecting her young. After we did all we could, we punched out and left Rebel Field and Harlingen. I got my family safely home and with me were rolls of film and memories of working with the greatest people you can imagine. We were all bound together in our dedication to preserve our aviation heritage as testimony to the “Greatest Generation” the built, maintained and flew the best aircraft of WWII. Forty years later, I’m glad I am able to share my photos of the summer of 1980 at Rebel Field in Harlingen, Texas.

Your Stories is a collection of memories sent by our readers and readopted as article for this website. If you are interested in sharing your memories and stories with us please contact us HERE.

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