Mid-Atlantic Air Museum WWII Weekend 2019 – Air Show Report

The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s crown jewel, Northrop P-61B Black Widow 42-39445 was on external display at the museum's annual WWII Weekend in early June. While still years away from flying, it is clear that the restoration team has progressed a great deal in their quest to get this ultra-rare aircraft flying again! (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)
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Mid-Atlantic Air Museum WWII Weekend 2019 – Air Show Report

By A. Kevin Grantham

The twenty-ninth annual WWII Weekend (WWIIW) took place at Spaatz Field (Reading Regional Airport) in Reading, Pennsylvania, over the weekend of 7-9 June 2019. The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) once again sponsored the event that featured a wide variety of warbirds, military hardware, and, most importantly, a salute to the veterans of World War II on the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.


In recent days many D-Day veterans have been asked about their service in the Second World War. While the specific words they used to answer this question may have varied, a common theme which bonded their statements was on of, “We served so you would not have to go through what we did!”  Russel Strine, MAAM’s president,  pioneered the notion of bringing World War II veterans to the museum’s annual air show as a way of not only honoring them, but also to give these brave men and women a forum to show the public how closely our future is connected to our past.

The show was also an opportunity to see the visible progress being made on the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s prized exhibit, a Northrop P-61B Black Widow, one of only four complete examples known to exist!

Richard “Dick” Schimmel was one of the honored veterans this year. Mr. Schimmel joined the Army in 1940 because he wanted to go to Hawaii. He got his wish when he became a radar operator with the newly formed unit Signal Company Aircraft Warning Hawaii. Mr. Schimmel helped set up radar information centers on Oahu, Maui, and ‘The Big Island’ of Hawaii. “I was relieved by Joe McDonald on the morning of the attack,“ said Schimmel referring to the Japanese assault on Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. “My shift at the information center went from 6 PM Saturday to 6 AM the following Sunday. So, everything was going well until around 6:30 AM when McDonald received a call from one of the radar units saying they detected a bunch of planes. The fellow who was training McDonald told him not to worry about it. In about fifteen minutes, the radar unit called again and reported a large number of airplanes approaching the island. This time the information was taken to the officer of the day, who also told them not to worry about it. When they called me, I was in my tent looking over Peral Harbor. I could see the planes go in and, after a while, I could see the big black smoke, which meant the bombs were hitting the ships.” The rest is history. When asked what was the biggest thing we learned about radar at Pearl Harbor, Mr. Schimmel responded with, “It was effective!”  

Pearl Harbor survivor Richard “Dick” Schimmel was a radar operator during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. (photo by A.Kevin Grantham)

As the air show began, a parade of liaison aircraft took to the air, followed by primary and advanced trainers. The pilots flying these largely unsung, but vital WWII aircraft designs, showed off the capabilities of each type and demonstrated the steps that a young aviator had to go through to win their wings.

Next up were the aircraft from the Pacific Theater of Operations, starting with replica Japanese warplanes including a ‘Zero’ fighter, ‘Kate’ torpedo bomber, and ‘Val’ dive bomber originally built for the movie TORA! TORA! TORA! during the late 1960s. In an interesting twist, a restored Mitsubishi A6M2-21 Zero (powered by an American Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engine instead of the original Nakajima Sakae), then formed up with the TORA! movie birds for a joint display. Greg Shelton’s FM-2 Wildcat, MAAM’s TBM-3 Avenger and the Commemorative Air Force’s FG-1D Corsair took off to engage the ‘enemy force’. During Friday’s show, the Wildcat and restored Zero engaged in a mock dog fight, with each pilot clearly showing the advantages and disadvantages of each fighter. Charlie Lynch, flying the lighter and more nimble Zero, easily out turned Greg Shelton’s Wildcat. During the war, American forces recovered an intact A6M2-21 that had been forced down on Akutan Island in the Aleutian archipelago following a raid on Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The U.S. navy returned this Zero to flight during the war, and analyzed its flying characteristics, discovering, among other details, that the Zero did not maneuver as well at high speeds. Greg Shelton took advantage of this knowledge by converting altitude to speed and won the day by ‘downing’ the Zero. On Saturday and Sunday, the Avenger and Corsair provided ‘air support’ for ground-based re-enactors dressed as U.S. Marines attacking ‘enemy-held bunkers’ made from hay bales. The ‘Marines’ quickly overran the ‘Japanese’ position with the use of three flame throwers, which almost instantly incinerated the hay, turning it into plumes of dense black smoke.  

The bombers took to the sky once the smoke from the ‘land battle’ cleared. Boeing B-29 Superfortress FiFi and Consolidated B-24A/LB-30 Diamond Lil from the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) represented the heavy bombers, along with the Yankee Air Museum’s Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Yankee Lady. Their presence offered the spectators an exceptional opportunity to see all three of the main World War II heavy bomber types in one flight. The Delaware Aviation Museum’s North American B-25J Mitchell Panchito and the Yankee Air Museum’s B-25D Yankee Warrior filled out the medium bomber force. Next, it was the fighter aircraft’s turn in the circuit. Thom Richard, flying the American Airpower Museum’s Curtiss P-40M Warhawk Jacky C, beat up the field and stunned the crowd with a thrilling aerobatic performance. Mark Murphy also performed aerobatics in a P-51D Mustang named Tigers Revenge, and later did some high-speed, tight-formation flying with Thom Richard in the P-40. The flying over the weekend was the best this author ever witnessed at any previous MAAM event. All of the pilots, along with Air Boss Greg Witmer, made the multiple layers of exciting flying look easy.

Then came a moment of levity with Clem Cleaver and Grandpa Fred adding some comic relief when they ‘stopped by to pick up some roadkill’ near the Reading Airport. The Alabama Boys, as they are known, have a notorious reputation for crashing air shows. Seeing all of the airplanes on the field ‘reminded Clem that he had bought a flight lesson back in 1984 and now was the time to redeem his five dollar purchase’. He somehow managed to get his pickup onto the field and drove it right up to the air show hut where announcer Fast Eddie was conducting his business. Fast Eddie did his best to explain to the Alabama Boys that they were disrupting a major aerial event, but Clem would not budge. Then Grandpa got out of the truck and fired his thirty-inch barrel twelve-gauge goose gun.  At that point, Fast Eddie had no choice but to let Clem take a look at a Piper J-3 Cub, parked near the announcer stand. Next thing you know Clem and Grandpa are pulling on the wings and lifting the tail while Fast Eddie is losing his mind. Clem quickly assesses that he can fly this little aeroplane and, within an instant, he started the J-3’s engine and took off. The only problem being — he does not know how to land the thing! So, Grandpa enlisted help for some local army re-enactors who ‘disabled the plane with small arms fire’. Grandpa then hops in the truck and rushes down the runway where — by some miracle — Clem expertly lands the J-3 on top of the truck. By this time the crowd, no doubt, realizes this is an act conducted by air show performer Greg “Clem Cleaver” Koontz and Fred Masterson, also known as Grandpa Fred. But it is an act reminiscent of the early days of barnstorming, and rather wonderful to see still performed across America today. 

That being said, the WWII Weekend is much more than just an air show. Ted Schwartz (The Voice of WWIIW) perhaps sums it up best by stating, “This is not just an air show. It is a World War II show!” Each year over 1,500 reenactors and volunteers come to the event. Many travel long distances, at their own expense, to show off their beautifully restored trucks, jeeps, and tanks. Others come because they are subject matter experts who can tell you how to breakdown an MG 42 machine gun or perhaps relate what it was like on the home front during World War II. The combined energy of this army of historical interpreters is what truly makes the WWIIW a unique experience. So, if you are interested in learning more about World War II history and culture — come to Reading, Pennsylvania over June 5-7, 2020 and help the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. 

The author would like to thank Russ Strine, Clarence Carvell, and Dave & Tina Brown for making this article possible. And a special thank you also goes out to Greg Witmer and Jack Bertolet for taking such good care of this aging reporter! 

Many thanks indeed to A.Kevin Grantham for his marvelous report. We hope you have enjoyed it as much as we have!

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