In late January, a small cadre of general aviation pilots departed from Leesburg and Eustis, flying south to Charlotte County Airport, KPGD. Our plan was to see some vintage WWII aircraft on display at Warbirds Weekend. In our group there were 3 Beechcraft Bonanza A-36s, and one very nice 1959 Cessna 172. Charlotte County Airport is non-towered which serves the city of Punta Gorda, about 20 miles north of Ft. Myers. I met up with some friends on the ramp, as we all shared an interest in aviation history.
Earlier in the day I lifted off under crystal clear, blue skies and 50 degree temperatures. Climbing to 2,000 feet, I took up a heading of 190 degrees direct to KPGD. Today was just one of those days to be alone in your own thoughts and not talk to ATC. I planned my route to take me west of Orlando Class Bravo, then south between Lakeland, KLAL and Bartow, KBOW to avoid ATC airspace. The quiet flight down in the Bonanza took just 40 minutes to cover 115 nautical miles.
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About 10 miles north of Charlotte County, radio chatter on the Unicom frequency picked up. There were several small aircraft in the pattern, and there were multiple “flights” of warbirds flying formation, inbound to the airport. The warbirds all flew an overhead break, then joined the final for RW33. I managed to find a small gap in traffic, and worked my in with the flow.
At the static display, there were featured aircraft such as a Mitchell B-25 bomber, a P-51 Mustang, T-6 Texans, T-28s, and many others. The B-25, T-6 Texan, and a PT-17 Stearman were available for rides to the GP. All of these aircraft are owned and maintained by a group of warbird enthusiasts at great expense.
These aircraft have been literally been rebuilt from the ground up, and are in better condition than when they rolled off the assembly line some 70 years ago. Since replacement parts for these aircraft have not been manufactured for years, they are either scavenged from wrecks or fabricated from scratch. I sometimes wonder what will happen to these aviation works of art as the current generation of caretakers passes on. It takes money, motivation and a special skill set to keep these “flying museums” in the air.
Winter is high season for snowbirds making their annual pilgrimage to sunny Southwest Florida. It seems they all turned out in force for the Warbirds Weekend event. Hundreds of elderly folks, many with hats and jackets signifying their military service, milled about the vintage aircraft they once maintained and flew in defense of their country. It is hard to imagine that many of these folks, some now in wheelchairs, were 20-year-old pilots commanding these very aircraft during wartime.
Charlotte County now has limited commercial airline service, with B-737’s arriving from the northeast part of the country. We watched from the ramp as a group of passengers deplaned onto open gangways. It was interesting watching them turn their heads in the direction of the loud exhaust bark of radial engines, coming from the approach end of RW33. They stared as a group of T-28s began their formation departure roll, prop tips supersonic. I wonder if they truly appreciated the sacrifice of those generations before them.