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Sat, Oct 01, 2005

CAF Rides Again -- For Disaster Relief

Venerable Douglas Warbirds Did Their Bit, 60 Years On

The Commemorative Air Force, the nationwide warbird operator, did its bit for hurricane relief. Some of its planes flew from Austin, Texas, safely outside the disaster zone, into hard-hit Slidell, Louisiana (just across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans; it's where the oft-photographed destroyed I-10 bridge led to) as well as to Baton Rouge, Hammond, Lafayette and Bogalusa.

The three disaster-relief warbirds include a Douglas B-26 Invader (originally A-26, this type fought with distinction in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, and was employed on both sides during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba), an R4D (Navy version of the C-47), and a DC-3/C-47.

The C-47 was Bluebonnet Belle, the Highland Lakes Squadron's beautiful (polished!) ongoing restoration. The R4D was "Ready 4 Duty," an R4D-6S from the DFW wing. The A-26 is called Spirit of Waco, and based in that city. It's been flown by Joe Nemmer, owner of Nemmer Electric in Waco, and a longtime CAF member.

The cargoes carried varied widely. On one mission, R4D pilots Jim Breitenstine and Russ Coonley and flight engineer Chuck Horner delivered 906 badly-needed 5-gallon gasoline cans.

There was a convoluted path to the recruiting of the CAF for this task -- a path that included the Marines, the Coast Guard, a bunch of churches from brimstone Baptists to strait-laced New England Congregationals, telephone numbers scrawled on scraps of paper, and one thing in common: eagerness to help.

A Marine NCO was in charge of shipping food from the City of Austin food bank, which had plenty, to the feeding centers that were hastily established for refugees by the Southern Baptist Church where the refugees were temporarily relocated.

They started sending food in big trucks, but due to hurricane damage to the one bridge left standing, the authorities would not let any big 18-wheelers cross -- so the food had to be transloaded to pickups or HMMWVs.

This wasn't getting enough food in to the people. You just couldn't move enough food across the trashed bridges. Somebody had a brainstorm: could the CAF help? The call came through a Coast Guard contact; the Marine in charge of shipping the food followed up with the details.

Help? The CAF? Turns out it could. The organization donated use of its planes, and committed to deliver 200,000 pounds of food and medicine. $10,000 worth of fuel for the thirsty old radials was donated in turn by World Relief, a Christian charity that works through churches to deliver humanitarian aid. (World Relief also was picking up the tab for other helpers' avgas and jet fuel bills).

While the use of the C-47 and R4D, cargo planes, makes sense, where does the fast attack A-26 come in? It wasn't designed as a trashhauler, but it turns out that the A-26, with its large bomb bay, can carry 20,000 lbs of cargo, according to pilot Joe Nemmer.



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