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Aircraft museum revisits flying days of WWI combat pilots

How do you face a job where your life expectancy was just two weeks and you were lucky if a bullet killed you?

Maybe that’s why Army Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker has that wolfish smile in those photographs of him lounging against the side of his wood-andfabric SPAD or Nieuport fighter plane, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. Every day that he landed his “bus” safely, surviving another dogfight with the brightly painted Fokkers of the Flying Circus, he’d rolled the dice of life-or-death one more time and won.

Many didn’t.

World War I fighter pilots often called them kites because their open-cockpit Fokkers, Nieuports, Sopwiths and Albatrosses seemed to fall out of the sky just as easily as a spiraling kite on a string — wing struts snapping from the G-forces of a long dive, fabric peeling off wings in an instant. Or an enemy fighter might dive in out of the blinding sun, killing them or setting their airplane ablaze with a chattering burst of machine-gun fire.

The lucky victims died from bullets — like Army Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, son of former President Theodore Roosevelt. All pilots feared burning to death in a flaming crate spiraling toward Earth.

Some jumped instead.

Their names became legendary: Rickenbacker and the Hat-in-Ring Squadron; “Red” Baron Manfred von Richtofen’s Flying Circus; Frank Luke, the cold-eyed “Arizona Balloon Buster;” Raoul Lufbery and his trademark circle of death. Next summer will be the 100th anniversary of

the Great War, the war that was supposed to end all wars, but among its many ghastly results, it forced man to take warfare into the sky.

The Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum can now take visitors back to those first days of combat flying. Airplane collector Andy Parks of Hudson, Colo., is loaning the museum portions of his World War I collection of authentic uniforms and most amazing, actual flying replicas of the famous fighter planes of that war.

“We’re incredibly lucky that we’re getting this collection to display here,” said Don Blehm, president of the Pueblo Historical Aircraft Society. “These airplanes are so rare that any aviation museum would love to have them.”

The first installation arrived a week ago — a replica French Nieuport 12 fighter that the museum is displaying indoors (with only half it’s wing-span attached for space purposes). But Blehm said the hangar floor around the Nieuport will be filled by other airplanes from Park’s Vintage Aero Flying Museum in Hudson — including a red Fokker D1 triplane, perhaps the most instantly recognizable airplane in the world.

“With this Nieuport, parents and kids can walk up get a look in the cockpit and see what these early airplanes were like to fly,” he said.

Parks was attracted to the Pueblo museum for his collection because it is heavily visited and sits next to Pueblo Memorial Airport — meaning historical airplanes can fly in and out of the location for shows.

“When we had our Armed Forces Day celebration, more than 40 private airplane owners flew in for the display,” Blehm said. “Pueblo’s museum is on the map for aviation buffs and this new collection will only add to our reputation.”

Which seems to be growing as fast as its collection of airplanes and military artifacts. The Pueblo museum also is going to be the permanent site of the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, Blehm said.

That really isn’t surprising given the museum’s high-quality collection of historic aircraft, the centerpiece being the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Peachy” — one of only six intact B-29s in the world. The Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., has two of the others, including the famous “Enola Gay” — which dropped the first atomic bomb in August 1945.

The Superfortress dwarfs the little Nieuport fighter and the nearby 1926 Alexander Eaglerock biplane that the Pueblo museum also has acquired. The Eaglerock is a two-seater biplane that was manufactured by the Alexander Aircraft Co. in Colorado Springs during the 1920s. There are only four surviving Eaglerocks and the Pueblo museum has one of them.

“The only other one I know of is hanging in Denver International Airport,” Blehm said.

While the Pueblo museum has steadily added more modern jets over the years, including a NASA F-104 Starfighter chase plane, the World War I display will fill in what had been a largely empty gap in terms of aviation history.

In an age of stealth bombers, Mach 2 fighter jets and even unmanned drones, the men who flew those first woodand- wire “pursuit” planes seem to be in danger of slipping out of the nation’s memory.

“Captain Eddie” Rickenbacker was an Indy 500 race car driver before the war and had his share of close shaves with death before he ever donned an Army uniform and became America’s leading ace of World War 1. He shot down 26 “Jerry” machines between April and November 1918. Rickenbacker wasn’t thrilled that so many fighter pilots seemed to be Ivy League, collegeboy types. He thought race car drivers and other daredevils were better suited to the lethal work.

Lt. Frank Luke, former rodeo cowboy, was in that mold. A loner on the ground and even when hunting, Luke loved turning German observation balloons into balls of fire.

He was last seen doing just that.

Lufbery was another street-toughened kid who was a killer in the sky. A French-American who’d traveled the world and served in the U.S.

Army in the Philippines, Lufbery joined the French Air Force early in the war. He famously kept two pet lions at his airfield — aptly named Whiskey and Soda for their drinking habits.

It was Lufbery who coached Rickenbacker and the newly arriving Americans in how to dogfight the Huns. He reportedly checked every bullet that went onto his machine guns so they wouldn’t jam in middogfight.

Before he was killed, Lufbery gave his name to the tactic of keeping an enemy plane in an evertightening circle where the first pilot to lose his nerve and roll out usually went down in flames.

Still, it was Roosevelt who is a reminder that those early fighter pilots had a sense of chivalry about each other. While other Yanks expected the Harvard-educated Roosevelt to be a snob with a famous father, the young man wasn’t and was well-liked, according to Rickenbacker.

His squadron mates last saw Roosevelt flying his Nieuport 28 into a tangle with seven Fokkers on July 14, 1918. The Germans notified them afterward they’d recovered his body from the wreckage of his airplane.

The young fighter pilot had two bullet wounds in his head.

The Germans buried the former American president’s son with full military honors.

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