Perpetual Pilot Loves Volunteering

July 11, 2003
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NORTON SHORES — Mike Abajian has a fairly complicated answer as to why he volunteers four to six days a month flying a 60-year-old bomber hither and thither all over the country.

The first part of the answer is that as a retired Marine Corps pilot — Abajian spent 24 years flying everything from helicopters to Harriers — he wants to keep alive the memory of an almost-forgotten World War II bomber squadron in the South Pacific.

The plane he flies is a B-25 named Tondelayo, an operational memorial to an aircraft that helped sink six Japanese ships in one mission at Rabaul. During its 60-minute flight back to its base, he said, it then accounted for nine of the pack of Japanese fighters that nearly chewed it apart with cannon fire.

Abajian said that when it landed, the original Tondelayo was flying on one engine and looked more or less like Swiss cheese.

But he explained that the plane’s turret gunner was named an ace for personally shooting down five of the pursuit planes in the process.

“The Tondelayo was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation,” he added, “and every member of the crew received the Silver Star. And a few months later, they had Tondelayo fixed up and flying again.”

He said the planes were designed as medium bombers, but their crews used them for low-level operations that the aircrafts’ designers never intended.

Among other things, the retired lieutenant colonel explained, they would fly as low as 50 feet across anchorages (such as the one at Rabaul), strafing ships and skipping bombs into ships in the manner that one skips a flat stone across a pond.

Abajian said B-25s, aka Billy Mitchell bombers, are perhaps best remembered for a surprise carrier-borne 1942 raid on Tokyo.

It’s to remind citizens of that history, the 58-year-old pilot said, that he signed up with the Collins Foundation to fly the ship to air shows.

But there’s a second reason, he said, that he went from a military career into civilian aviation — his day job is as a flight instructor for Continental Express — and that he flies as a volunteer.

“I’ll never retire from this,” he said, grinning.

“Getting old is mandatory,” he explained, “but growing up is optional.”

Abajian is one of a host of people who volunteer with Collins, a not-for-profit headquartered in Stow, Mass., that owns and operates a fleet of historic aircraft, some of them sited at a field in Texas.

Collins owns and operates a Bleriot, a 94-year operational French biplane that is the model ofs the first flying machine to make it across the English Channel.

The foundation also owns and operates the only operational F-4 Phantom in civilian ownership.

Abajian and Douglas Birkey, the foundation’s operations manager (and one of only six paid Collins employees), explained that the foundation supports its planes’ operations through private donations, retail sales of commemorative T-shirts, hats, memorial publications and, above all, air show appearance fees.

The Muskegon Air Fair, Birkey explained, had to pony up a standard $3,500 fee for the B-25’s weekend appearance. In addition, the fair defrayed the cost of fuel — $2,000 per fill-up — plus room, board and rental cars for the crew.

Operating the two-engine B-25 isn’t cheap, Birkey explained, but according to the Collins Web site, the cost of flying the four-engine B-17 is something else: $3,000 an hour.

Flying the Phantom — a 3-service workhorse of Vietnam and Desert Storm — runs Collins about $8,000 per hour.

To maintain its revenue stream, Collins also conducts a 21st century form of barnstorming called the Wings of Freedom Tour.

It flies its B-17 and B-24 to cities all over the country where people — many of them WWII flying veterans — happily pay fees of $400 for a ride in a World War II bomber, and also pop for a ride, say, for a grandson. The foundation says that the two heavy bombers have made 1,500 stops in Alaska and the lower 48 states during the past 12 years.

Abajian told the Business Journal that later this month Tondelayo will be at an air fair in a community where there’s to be an octogenarian among the spectators — a man who flew with the 500th Bomber Squadron to which the original Tondelayo belonged.

“They started in New Guinea,” Abajian explained, “and worked their way up to New Britain and eventually took the war to the islands of Southern Japan.

“And we’re going to give this gentleman a ride if we can.” If no sponsor is available, he added, it will be a no-charge flight.

“Part of the foundation’s mission is to let these veterans know they’ve not been forgotten,” he explained.

As with any aircraft, for every pilot dozens of people labor behind the scenes to keep the bomber in top working order. Collins volunteer ground crews service planes in Texas and Massachusetts and are working in Texas and Florida to restore other old aircraft to working order.

For that matter, the pilots themselves often lend a hand.

On Saturday, Tondelayo had to have its emergency brake air lines topped off with nitrogen when pressure dropped to 325 psi, from the requisite 550.

And, consistent with Murphy’s Seventh Law of Flight — “When setting out to do something, it’s necessary to do something else first” — the operation required borrowing two wrenches from an Executive Air Inc., tool box to temporarily install a compatible gas port.

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