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05/06/1997 07:00:00

World War II Vet Takes Vintage Warplane Full Circle; Flies It Over Caltech Wind Tunnel In Commemorative Ceremony

PASADENA—For Russell Drosendahl, copiloting a vintage World War II Curtiss Commando on April 30 was fairly routine. A veteran of 27,000 hours in the air, he has flown everything from the big World War II bombers to TWA jetliners.

The real celebrity of the day, one might argue, was the C-46 itself. Drosendahl and fellow Confederate Air Force colonel Gary Barber agreed to fly the big transport over the California Institute of Technology campus because the very wind tunnel in which the Curtiss Commando was tested in the 1930s was finally being retired. So Drosendahl and Barber, along with the pilots of three other vintage World War II airplanes, buzzed the campus during a special ceremony to show off the aircraft that helped the Allies win the war—and thank the generations of aeronautical engineers, researchers, staff personnel, graduate students, and others who helped design the planes.

Drosendahl was copilot on the day of the 10-foot wind tunnel's decommissioning ceremony. Passengers riding along, however, could see that both he and Barber were actively engaged in flying the plane.

"It's a handful," said Drosendahl, who was a flight instructor on the B-24 Liberators and B-29 Superfortresses during the war. "It's just a big tail-wheeled aircraft, and it's hard to fly in formation. The B-24 was easier to fly, in my opinion."

Nonetheless, Drosendahl thinks the plane was well designed and effective for the job it was created to do. The plane distinguished itself as a transport in the China-Burma-India theater because its dual 2,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines were sufficient to get a heavy cargo over the Himalayas.

The Commando was again used in the Korean War for both troop and cargo transport, and though decommissioned by the 1960s, was taken out of mothballs for the Vietnam War because of its proven usefulness. It was the biggest twin-engine transport with a tail wheel ever built in the United States.

Now the plane is flown by Drosendahl, a retired TWA captain; Barber, a retired American captain; and others in the Confederate Air Force who dedicate themselves to preserving the combat aircraft of World War II. The plane is one of an estimated 27 Commandos in flying condition, and one of the 70 or so planes of various models that the CAF keep in flying condition. Drosendahl says that the CAF now has several dozen other vintage warplanes in varying stages of restoration.

A fount of information on World War II aircraft, Drosendahl says that he enjoys flying the Confederate Air Force planes because of his lifelong fascination with aviation. He took private pilot lessons at the age of 19 when he was working for Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls, and joined the Army Air Corps as a pilot when the war began. He flew for TWA from 1947 to 1982, when he retired and immediately joined the CAF.

"I had my birthday last Saturday—75," he said, adding that he had no immediate plans to give up flying. However, he said it would be nice to find more pilots willing and able to take up the big C-46. "We're a little short right now."

Written by Robert Tindol