Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing | Peachtree City | 36 miles southwest of Atlanta
An airplane fanatic since he was six, Willard Womack climbs onto the wing of a Bell P-63 Kingcobra and beholds it like some immense phoenix brought back to life. In four days, after a 25-year restoration, the P-63 will fly again or for the first time since 1974. As with every WWII relic at the Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing—a large, loud “flying museum” in an Atlanta Regional Airport hangar—Womack knows the warplane’s history. It’s his job. The 80-year-old retired commercial pilot leads tours for Boy Scout troops, grade school classes, gearheads of all ages, and seniors from nearby nursing homes, instilling an appreciation for warbirds of a bygone era. “If it’s a veteran who flew in this airplane, we’ll lift them into the seat like a baby,” Womack says. “And you can just watch their face; they’re young men again.” Nationally, the CAF was founded in 1957 to preserve aircraft so devalued they were being sold for scrap, buried as junk, or pushed into oceans. Now the nonprofit has chapters across the country. Atlanta’s is the third largest, in terms of paying members (300 strong) and number of restored planes (eight). The collection includes a famous bent-wing FG-1D Corsair, a Japanese replica plane used in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, and the gold standard for WWII fighter plane buffs—a North American P-51 Mustang, valued at $3.5 million. Mustang rides for nonmembers cost about $1,600—for 20 minutes—and they’re so popular that slots frequently sell out at events and air shows. The whole operation is put on by volunteers, including wing leader Jay Bess, who commutes 50 miles from Buckhead several times a week to spearhead the museum’s renovation and diversify the membership base. “We’re committed to preserving this history for the next generation, and we’re slowly morphing from the old boys flying club,” says Bess, 50. Back in the hangar, Womack recalls a powerful moment several years ago, when a 95-year-old veteran beelined for the wing’s B-24 bomber gun turret. “He shot down five German airplanes in one of those and almost got killed in it himself,” says Womack. “He touched it like it was a holy relic.”
This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.