Gary Peters’ rethink of how to continue his annual air show in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic began in April, the same day he announced the in-person Lewiston event was canceled this year.
It was mid-April and most of the country, including the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, was shut down as hospitals braced for a surge in the disease of an unknown magnitude.
By coincidence, Peters needed to take a Curtiss P-40N Warhawk owned by Hangar180, a not-for-profit entity he founded, on a 30-minute test flight, following an intense round of maintenance.
He mentioned to a friend that the vintage plane would be over the town of Wallowa, Ore. The friend, who is putting together an aircraft museum, let his neighbors know about the flight.
“(Everyone) was out in their backyards waving American flags,” Peters said. “It really warmed my heart.”
It was then Peters decided to do something similar on a larger scale on Independence Day. His goal is to preserve the essence of the Radials N’ Rivers Fly-In while still following social distancing requirements.
“It was a little bit of a fluke,” he said.
One World War II bomber and four World War II fighter planes, including the Curtiss P-40N Warhawk, will be a part of the event with the theme “Let Freedom Reign.”
They will be in the air in formation within a 150-mile radius of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley for the better part of 12 hours, starting at 8 a.m. Saturday.
The planes will be visible at various times in places in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington such as the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, Moscow, Pullman, Orofino, Grangeville and Craigmont. They will also go to the Tri-Cities, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.
The bomber will fly about one-eighth of a mile ahead of the other planes, so that spectators on the ground have a little time to get ready. A crew in the bomber will stream video in real time as much as possible and post still pictures on social media, at Hangar180’s Facebook page.
World War II buffs will also have a chance to see the planes near the start of the event at about 8 a.m. through the fence of the grounds of the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport at Airport Park at 528 Cedar Ave. in Lewiston.
Visitors will be expected to stay 6 feet apart. In previous years, attendees were allowed onto airport grounds for activities such as oral presentations and tours of some of the aircraft.
As different as the format is, it will still be a way for people of all ages to learn more about the challenges that pilots, their crews and their families faced in World War II, Peters said.
One of the fighter planes that will be featured is a North American P-51 Mustang that Hangar180 acquired eight months ago.
“It’s arguably the most famous aircraft of World War II,” Peters said. “It has the reputation of being the aircraft that won the war due to its high altitude performance escorting bombers over occupied France and Germany.”
Unlike its predecessors, it could carry enough fuel to accompany the bombers to wherever their targets were. Until its introduction, many of the bombers were lost to the Nazis.
That capability, coupled with a change in strategy to engage any German fighters that appeared as opposed to protecting the bombers, helped change the direction of the war and win an Allied victory, Peters said.
This will be the first public appearance of Peters’ North American P51 Mustang since its motor was overhauled and its exterior was redone to be as close as possible to another North American P51 Mustang flown by Capt. John F. Thornell in World War II.
Peters chose the design for two related reasons. It has not been used on any of the 120 remaining P51 Mustangs, and he wanted to honor Thornell, who was based in Bodney, England.
The pilot belonged to the U.S. Army Air Corps 352nd fighter group, which the Nazis called the blue-nosed bastards of Bodney.
“He was the top ace of his entire squadron when he left shortly after D-Day,” Peters said. “He had the most kills.”
Thornell’s P51 Mustang was named Patty Ann II, for his niece, who was born after he went overseas. He had his own family after he returned to the United States. Most of his children and grandchildren followed in the tradition he started and joined the Air Force.
Patty Ann died a few years ago, but her best friend and cousin, Thornell’s daughter, Kathleen Thornell Bowing, is still alive living in Dallas with her husband. They are driving to Lewiston in the coming days to see the work Peters’ crew did on the airplane.
Learning the story behind why Thornell named his plane Patty Ann II is part of what motivates Peters to organize the air show and restore planes.
Each time he gets a plane, he learns something new about why it mattered in history or about the people who might have flown it. In this instance, he realized every pilot had a connection to someone outside the war — a son, daughter, niece, nephew, wife or girlfriend.
It was those relationships that inspired them to endure the possibility of death, loss of sleep and separation from friends and family for their country, Peters said.
“These are flying monuments,” he said. “That’s why they are so special to me.”
Williams may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2261.