Vintage war planes make short stop at Curtis Field

A mini-invasion of historic aircraft converged on the Heart of Texas Wednesday when nine Cessna L-19 “Bird Dog” airplanes landed at the Curtis Field airport. The pilots fueled up, tied their planes down and headed to a local barbecue joint for a bite to eat. It started out as a couple of pilot friends planning to meet in Brady for lunch as a “return favor” from a previous trip. One person talked to another and soon a mini- reunion of members of the International Bird Dog Association (IBDA) was in the works. The pilots came from places as far as Argyle (near Denton) Boerne, Kerrville and Fredericksburg. “We had stopped in Brady a couple of weeks ago while flying from Fredericksburg to Dallas,” said Tom Mayo, a L-19 pilot from Fredericksburg. “We had heard about the Hard Eight restaurant and we figured it would be a great place to make a short trip. The weather was perfect, so we couldn’t pass up the chance to fly.” The word spread amongst several members of the IBDA club and with Wednesday’s perfect weather forecast and ideal flying conditions, the group met in Brady for lunch. With the history of being one of a long line of civilian light planes converted to military use, the Cessna L-19 ‘Bird Dog’ observation and Forward Air Control aircraft has its origins in the Cessna 170, a four- person civilian light plane. With modifications for military use, its power was upgraded from 145 to 213 horsepower. Winning a U.S. Army contract in 1950 with its Model 305A redesign of the Model 170, Cessna was awarded an initial contract for 418 of the aircraft, which were then designated L-19A , and named ‘Bird Dog.’ By the time the final craft was manufactured in 1962, 3,400 Bird Dogs had been built. Structurally, the military version differed significantly from its civilian progenitor, with the passenger capacity reduced by two, the aft superstructure radically revised to provide a clear view rearward, and transparent panel being inserted in the wing above the seats. The access door was made wider to accommodate a standard military stretcher, for which support brackets were installed. The L-19 was judged to be much better in terms of performance on takeoff and climb than its world War II predecessors, as well as more comfortable for the pilot and observer. In 1953, an L-19A-IT version was developed to provide instrument training capability. Of the 2,486 L-19s delivered by 1954, 60 were reassigned to the U.S. Marine Corps where they were designated OE-1 . Although they were only used in small numbers during the Korean War, Bird Dogs were widely employed during the early days of the Vietnam war, when the U.S. Air Force acquired many to use in the Forward Air Control and observation roles, for which they were upgraded to carry wing stores, such as white phosphorus target-marking rockets. While long out of production, some Bird Dogs are still in active use around the world. In Canada, O-1s were deactivated in 1973 by the Canadian Army (with whom it first entered service in 1954), but 17 were subsequently reassigned to the Royal Canadian Air Cadets for glider towing and familiarization flying. On the civilian market, Bird Dogs have become popular as economical warbirds in the United States and Australia. “These planes are great to fly,” said IBDA President Jim Mulvihill. “They were very useful planes and had a big place in history and they are very economical to operate as compared to other warplanes like the P-51.” The IBDA was first formed in 1985 by Phil Willis, a former military pilot who flew the Bird Dog in Vietnam. Since the club’s formation, it has become an international collection of history buffs and flight enthusiasts. “The one common thread we all have is the love for these airplanes,” said Mulvihill. “These planes haven’t been manufactured since 1962 and the condition of the ones that are left are our biggest concern.” The passion these pilots have for the Bird Dog might best be demonstrated by the example of Mulvihill’s own plane. He got his first look at an L-19 while a soldier in Vietnam where he served as an electronics mechanic. As a teenager in the middle of the war, he was intrigued by the jets that would scream across the treetops at breakneck speeds and simply looked upon the Bird Dogs as just another plane. “I have photos of F-4 Phantoms and F100s from during the war, but I never took one of the Bird Dog,” he said. “Now, thinking back, that is one thing I wish I would have done.” Mulvihill joined the IBDA and while flying his first L-19, he began collecting replacement parts with the goal of building his own “brand new” Bird Dog from scratch. “It took me 10 years collecting parts from all over the world,” he said. “But after a lot of searching and dedication, I was able to assemble the entire plane from the “new” parts I acquired. When I was done, I was flying a plane with parts manufactured in the 1950s, but the plane itself had no hours on it.” Sitting around the lunch table, the group of nine pilots used the brief visit to catch up on the latest news of the IBDA as well as discuss solutions to various problems ranging from maintenance issues to when the next mini-reunion would happen. With only 300 planes of the original 3,400 left, original replacement parts are becoming scarce. According to Mulvihill, of those 300 planes, only 155 are still airworthy. “Twenty-two of those planes are owned by people here in Texas with Florida being the next biggest with 11,” he said. “We as a group love to do what we can to promote the airplane and the role it played in history.” With their bellies full of barbecue and good- byes wrapped up, the nine pilots preflighted their historic aircraft and headed out. The unmistakable sound of the beefy little engines filled the air and one by one, they headed back to their hometowns. Specifications (O-1E): Engine: One 213-hp Continental O-470-11 flat-six piston engine Weight: Empty’1,614 lbs., Max Takeoff 2,400 lbs. Wing Span: 36ft. 0in. Length: 25ft. 9in. Height: 7ft. 3.5in. Performance: Maximum Speed: 151 mph Range: 530 miles Armament: Four underwing pylons for mixed stores of smoke cannisters and ‘Willie-Pete’ white phosphorus marking rockets. Number Built: 3,431 Number Still Airworthy: 120+

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