When’s the last time you saw three beautifully restored warbirds flying in formation outside of a major airshow?
If you’re lucky enough to be around Everett, Wash., it could be a frequent occurrence. The Flying Heritage Collection located at Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field (PAE) regularly puts its planes in the sky on Fly Free Days.
Each Fly Day has a theme. The one I attended on Aug. 25 was Battle of Britain Day. Two Spitfires and a Hawker Hurricane graced the skies. One of the Spitfires came from the Historic Flight Foundation, an aviation collection located across the runway from the FHC.
According to Adrian Hunt, executive director of the FHC, they often pair up with other museums that have airworthy collections.
The museum allows private airplanes to fly in for the event. Flying in to PAE for the event is a nice change of pace from the usual $100 hamburger flight. I made the trip with Justin Boyd, grandson of my mentor Dean Boyd. Justin is finishing his private pilot certificate, so the trip to Paine Field north of Seattle provided him with a cross-country flight and a change to practice at a towered airport with multiple runways.
If you go to PAE for a Free Fly Day, make sure you call the FHC in advance to let them know you are coming. You should also familiarize yourself with the airport approach procedures and airport diagram, and be ready to ask for a progressive taxi.
The airport has one of the larger Boeing facilities and is always busy. The taxi to the FHC is enjoyable in itself because you may find yourself taxiing through a forest of Boeing jets in various stages of construction.
The day of the Battle of Britain Fly Day, the crosswind runway was closed to traffic so that it could be used to park Boeing jets. Large lighted Xs blocked access to the runway, so Justin dutifully stopped at the runway intersection and called the tower for permission to cross. Even after we got permission, he taxied slowly, like a mine sweeper in troubled waters, with his head on a swivel. We found parking adjacent to the FHC. A volunteer from the FHC brought us chocks for our tires.
The FHC occupies a 1940s-era structure that was once used by Alaska Airlines as a maintenance facility. There is no charge to remain outside the museum and wait for the airplanes to make their appearance on Free Fly Days, but you will probably want to go inside and see the collection. An adult ticket is $12, tickets for kids 6-15 are $8 and kids 5 and under are free.
The FHC has aircraft from the major combatants of World War II. “We have an unsurpassed collection,” Hunt said. “No one else has the spectrum we have from all the major combatants of World War II. We have Japanese, Russian, British, German, and American planes. We have a P-51 Mustang, a British Spitfire, Japanese Zero, and a Soviet IL-2 Shturmovik.”
The airplanes are housed in pens made of mobile barricades. Beneath each airplane is an oil drip pan, because these are flying airplanes. The floor is painted white and kept meticulously clean. Along the walls are pictorial timelines of the war for each nation.
At noon the featured airplanes were started up and taxied to the runway. Gates were opened to allow the several hundred visitors access to folding chairs placed along the runway.
The FHC always sets aside seating for honored guests, who are often of the same vintage as the airplanes on display. Some show up in their old uniforms, their eyes growing misty with memories as they watch the airplanes slice through the skies.
“It’s very moving to see the veterans here,” said Hunt. “We have docents who flew in World War II, their tours are amazing. In addition, we have a Polish Spitfire pilot here today. He escaped from Poland and made it to England and flew with the RAF.”
The Free Fly Days are narrated by FHC Curator Cory Graff, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the aircraft in the collection. The events are part illustrated lecture, part aerial demonstration harkening back to a time when entire families went to the aerodrome to watch Air Meets — sort of a flying precursor to NASCAR.
You won’t see planes from the Flying Heritage Collection anywhere else.
“We are very careful about our airplanes,” said Hunt. “They never go very far. You will never see them at Oshkosh or any of the big airshows, they stay in western Washington.”
“We restore them immaculately — every wire, every bolt is perfect in these airplanes and so we have a fine balance between sharing them with the public and keeping them preserved, so we don’t fly them very far,” he continued. “If you want to see them you have to come to Paine Field.”