Keeping a Legacy Alive

BY Skip Maloney

Twice yearly as a nation we pause to commemorate the lives of the men and women whove fought bravely to protect the freedoms of our American way of life. Yet rarely if at all do we pause to commemorate the machines that helped these brave men and women do their jobs.

Wilmingtons George Lancaster owns one of these machines: a twin-engine Douglas A-26 Invader a light attack bomber now known as The Spirit of North Carolina. The plane is parked at Wilmington International Airport (ILM) and from there he takes off for flights over Wrightsville Beach and assorted air shows to help jog our collective memories and keep the history of these airplanes alive. With the help of a fiercely dedicated crew of volunteers Lancaster is not just keeping the plane in the air but helping to preserve its considerable legacy as a highly efficient fighting machine that saw action in three separate wars stretched out over three decades of combat in WWII Korea and Vietnam.

There is among the veterans who flew these machines a clear and discernible loyalty to these inanimate objects. Pilots took off and landed them. Gunners fought from within. Members of assorted ground crews spent hours caring for them. They all talk about these planes in a manner suggesting that the machines are as worthy of commemoration as the human beings who flew them.

“Our main mission in Korea was to interdict the enemy supply lines ” says 82-year-old Korean War veteran “Old Rotten Bill” Cowan of Texas who got his nickname because of his persistent and reportedly single-minded dedication to keeping this particular airplane fresh in our minds a persistence and dedication he has passed on to George Lancaster.

Cowan’s memory remains sharply intact about the 72 missions he flew as a gunner and member of the 13th Bomb Squadron in Korea. Through the auspices of the 13th Bomb Squadron Association which maintains records and a detailed history of the squadron since its initial formation in 1917 Cowan continues to tell his story to any and all who care to listen at a variety of air shows he attends. And if you dont care to listen “Old Rotten Bill” will keep at it until you do.

“Trucks trains and tracks; if it moved wed shoot it. The North Koreans had very little in the way of supplies and they knew that the South Koreans had even less. All their supplies were coming from the north out of Russia and China. They thought they were going to be the big dog in the act and just take over. Damn near did it too ” he says of the mission in Korea. “The people who survived all that still remember that old Invader. All it boils down to is you have a love an affection for that piece of iron because it did its job and brought you home.”

Lancaster’s Legacy

Strangely enough a plane never brought George Lancaster home until eight years ago when he bought the one now sitting at ILM. Born in Lexington North Carolina in 1938 Lancaster demonstrated an early interest in aviation and learned to fly while still in high school. He had an older brother Jack a first lieutenant in the Air Force who might have seen action in North Korea had a training accident in Albuquerque not ended his military career and his life. George was 16 at the time and instead of scaring him away from airplanes it seemed to strengthen his resolve to become a pilot.

“You gotta go where your heart is ” he says “and my heart was in aviation.”

His heart wasnt enough to get him into the Armed Forces however. At the end of the Korean War when Lancaster was eligible to join the Air Force with more pilots than it really knew what to do with had tightened its enlistment criteria and without a college degree George was denied training as a pilot. Eyes on the prize though three years out of high school he went to work as a purser (before they became known as flight attendants) for Piedmont Airlines in 1960. He bought his first airplane three years after that a two-seater 85-horsepower Luscombe similar to the one hed flown while still a student in high school. He traded that for a training plane known as a North American T-6 in 1965 thereby graduating from 85 to 600 horses. He began flying for Piedmont Airlines in 1968.

Through 28 years as a pilot for that airline later flying as USAir he never lost his interest in military aircraft although in the beginning that interest was not tied to preserving its history. Lancaster just wanted to fly bigger airplanes and in the end it enhanced the resume attached to his application to pilot for Piedmont.

“Flying the T-6 was quite an adventure ” he recalls. “There was a lot more work involved flying that airplane more of a challenge too and I was looking for that experience.”

His interest in the historical preservation side of military aviation didnt occur until long after his retirement when in 2000 he bought the A-26 Invader from a museum in Texas and a group of volunteers came forward to help him maintain it. One of those volunteers was historian Scott Lindley of Greensboro who convinced Lancaster to repaint the aircrafts fuselage its current and highly distinctive red and black to commemorate the work of Old Rotten Bills 13th Bomb Squadron. Known then (and to this day) as “The Devils Own Grim Reapers ” the 13th squadron was part of the 3rd Bomb Group of the Fifth Air Force during the Korean War.

“He got me to paint it in those Korean colors ” said Lancaster “and when I started doing air shows with it I realized how important the airplane was in the Korean and Vietnam War.”

A Bit of History

Lancaster’s A-26 one of only 2 200 built is a veteran of 300 bombing missions and has the patched bullet holes to prove it. It was however not a veteran of the Korean War. Built in the spring of 1945 it was built too late to see combat in World War II although others among the 2 200 did see action in the Pacific. Lancasters plane went immediately from the assembly line into a long-term storage depot where in 1950 it became one of 25 Invaders sent by the United States to the lArme de lAir (French Air Force) for use in combating communist aggression in Southeast Asia during the French-Indochina war of the 1950s. The airplane was stationed in Da Nang Saigon and other bases in Southeast Asia names that would become highly familiar to Americans a decade later.

“The timing of this aircraft was unique ” says Lindley still a member of Lancasters volunteer crew. “It came out in the last 9 months of WWII and flew through three conventional wars.

“Its a little-known aircraft ” he adds “not one that comes to mind when you think of those three wars but they did their job well.”

While it was Lindley who finally convinced Lancaster to use his airplane to commemorate the 13th Bomb Squadrons work in Korea it was Old Rotten Bill Cowan who supplied Lindley with the ammunition to do the convincing.

“To the people who flew that airplane it was more than just a hunk of iron ” says Cowan. “It was a love affair and thats what George has got right now; a love affair with that airplane and Im to blame for it. Scott called me and I loaded him up with information.”

Now equipped with that information Lancaster and his crew of volunteers not only offer air show spectators a glimpse of the sight and sound of the A-26 Invader they relay the information itself to any and all who inquire which is just as likely as not to include some colorful tales from Old Rotten Bill himself.

“When you go to an air show ” says Lindley “you’ll see planes just parked with sometimes people selling knick-knacks. We relate the history both in words and photos.

“We don’t hawk T-shirts or keychains ” he adds. “Our thrust on the ground is education. We want these people to be knowledgeable about this airplane and the work that it performed in the service of the 13th Bomb Squadron.”

Like Lancaster Lindley is cognizant and appreciative of the work that the volunteer crew of this aircraft donates to its continued existence and ability to fly.

“Without the people on the ground ” he said “you’ve got nothing but acres of yard art.”

On an early Sunday evening in August of this year The Spirit of North Carolina took off from ILM with a crew of three and four passengers (who contributed funds to its general upkeep for the privilege). At the helm of the aircraft were two men approaching 70 years of age: George Lancaster in the pilot seat and co-pilot Jerry Tate on his right. It had taken the volunteer ground crew the better part of two days to prepare her for the flight. She headed east toward the Atlantic Ocean and a date with a few beach-situated photographers from WBM.

For those accustomed to modern whisper jets which create barely enough noise to drown out your basic MP3 player the sound feel and distinctive roar of twin 2 000-horsepower R-28 Pratt and Whitney radial engines can be a bit disconcerting. So can the flight itself which slips slides banks and accelerates in ways that would scare the living daylights out of your average commercial flight passenger.

Wilmington’s Lisa Wayne the only female passenger on the Sunday flight stood on the tarmac afterwards and reflected on the experience. Her thoughts formed in the belly of the “hunk of iron” as it was flying over Wrightsville Beach were focused intently on the humans at the helm.

“What did you think?” she was asked.

“I think ” she said still a bit breathless “that those are two excellent pilots.”

Yes. And one incredible airplane.

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