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Show thrills crowd with aerial feats

August 23, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

FREDERICK, Md. - Thousands of spectators craned their necks skyward Saturday afternoon as an F-16 jet fighter roared from the ground to become seconds later a dot in the sky three miles above Frederick Municipal Airport.

The modern fighter didn't fit in with the ancient planes of the Confederate Air Force at its Wings of Freedom Air Show underway this weekend at the airport. The gates open today at 8 a.m.

Most planes lining the runway were - by comparison to the sleek jet - slow, hulking World War II fighters and bombers, a flying museum of ancient hardware that served as examples of living history.

There were B-17 and B-25 bombers, sleek Mustang fighters and squat Navy dive bombers, along with restored and reproduction German and Japanese planes.

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Many of the pilots in the mock dogfights and bombing runs weren't even born when planes like the ones they flew in the air show were doing their fatal work over Europe and the vast Pacific Ocean during World War II.

Their re-enactments thrilled the crowd as much as seeing the planes up close on the ground. Dozens of old vets, who flew the planes in combat, milled around and swapped stories of their own exploits. Several of the larger planes were open for tours.

A highlight of this year's air show was the contribution that WASPs made for the war effort. WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilots, was a cadre of about 1,100 female pilots who flew military planes on stateside missions to free up men for combat duty overseas.

Spectators can visit four former WASP members at a booth in a hangar to the right of the air show entrance.

Shutsy Reynolds, 76, of Connellsville in western Pennsylvania is one of them.

"I joined in 1943, one of the lucky ones," Reynolds said Saturday. About 25,000 women applied for the duty. Only 1,830, all of whom had previous flight experience, were accepted, and only about 1,100 of them graduated from the seven-month training program, she said.

"It was exciting, a real rush," she said. "I was 21 years old. I tried to get checked out on any kind of plane that came on the base."

WASPs flew more than 60 million miles in nearly every plane in the military arsenal, from small trainers to giant B-29 Superfortresses.

The women flew new planes from the factories to ports, from which the planes were sent to the front lines. They towed target sleeves for gunnery practice, flew mail and transported troops and equipment and made test flights.

Thirty-eight WASPs died in the line of duty.

The unit was disbanded in December of 1944 when male pilots began returning from the European Theater, Reynolds said.

The decades have taken their toll on the survivors. "There are only about 600 of us left," Reynolds said.

Because WASPs were considered civilian pilots flying for the military, they weren't given the recognition or the GI Bill of Rights benefits that men received for their wartime service.

Congress passed a bill in 1979 to correct the injustice. WASPs could then get free medical treatment at VA hospitals and have their coffins draped with an American flag.

"I'll never go to a VA hospital, but I'm proud of my service. I want that flag," Reynolds said.

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