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Air show flies high at Willow Run Airport

George Hunter
The Detroit News

While thousands looked to the sky Sunday at the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show at Willow Run Airport, a pair of co-workers enjoyed the view from 2,000 feet up.

The air show featured modern aircraft such as L-39C Albatros Jets, flown by France’s Breitling Jet Team, along with a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet — but Jim Queen and Mario Vano came for a 71-year-old Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

Both men’s grandfathers fought in WWII aboard the same model; Queen’s grandfather was killed within a month of flying missions, while Vano’s grandpa was a gunner on one of the planes, which featured 50-caliber machine guns.

The two men, who work side-by-side at Rizzo Environmental Services in Sterling Heights, grinned as the propellers began to whirl, the engine whined and the airplane shook.

“You better be good with your maker when you go up in one of these things,” Queen said as the airplane rumbled down the runway and lifted off.

It was a bumpy half-hour ride, with the plane ascending to 2,000 feet. After takeoff, Vano unstrapped his seat belt to explore the aircraft, while Queen stayed in his seat, snapping pictures of the landscape outside the small windows.

After the plane touched down, Vano uttered a one-word review: “Awesome.”

“We both have ties to this airplane,” Queen added. “This was really cool.”

David Callanan, director of outreach services for the Yankee Air Museum, which restored the B-17, said people often get emotional when they see the airplane.

“I’ve seen WWII vets with tears in their eyes when they see how we take care of the airplane that means the world to them — and that means the world to us,” he said.

Callanan’s grandfather also flew B-17s during WWII. “I’m not a veteran, but this is one way I can honor our veterans,” he said.

The theme of this year’s air show was helicopters, which was a departure from the usual WWII theme, air show director Kevin Walsh said in a news release.

The show, themed “HELOtown USA,” hosted helicopters from around the world, including the Soviet Mi-24 Hind, AH-1 Cobra, CH-47 Chinook and UH-1 Huey.

“We have a unique show in so many ways,” Walsh said in the release. “From the jet team and all of the helicopters to the WWII and modern battle re-enactments.”

The air show is a fundraiser for the Yankee Air Museum. “It costs a lot of money to restore and maintain these old planes,” Callanan said.

ghunter@detroitnews.com