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WWI Airstrip, Replicated In Southwest Ohio, Honors Veterans

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Imagine this - looking up in the air and seeing a dozen World War I biplanes filling the skies.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE PROPELLERS)

R. MARTIN: That was the scene last month in southwest Ohio as those replica airplanes took flight 100 years after the Great War ended to honor the veterans of that war. Renee Wilde of member station WYSO reports.

RENEE WILDE, BYLINE: The drone of the airplane's engines can be heard long before the plane comes into view. Against a blue sky, the distinctive double-winged silhouette of a World War I airplane emerges. The Sopwith Schneider biplane replica banks gently left and then descends onto a grassy runway, where it lands, taxiing to a stop, beside replicas with names like Fokker, Sopwith and Bowers Fly Baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE PROPELLERS)

RUSS TURNER: Ah, the wonderful sound of airplanes.

WILDE: Welcome to Russ Turner's personal airfield. Nestled here in the farmland outside of Jamestown, Ohio, Turner's created an exact replica of a World War I airstrip, just as it would've been in Belgium or France, right down to the 1917 furnishings.

TURNER: Dayton and the surrounding area is really a hotbed for World War I stuff. This little airfield, Aerodrome Les Noyers, which means the walnut grove, is kind of a nice little venue for people that enjoy the history and aviation of the Great War.

WILDE: On this particular day, the Aerodrome is buzzing with replicas of historic airplanes as part of a fly-in that Turner is hosting in conjunction with the League of World War I Aviation Historians. Many of the pilots here are veterans of past wars themselves. Blake Thomas is wearing a tan-colored boonie hat that gives away his former career as an Air Force colonel. He flew an F-15 fighter plane in Desert Storm. It was that experience that got him into the World War I airplanes and their history.

BLAKE THOMAS: When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, there was a group of us that wanted to get together and build World War I airplanes. 'Cause we were all fighter pilots, and we wanted to have our own little fighters 'cause we knew we couldn't afford a World War II airplane.

WILDE: These planes and the airmen that flew them were what eventually became the U.S. Air Force. The pilots who own these replicas take great pride in honoring the history of these aviators who ushered in the Air Force. Painted on the side of Thomas' gunmetal gray Sopwith Schneider is a large white ring with a red, white and blue Uncle Sam hat in the middle of it.

THOMAS: Painted up like it was in World War I. If you see the hat in the ring, that was America's symbol pre-World War, before we entered the war. Once we entered the war, the 94th Squadron has that as their symbol. And the hat is upside down 'cause you threw your hat into the ring, it went upside down.

WILDE: It's easy to get lost in all this aviation eye-candy. But retired Air Force pilot Tom Martin is quick to bring the topic back to the real reason these pilots are here.

TOM MARTIN: What we're doing here, of course, is to honor the World War I guys over at the museum. And we're going to fly off from here today, try to showcase World War I aviation to the public.

WILDE: Russ Turner watches the planes taking off from his airstrip. About a dozen of these planes are now filling the sky above us.

TURNER: That's World War I formation. You just don't see that, not for a hundred years. Not for a hundred years.

WILDE: For NPR News, I'm Renee Wilde. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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