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Blue Angels: WWII veterans to relive past glories on vintage aircraft

A World War II-era Stearman aircraft in the air above Pensacola beach. (Christopher Harress)

Six months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Carey Hardin’s blue and yellow Stearman biplane rolled off an assembly line in Wichita, Kansas. Hardin hadn’t been born yet and it would be nearly 70 years before he would ever set eyes on his now beloved aircraft.

After training thousands of pilots heading to World War II, serving in Florida and New York, and finally in Decatur, Alabama, Hardin’s Stearman, like many after the war, was auctioned off to a farmer and converted into a crop duster. That was 1946. Within six weeks, the Stearman had crashed and was placed into storage, where it would remain for more than 60 years.

But life has a funny way of coming full circle. Since being salvaged in 2007 and later being bought by Hardin, 64, the Stearman has found a new lease of life. As part of the Blue Angels show in Pensacola Saturday and Sunday, around 11 Stearman aircraft will fly dozens of men and women that trained on and maintained the aircraft during World War II.

“I have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices that these veterans made for us long before many of us were born,” said Hardin of Stakville, Mississippi during a demonstration flight at Pensacola Airport Thursday. “For many of them this will be the first time in decades that they have sat inside the aircraft and for a lot of them it might be the last time.”

Many of the veterans are well into their 90s and some over 100 years old, added Hardin. “I let them take control of the aircraft during the flight, and you can tell their training kicks in immediately, even after all these years.”

The program of flying veterans was first established by Pensacola attorney Roy Kinsey, who first started flying veterans over the beach in 2011. Since then he has recruited Stearman owners from all across the country to join him. Last year, 10 Stearman flew 24 World War II pilots over the weekend.

“We owe them a lot,” said Kinsey. “They gave so much of their lives while many of us were in college chasing women and drinking beer. This is a thank you to them and an effort to educate fellow Americans about the past.”

More than 10,000 Stearman aircraft were produced in Wichita since 1934, many being used as training aircraft for U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) and the U.S. Navy pilots about to enter the World War II. Back then each aircraft came in at about $11,000. Today, a refurbished Stearman might cost in the region of $130,000.

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