Warbirds to thunder over Washington in VE Day flyover

Culpeper (United States) (AFP) - The unmistakable roar of American warplanes that helped the Allies win World War II will thunder over Washington on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat.

From 12:10 pm (1610 GMT), for 45 minutes, 56 restored "warbirds" will fly in formation down the Potomac River, past the Lincoln Memorial and over the National Mall, the nation's symbolic front lawn.

Up to 10,000 people are expected to watch the spectacle -- including 300 to 500 of the last surviving veterans of the 1939-45 conflict that the United States entered in December 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The world's only flying B-29 bomber, similar to those that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is among the participating aircraft, which also include nearly a dozen types of fighters including the P-51 Mustang, a posse of naval dive bombers, training planes and a Catalina flying boat.

It took months to plan the flyover -- and to get permission from a security-obsessed US government to fly through what has been, since the 9/11 attacks, a virtual no-fly zone.

- Big effort -

"You can only imagine what it took to pull this together," said Steve Brown, CEO of the Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit that restores, maintains and flies 162 vintage warplanes across the United States.

"We're pulling off what we consider to be a minor miracle," he said at rural Culpeper airport, southwest of Washington, a staging post for Friday's carefully choreographed VE Day event.

Arsenal of Democracy takes its name from wartime president Franklin Roosevelt's description of America as an industrial powerhouse with the muscle and know-how to turn the tide of war.

All the aircraft, bar a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber with a brake fault, took to the Virginia skies Thursday to rehearse formation flying and sort out last-minute communication issues.

Back on the ground, volunteers in period coveralls painted black-and-white stripes onto a dark C-53 Skytrooper in a nod to the transporters from which US paratroopers jumped into France on D-Day in 1944.

Overhead, the B-29 bomber, which goes by the name Fifi, fly by at 500 feet, a lumbering presence amid a speedy triplet of Mustangs.

- Flew last mission -

Taking it all in was Jerry Yellin, 91, who as a Mustang pilot flew in the last US air combat mission of the war, on August 14, 1945, strafing a Japanese air base outside Tokyo.

"When we got back to Iwo Jima, we found out that while we had been strafing, the war had been over for three hours," said Yellin, looking sharp in his US Army Air Corps captain's uniform.

So complex is the flyover that Washington's Reagan National Airport, across the Potomac from the National Mall, will suspend operations for an hour to enable it to proceed in safety.

"From a pilot's perspective, it's very scripted," said Dan Gleason in the cockpit of a second C-47 that spent much of its post-war life doing missionary work in Colombia before its restoration as a staff plane for high-ranking officers.

"Each flight crew is going to be really tuned in on getting their airplane in the air at the right time, in the right airspace, in the right configuration -- all the time looking out for other aircraft in the air," he told AFP.

The flyover will roughly follow the same route over the Mall used in mid-April by a Florida postal worker who slipped undetected into Washington airspace and landed a one-seat gyrocopter outside the Capitol, where he was arrested.

By coincidence, that pilot, Doug Hughes, is to appear in US District Court later Friday for a preliminary hearing on charges that include violating national defense airspace.