When volunteers with the Commemorative Air Force saw the last-known PBJ-1J Mitchell, they made it their mission to restore the 1945 Navy version of the B-25 that served almost exclusively with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
After a 23-year restoration supported by nearly $1 million in donations, the PBJ is airworthy — and is now considered the prized mother ship at the CAF Southern California Wing Aviation Museum at the Camarillo Airport.
“It’s more than an airplane — it’s got a heartbeat for a lot of us,” said Dan Newcomb of Simi Valley, a training officer with CAF who voluntarily spent more than 13 years refurbishing the plane.
The first time he saw the PBJ, “My heart sank. It was just in such terrible condition. To take that thing and turn it into something so beautiful … we’ve been dreaming for years about this. Finally that dream has come true — it’s almost unbelievable.”
In the last 23 years, four crew members who helped restore the PBJ have passed away.
“Our membership here averages 75 years old, so over the course of the years, some of these guys have passed,” Newcomb said. “So some of the parts on this airplane were rendered by hands that have been dead for years.”
On Aug. 20 and 21, the PBJ will be flown during the Wings Over Camarillo Air Show.
“Only one or two are left — let alone flying,” said Linda Ehrlich, marketing director for the CAF.
“We try to have a wide variety of aircraft to inspire future generations and that’s the whole purpose of the CAF,” Ehrlich said. “It’s an aging population and we’re trying to bring more young people here to get involved in it because when they get older, hopefully they’ll be coming here and helping. Young kids, girls and boys … it’s exciting to see them out here wanting to work on the airplanes. It starts when they’re young and they’re introduced to the airplanes out here.”
The PBJ “is in beautiful condition and it will be flying in the air show this year,” Newcomb said. “We are so excited about showing it off for our fans in Ventura County who have been supporting us for all these years. We want to share this airplane with all the people who have been watching the progress.”
The PBJ was acquired by the CAF in the 1990s while it was headquartered in Midland, Texas. At the time, the plane was in such horrible condition, members of CAF were unsure if she’d ever be airworthy.
“We flew a crew out there to survey the airplane, and when they got out there they started seeing severe corrosion in the wing areas and said, ‘We can’t fly this thing with this wing,’ ” Newcomb recalled. “So we wound up borrowing a wing from a guy who restores war birds. He had a spare wing that we loaded up in another transport airplane and flew the thing to Texas, swapped the wings out, then flew the airplane to Camarillo in 1993.”
Once the CAF members started surveying the airplane, they realized what they were in for.
“It was just severely corroded; it needed major restoration and it was so expensive,” Newcomb said. “Had we known beforehand, we probably wouldn’t have accepted the airplane.”
Newcomb became involved in the PBJ’s restoration in 2002 and said, “At the time, it was just a collection of parts stacked against the wall. There were no engines, no tail, no nose. It was stuffed back in a hangar where there were two to three guys working on it, but the progress was slow. Most thought the airplane would never fly.”
PBJ-1J Semper Fi
The PBJ-1J version of the B-25 “is the most ambitious project that the Southern California Wing has ever undertaken,” according to Marc Russell, team leader of the PBJ-1J restoration team.
The B-25/ PBJ family of aircraft constitutes some of the most recognized bomber aircraft from the WWII era, Russell noted in his restoration history about the PBJ.
“The twin-engine, twin-tailed aircraft is most famous from the Doolittle Raid that took place on April 18, 1942, where 16 B-25 aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet and bombed Japan, proving that we could take the war to the enemy.”
Production of the Mitchell ran from 1939 through 1945, with nearly 10,000 produced. Model designations went from B25A through B-25J, and included basic bomber, gun ship and a version that mounted a 75 mm cannon in the nose. Other armament included up to 14 machine guns, not to mention a normal payload of 5,000 pounds of bombs.
“Unfortunately, there are only about 35 flying examples of this aircraft remaining, and ours is the only true PBJ still in existence,” Russell noted.
Nuts and bolts
Slowly, over the years, the PBJ started coming together.
“Most of it was sheet-metal work,” Newcomb said. “We kept replacing sheet metal and replacing parts and building new parts.”
The restoration crew knew the effort would be costly, including initial estimates of at least $60,000 for each engine in need of an entire overhaul. Propellers were at least $10,000 each, and the fabrication of new oil tanks was a minimum $7,000. Additionally, there were many other items that needed to be replaced, including stringers, nuts, bolts, cables, wire harnesses, instruments and radios.
Because the PBJ’s home was at the CAF, the public had the opportunity to witness the progress when the static plane was on display during the yearly Wings Over Camarillo Air Show.
“We wanted to demonstrate to people that there was big progress made, but a lot of the work we did was internal and you couldn’t see the connection,” Newcomb said. “So with the air show, about six to eight years ago, we started saying let’s do something … so people can see the progress. So one year we put the nose on, then rolled it out on the hangar so people could look at it. And the next year we put the tail on it.”
For several years, air show attendees saw some progress, “but every year they’d ask us the same question: When is it going to fly?” Newcomb said. “We didn’t have any idea. We didn’t know how we were going to pay for this. We needed new engines and they’re $85,000 apiece. But we wanted to keep the dream alive.”
Buying into the dream
Bob Goubitz, a member of CAF who lives in Agua Dulce, California, donated $12,900 toward the restoration of the PBJ.
“At the time, they needed things like sheet metal and even $500 made a huge difference; but as the airplane neared completion — we’re talking major bucks — we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars for electronics,” said Goubitz. “So my contribution … at the time kept the airplane going, but in the end much more money was needed.”
“And as the airplane approached completion there were people with much deeper pockets that said, ‘Hey, this damn thing is really gonna fly,’ ” Goubitz added. “My contribution was peanuts compared to other people.”
The minimum sponsorship for the PBJ starts at $3,500, Newcomb said.
“So we had several people write us checks. We had other people who, over time, would give us $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 over the years because they believed in what we were doing,” Newcomb said.
“And we’re a nonprofit so everything’s a write-off, so we had hundreds of contributors over the years to keep us going,” Newcomb said. “And then we also had some luck with some equipment manufacturers who said, ‘We’ll let you have this for cost, or we’ll give you some stuff for free.’ It’s wheeling and dealing, selling the dream to people about what we’re gonna do and have people believe in us.”
Commemorative Air Force
The origin of the CAF dates back to 1957, when Lloyd Nolen and four friends purchased a P-51 Mustang, each sharing in the $1,500 cost of the aircraft. With the purchase of the Mustang, known as Red Nose, the group was unofficially founded.
Today, the CAF has over 12,000 members, with more than 70 regional groups, called wings or detachments, in 27 states and four other countries.
The CAF is an all-volunteer organization, and membership is open to men and women ages 18 and up. Those who are 12 years of age or older may join as cadet members. Privately funded and totally self-supporting, the nonprofit, tax-exempt group is dedicated to preserving the military aviation heritage of World War II.
The nonprofit in Camarillo raises money through the Wings Over Camarillo Air Show, as well as by renting out its hangar space for weddings, bar mitzvahs, television commercials and other events.
“CAF is a best-kept secret in Ventura County,” said Newcomb. “We do everything we can to let people know we’re here. We’re a nonprofit — none of us make any money here — and we have this beautiful thing going on.”
“We don’t promote war,” added Newcomb, noting that CAF supports efforts including women in aviation. “Our story isn’t just about war. That’s not what we’re about. It’s about not forgetting those veterans and those who have given their all for the rest of us.”
John Cutright, an Army aviation crew chief who served in Vietnam, worked on the PBJ for four years.
“Nobody had experience on this plane because we were babies when it was made,” said Cutright, 72, of Thousand Oaks, noting that he performed basic maintenance on planes while in the service.
His work on the PBJ started with modifications on the pilot and co-pilot seats.
“There was a modification that was put out in 1954 that had never been made to the plane; they wanted to put different seats in the plane that would withstand 16 G-force in case you crashed so the pilot seats would stay intact,” Cutright explained.
“It involved taking out the other rails and replacing them with these nice new rails that didn’t have any bolt holes,” Cutright said. “It took us quite a while just to realign these rails and put them in the proper place.”
Cutright also helped with riveting on the bomb bay as well as mounting the engines.
“And then all the hookups — you’ve got all these hoses, you’ve got oil lines, fuel lines, and I made up some of the fuel hoses,” Cutright said.
For Russ Babbitt, an Air Force veteran who also worked on the PBJ for four years, “It was just one day at a time.”
“I got hooked up with the guys and we had to work on the flight cables and that’s what makes all the controls work,” said Babbitt, 66, of Thousand Oaks.
The cables operate everything from the nose all the way to the tail.
“We spent a year rigging just the flight cables. In the Air Force I was a hydraulic guy and so I was able to gladly lend my expertise there,” Babbitt said. “So whatever hydraulic thing came up, could be landing gear or flaps, I’d jump in.”
“You learn as you go”
There were days when the crew would work on an issue that remained unresolved.
“Part of our motto is ,the job’s not done until you’ve done it three times,” Babbitt said. “Not necessarily that we didn’t do it right, but we could do it better the second time and we could make it perfect the third time.”
A lot of the structural pieces had to be made by hand, Newcomb said
“And sometimes we had to do things two to three times before we got it right,” Newcomb said. “We’d realize it just doesn’t line up right, and start all over again.”
With some aspects of the restoration, “You learn as you go,” Babbitt said
“I’ve never riveted and you learn that real quick,” Babbitt said. “When I came on four years ago, compared to what work was done in the previous 19 years, the plane was almost done. But there were still a million and one things to do. So many small things, especially as we got close, we’re almost done, except for these million small things.”
Working on the PBJ gave him a greater appreciation of technology in the 1940s.
“They didn’t just throw these things together — they were designed and this thing’s built like a tank,” Babbitt said. “It’s amazing how they figured out all this stuff. But then you stop and think, one day this plane comes off the assembly line, the next day they’re flying it to war, the next day it gets shot down.”
Take a ride
For those interested in flying in the PBJ, “We’ll be selling rides later this year so the public can come out and enjoy flying in a World War II bomber,” Newcomb said. “It’s going to be an asset for this county and for all of our friends and followers. It’s the new mothership here for the CAF. This airplane is the biggest one we operate and we’re able to take 10 people in the air when we fly.
“People pay big bucks — $400 to $500 to ride for 20 minutes,” Babbitt said.
The money generated from the PBJ will directly benefit the CAF and its mission.
“Our whole mission is education and remembrance, and the way we do it is flying the airplanes,” Newcomb said. “It’s one thing to see something sitting in a museum; it’s a whole other ball game to see that thing fire up and feel the ground shake and see it fly. You see kids and adults — their eyes light up.”
“It’s going to be here in Camarillo … and it’s going to be part of this county for many years as long as we can afford,” Newcomb added. “We’re a nonprofit, so as long as we can afford to fly this plane, we’re going to fly it.”