“Flight is the most profound metaphor for pushing our boundaries, reaching beyond ourselves, and freedom. And don’t we ALL . . . fly in our dreams?” — Fantasy of Flight founder Kermit Weeks
I’m 95-percent sure the name Isaac Newton Burchinal, Jr., or Flying Tiger Air Museum, means little to anyone who didn’t know Junior Burchinal, or never visited his small air strip west of Paris, Texas.
In aviation circles however, stories of his flying skills and his “less than museum quality” collection of WW II flying relics are classic. That includes one worth telling about a B-17 bomber visiting the old Mount Pleasant airport in the mid 1970s—although it wasn’t the plane that was supposed to have been there.
A recent interview with Burchinal’s son and grandson on Scott Glover’s Mid America Flight Museum Facebook page stirred memories of that story and of visits to Burchinal’s facility more than 40 years ago.
I.N. Burchinal, Jr. founded Flying Tiger Air Museum in the early 1970s although he bought his first warbird in the 1950s when they were little more than military surplus. Working out of his Northeast Texas crop dusting facility, he collected leftover military planes and fulfilled dreams for anyone wanting to learn to fly them. He also flew as a stunt pilot for Universal Studios along the way. His planes were featured in movies like “The Great Waldo Pepper” and “Midway,” plus the television series, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.”
Flying was a childhood dream for me. It became a dream come true when I soloed in the early 70s, and weekend trips to Flying Tiger field from Mount Pleasant were frequent. Not only were the planes fascinating, but I stood in awe of anyone flying big warbirds off a small asphalt strip, uphill on one end with a fence and highway on the other.
That fascination remained when business took me to Vintage Flying Museum at Meacham Field in Fort Worth about ten years ago, landing me a photo op in the pilot’s seat of a B-25 bomber. Cool stuff for a lifelong hobby pilot flying nothing bigger than a Piper Cherokee. Then discussion a couple of years ago with Frankie Glover while touring the Mid-America Flight Museum in Mount Pleasant revealed that museum’s B-25 was the same one I cross paths with in Fort Worth. Follow that with the aforementioned video interview identifying it as once owned by Junior Burchinal, and it became apparent that the world of old airplanes is small and getting smaller.
I’m also 95-percent sure it was about 1975 when our fledgling Mount Pleasant flying club planned an air show, and I called Burchinal to see if the club could afford one of his planes. Discussing prices and budgets sealed a deal for his B-25 to make the show. But, a late afternoon call on Saturday before Sunday’s show changed that. “Leon, this is Junior Burchinal up here in Paris,” he said. “I’ve got bad news. We’re having problems with the B-25. It won’t make the trip tomorrow.”
My heart was rapidly losing altitude. Visions of, “what now,” spiraled as he continued. “But, if it’s all right with you, we’ll bring the B-17 for the same money.”
“All right,” I stammered, my spirits pulling out of the dive. “Yes sir, that’ll be all right.” He continued to apologize, almost as many times as I thanked him.
Early the next morning with club members scurrying around working on last minute preparation, I heard the huge four-motored bomber coming over Mount Pleasant before I saw it. I watched it make a long straight-in approach to the airport, mesmerized by the sound and the sight in the early morning sunlight. Wheels were just touching pavement when a WW II fighter “Corsair” made a hi-speed pass over the airport, then circled around to land.
Both planes taxied to the ramp. Burchinal climbed out of the single seat fighter, followed by a young lady who appeared literally to unfold and crawl out of a small added seat behind the pilot. He introduced young men embarking from the bomber, introduced the young lady as his daughter, and resumed apologizing for not bringing the B-25. Then added, “But, I brought the Corsair to make up for it.”
I thanked him again noting that I was sorry for his problems with the B-25, but folks at the air show that day got a great deal.
Junior Burchinal’s planes graced Mount Pleasant air shows after that creating memories for many. However, I’m 100-percent sure that in the small world of old airplanes, the story of a B-25 that was a no-show, but eventually found a home in Mount Pleasant, the B-17 that subbed, and memories of the legendary pilot who owned them is one worth telling.
Photo credit: Tom Griffith and Mid-America Flight Museum in Mount Pleasant, Texas (One of the best aviation museums in the country—check it out if you haven’t already)