South Charlotte

Tinker Belle headed back to airways

The Curtiss-Wright C-46 Commando sitting at the Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport has 11 camels painted beneath its name.

Each camel represents a successful trip the World War II transport plane made over "the hump" of the Himalayas after the Japanese closed the Burma Road.

The plane's presence on the Monroe tarmac also represents a successful trip.

If the Monroe-based nonprofit Warriors & Warbirds Inc. hadn't rescued it from the Texas elements that had been assaulting it for nearly a decade, it likely would have been destined for the scrap heap, said Bob Russell, one of the organization's founders.

The plane is back in flying shape. It's the only one in the United States that can fly, Russell said, though more renovations are planned.

The Tinker Belle, named after Tinker Air Force Base, is the latest victory for Warriors & Warbirds Inc. and its supporters, which include the City of Monroe and the Veterans Council of Union County.

The organization was founded six years ago, after Russell and fellow pilot Bob Yanacsek "talked about our feeling that there was not enough being done to honor veterans," Russell said.

"We decided to have a hangar dance like they did in the '40s," he said, adding that they chose to hold the event in November, near Veteran's Day.

They hired a swing band, cooked hot dogs and hosted about 250 people.

The next year, they added a fly-in with vintage planes, followed by another hangar dance. That year, about 10,000 people attended, he said.

Every year, they added attractions. And every year, the number of attendees ballooned. Last November, an estimated 70,000 came, he said.

"The reason we started Warriors & Warbirds was to honor veterans and make people aware of their sacrifices, to educate young people and to encourage young people to (get involved) in aviation," he said.

In addition to the annual Warrior & Warbirds air show, educational programs and hangar dances, the nonprofit sponsors other events.

Earlier this month, it held a World War II-style variety show at its hangar, and then took the show on the road to the Veterans Hospital in Salisbury. "I hope eventually, we'll have a museum," he said.

All the money that is raised goes to programs and expenses. "Nobody in Warriors & Warbirds gets a penny," he said.

Russell, 67, said he's always been interested in aviation. He got his pilot's license in 1978.

He served in the U.S. Army, then the Air National Guard.

The Duke Power retiree also has worked part-time at the Monroe airport since 1978.

The job makes it more convenient for him to check on The Tinker Belle, as well as a Focke Wulf 246 that he and Yanacsek keep in the Warriors & Warbirds hangar.

The Focke Wulf "was used after the second World War to train the West German Air Force," he said. "It was used as a primary trainer."

He said he bought it "sight-unseen," and found it to have the equivalent of "five 5-gallon buckets of acorns in its belly," thanks to an enterprising squirrel. He said he spent 14 years renovating it. He and Yanacsek use it for air shows.

When the Curtiss-Wright C-46 gets its authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, it also will be flown to air shows.

But it won't go in the hangar.

"It's the biggest airplane here," Russell said, adding that it burns fuel at the rate of 170 gallons an hour. "It won't fit in any of the hangars..."

He expects the FAA's paperwork to arrive soon, permitting the plane to fly.

"Be looking in the sky," Russell said. "We might start next week."