COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – Frank Royal’s Air Force took off at 1:38 p.m.
A vintage aircraft clawed through the air followed by two chase planes, one carrying the 101-year-old pilot.
The last plane in the formation brought a tear to Royal’s eye. Its sleek lines still raise his pulse. He can hear the thrum of its twin engines without his hearing aids – World War II ingrained the 24-cylinder symphony permanently in his mind.
He has good reason to remember the details. That very plane, a fully restored P-38 Lightning named White-33, was Royal’s first love.
And he flew over Colorado Springs to tell her goodbye.
“I’m 101 and three-quarters,” Royal said after returning to the ground at the Colorado Springs Airport to the applause of family and admirers. “As of (earlier this month), I went under hospice care. It’s kind of a special day.”
Don’t feel sorry for Frank Royal. He’s not afraid of death. He calls that journey his real “final flight.”
Like a good pilot, Royal has a lengthy checklist of people to see and things to do. And seeing that P-38 in the air was one of them.
The love affair between Frank and White-33 centers on his service in World War II and a reunion that took place against the longest of odds.
Born in Colorado during World War I and raised near Rocky Ford, Royal was an aspiring physician when he signed up to fly planes for the Army Air Corps.
Frank wished he’d stayed in college when he wound up in the Pacific flying the much-maligned Bell P-39 Airacobra, an odd machine with car-like doors and an engine behind the pilot.
In 1942, while his outfit battled nimble Japanese Zeros, Royal says his life was saved by the latest in American technology when his unit was pulled back to Australia to receive a fleet of new P-38s fresh from the Lockheed factory in California.
“It was a godsend from a pilot’s standpoint,” he said.
His old P-39 had one 1,200-horsepower motor; the P-38 came with two 1,600-horsepower engines. It climbed like a rocket. The P-38 also had four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20 mm cannon mounted right in the nose.
“It had two engines,” Royal said. “It had good guns center-mounted.”
That horsepower and firepower gave Royal and his comrades the first plane that could really tangle with the Japanese – he got one kill and two “probables.”
“It flew like a Cadillac while the Airacobra flew more like a Ford,” said Royal, who twice earned the Silver Star for heroism over the Pacific.
But the wartime love affair had to end.
Royal wound up in the Pentagon planning air campaigns, and his beloved plane wound up in a scrap pit in the jungles of New Guinea, where the military put planes too worn out to haul home.
Royal came to Colorado Springs after his Air Force career and settled down with a wife he married during the Pentagon stint. They raised five kids.
The coincidence that brought White-33 to Colorado Springs came thanks to Bill Klaers, who runs Westpac Restorations and the National Museum of World War II Aviation off Powers Boulevard on Aviation Way.
Klaers heard of the wreckage found in the New Guinea jungle and snapped it up. Westpac is America’s most renowned firm for restoring World War II wreckage into flying planes.
Klaers and his team took the junked plane from the jungle dirt and into his hangar where craftsmen painstakingly replaced every missing or rotted piece.
“It’s not going to a wax museum,” Klaers said. “It’s going to a flying museum.”
Luck and fate intervened to reunite pilot and plane – Royal came to visit Westpac last year and told Klaers he had flown P-38s in the Pacific. After talking, the two realized that Royal had actually flown the plane Westpac was restoring.
“That’s the thrill of this,” said Jim Slattery, the plane collector who paid for White-33’s rebuild. “Frank was the happiest thing to happen to this whole project.”
Royal frequently visited the shop to check on White-33’s restoration.
Family members say he seems younger when he’s near his warbird. The centenarian’s eyes light up as 75-year-old memories flood back, said his son, Randy Royal, a Colorado Springs firefighter.
Waiting months for White-33’s restoration made Frank Royal defy old age.
“It’s awesome,” the younger Royal said. “We know it has fueled him to stay around.”
Royal lifted off, undeterred by turbulence that buffeted him in the cabin of a Cessna. He watched White-33 lance through the sky, its engines running strong as it passed his chase plane.
“Mentally, I was flying it,” he said.