By Bob Shane
For Jack Fedor, aviation has always been a focus. A successful Illinois businessman, Fedor used Cessna 414s and 340s for his company’s travel needs. His aircraft were based in a hangar located in Aurora, Ill. By coincidence or fate, the hangar was also home to a World War II North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. A group of aviation enthusiasts, who called themselves the “Weary Warrior Squadron,” owned the plane.
From the time Fedor was a child, he had a passion for B-25s. Consequently, four years ago, with the support of his wife, Fedor joined the Weary Warrior Squadron, and became part owner of a B-25.
During the warm summer months, the Weary Warriors took the warbird to air shows, and for a sizeable donation, offered rides to the public. The winters were too cold for it to fly, so the B-25 spent the season idle, tucked away in the hangar until spring.
In 2005, Fedor relocated, fleeing the frigid winters of Illinois for the more temperate climate of Fountain Hills, Ariz. Fedor entertained the possibility of basing the B-25 in Arizona, when it was too cold to fly in the Midwest, and discussed the idea with airport personnel at Falcon Field in Mesa, Ariz. From the airport crew, Fedor learned about Anzio Landing Italian Restaurant, an aviation-themed restaurant on the field, named after an Italian seaside resort.
Located 33 miles from Rome, Anzio was where the Allied forces invaded Italy during World War II. Anzio Landing’s interior décor has the atmosphere of an old Italian villa, with numerous displays of aeronautical memorabilia throughout the various dining areas. Behind the restaurant is a city ramp where pilots can fly in, tie down their aircraft and have a quick lunch in the restaurant’s café or experience fine dining in the main dining room.
After dining at Anzio Landing, Fedor met the restaurant’s owner, Rick Cutshall. Fedor related his hope to bring the B-25 to Arizona. Cutshall liked the idea, and they formed a marketing pact that could benefit both a B-25 ride program and the restaurant’s business.
The B-25 would be based on the city ramp behind Anzio’s, where it would enjoy high visibility. Restaurant guests could dine to the rare sounds of a B-25 starting its engines and taking off right outside the windows. This could be a unique dining experience.
After plans were finalized, the B-25 was moved to Arizona. It wasn’t unusual to see cars pass by the restaurant, put on the brakes and then make U-turns, as people decided to check out the B-25, easily observed from Higley Road.
A special Mitchell bomber
The Weary Warriors spent 10 years restoring the B-25, at an estimated cost of $400,000. It’s the only airworthy “H” model in the world.
Manufactured in Englewood, Calif., in 1943, it was the #2 prototype of the “H” model, of which 1,000 were built. This particular B-25 served stateside until 1947, when the government sold it to the Bendix Corporation. Bendix used it for 10 years as a test aircraft, in the development of new jet fighter landing gear systems.
After Bendix, the aircraft had various owners. In 1969, it ended up on the auction block. An Illinois farmer placed the winning bid of $3,500, and flew it to his farm in Plainfield where, according to Fedor, “the B-25 was relegated to a sandbox toy.”
Ten years later, a dedicated and adventurous band of aviation enthusiasts discovered the bomber and were eager to bring the derelict piece of history back to life. The Weary Warrior Squadron bought the B-25H, and after two engine failures, was able to finally fly the bomber off the farm in 1981.
The group named the bomber Barbie III, after a similar cannon-nosed H model that had been assigned to the 1st Air Commando Group and had seen action in India and Burma. Jerry Macomber, who painted the aircraft identically to the original Barbie III, has been a Weary Warriors for 18 years. He lives in Mesa, and is a regular member of the flight crew.
Living the dream
Today, Fedor is living his dream, as a pilot of a B-25.
“It’s a lifetime dream that fell in my lap,” he said. “Many feel that this must be an ego trip. No ego, just a lot of hard work, with the reward being all of the interesting people I meet.”
It costs roughly $2,300 an hour to fly the bomber, and insurance is nearly $30,000 year. The cost of a new engine is more than $70,000. The Warbirds Unlimited Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit educational foundation, was established to help with costs. Donations are tax deductible, and every penny taken in goes back to the airplane. It’s an all-volunteer show, with no paid staff.
Since 1991, the Weary Warriors, and now the Warbirds Unlimited Foundation, have been providing the public with the opportunity to experience what it was like to fly in a rare WWII bomber. Offering rides and selling souvenirs help sustain the operation. The group schedules rides during the week and most weekends.
The B-25 can accommodate six passengers plus the flight crew. Passengers spend a total of about 45 minutes aboard the airplane, with 30 minutes of actual flight time. The typical flight pattern passes over the cities of Fountain Hills, Carefree and Rio Verde, Ariz. Points of interest include Bartlett Dam and Weaver’s Needle.
Recalling the past
People take the flights for various reasons. Some see it as an opportunity to relive an experience or connect with the past. Often, a ride is given as a gift. Such was the case for Charlotte Wiehrdt, celebrating her 90th birthday in January 2007. Several of her 36 grandchildren bought a ride for her.
Before departing on Dec. 9, Wiehrdt informed the crew that she wanted a photo taken of her, sitting in the cockpit. Before Fedor and his crew could figure out how to get her into the cockpit, the 89-year-old had already climbed the ladder to the flight deck.
This was Wiehrdt’s second B-25 flight. She took her first ride in Italy in 1945. During WWII, Wiehrdt was an air evac nurse, stationed outside of Rome. Her husband, Major Leonard I. Wiehrdt, a P-47 pilot, was commander of the 522nd Fighter Squadron, also based in Italy. The couple was given a three-day leave to the Riviera. The major flew the squadron’s B-25 to pick her up, along with five hitchhikers also going to Cannes for leave.
Wiehrdt recalls something her husband told the flight crew.
“A couple of ladies are on board, and you’d better watch your language,” she recalled him saying.
Following the takeoff, the major wanted to take pictures of the Leaning Tower of Pisa as they flew over it. He asked his wife, who was sitting behind him, to reach over the back of his seat and take the controls while he took pictures out of the side window.
The passengers were enjoying a picturesque small village on the beach, at the border between Italy and France, believing the Germans had retreated beyond that point. Suddenly, puffs of smoke exploded around the aircraft. The left rudder cable had been severed, and the crew had difficulty keeping the B-25 under control. No one knew the extent of the damage. The major took evasive action by flying low over the sea. When the props started hitting the water, he pulled up slightly.
When they finally prepared to land at the Riviera, the landing gear wouldn’t come down. The crew was finally able to get it down and locked into position. The B-25 then tried to land, but couldn’t due to C-47s in the pattern. The major got on the radio.
“If one more damn C-47 cuts me off, I’m going to run this B-25 right up his ass,” he barked.
The bomber finally landed and Charlotte Wiehrdt’s first ride in a B-25 concluded without further incident. Her grandchildren bought her the second flight in memory of their grandfather, Col. Leonard I. Wiehrdt, who crashed in Laos in 1972, while flying for Air America. After that flight, she commented on something that had escaped her.
“I forgot how noisy the B-25 was,” she said.
Fedor enjoys the opportunity to meet people like Wiehrdt, as he offers the public the opportunity to take a flight back into history.
Aviation, World War II and fine Italian dining
Rex Griswold designed and built Anzio Landing. A graduate of Cornell’s hospitality program, Griswold went to work for the Olive Garden restaurant chain. Helping the company expand from three to one hundred restaurants, he had to relocate every six months. He was tired of moving and decided to open his own restaurant. The eatery, featuring Italian and Mediterranean-style food, opened in April of 1989. Anzio Landing has received numerous awards, and Phoenix Magazine recognized it as one of the Valley’s best restaurants for 2006.
Griswold’s father, W.T. Griswold, flew with the American Volunteer Group in China. In the restaurant’s “Flying Tiger Room,” a display case shows his father’s uniform and medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Silver Star. A blood chit is also on display. Members of the AVG carried the notice, printed in Chinese, which informed the locals, “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue, protect and provide him medical care.” Chiang Kai-shek signed the blood chit.
Throughout the restaurant are autographed pictures of WWII aces, many of whom have eaten there, including Chuck Yeager. A veteran B-24 pilot noticed a large mural of a B-24 Liberator displayed at the restaurant. Now, a group of B-24 pilots have started holding their annual reunions at Anzio’s.
The convenience of being able to fly in and park at the door of the restaurant, as well as the allure of a gourmet dining experience, has attracted celebrity patrons over the years. Larry Hagman, from the TV series “Dallas,” and Robert Lansing, from the TV series “Twelve O’clock High,” have dined at Anzio’s.
Griswold, now a member of the Mesa City Council, sold Anzio Landing two years ago, to Rich Cutshall. Cutshall has continued the tradition of combining a love of aviation, World War II and Italian food. His introduction of the café dining luncheon menu reads like a guide to WWII aircraft. The Mustang is a chicken Caesar wrap, the Spitfire is a turkey club wrap, the Flying Fortress is a meatball sandwich and the Super Fortress is an Italian sausage sandwich. The Anzio Bomber is an Italian cold-cut sandwich, and The Mitchell Light Bomber is a chicken Philly sandwich.
Quality cuisine, served on white linen tablecloths, remains the standard at the restaurant. The fine dining menu includes a number of signature dishes, some of which would be hard to find anywhere in Phoenix. They include crispy fried spinach and flaming desserts like Anzio Landing bread pudding and crème brulee.
Cutshall has also brought back a popular murder mystery dinner show. “Murder at Anzio Landing” will be performed every Thursday evening, beginning January 18.
Cutshall enjoys giving back to the community. This past December, Anzio Landing participated in the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program. The restaurant offered a free meal to any child who brought in a toy donation. In addition, the children got to visit with Santa, who arrived at the restaurant via Barbie III.
The association between the Warbirds Unlimited Foundation and Anzio Landing has become a viable marketing arrangement. It’s benefited the restaurant and helps keep the B-25H flying.
More information on Anzio Landing can be found at [http://www.anziolanding.com]. For more information regarding B-25 rides, making donations or the volunteer program, call 480-272-3480 or 800-357-6561.