By Ron Kaplan
It has to be precious few individuals whose surprise birthday party can boast of covering the better part of two days, taking place at an airport, attracting a veritable air force of vintage military aircraft, drawing 900 of their closest friends and ending up as a featured news story on CNN.
Paul Tibbets Jr. can certainly be confirmed as one of those precious few, as evidenced by the celebration staged in honor of his 90th birthday in Atlanta, Ga., on February 18-19.
Aviation entrepreneur Pat Epps, of Epps Aviation, located at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, was the mastermind of the tribute. He and Tibbets share February 19 birthdays and had celebrated together several years ago, giving Epps the idea to plan something special for the occasion of General Tibbets’ 90th and his own 71st.
Epps enlisted the help of his staff, friends and associates in planning the party, billed as “Mission: Code Name Bolero 2.” The significance of the name stems from the original early war effort of the USAAF to deliver combat aircraft and crews to Europe via formation flights over the North Atlantic, code-named “Mission Bolero.”
In the summer of 1942, Tibbets was an Air Corps major with the 97th Bomb Group, flying a B-17 on a Bolero mission. His bomber served as the navigational “mother ship,” leading several P-38s on the arduous, hop-scotching route from Goosebay, Labrador, to Prestwick, Scotland, by way of Greenland and Iceland. From Scotland the aircraft joined the burgeoning 8th Air Force among the many allied airfields springing up in the U.K.
“The Bolero 2” brought together several flying examples of the aircraft types that took part in these original missions, including “Glacier Girl,” the P-38 that was recovered from under 265 feet of ice in Greenland. It was one of several Bolero aircraft that together were forced to land on Greenland in 1942, due to bad weather and strong headwinds, becoming known as “The Lost Squadron.”
Epps was instrumental in forming the expeditions that led to locating the squadron and eventually the recovery of one of its P-38s in 1992. Owned by Roy Shoffner and painstakingly restored by his Middlesboro, Ky. crew, “Glacier Girl,” as it is now known, was flown to the event by pilot Steve Hinton.
Among other aircraft present was the “Liberty Belle” B-17, owned and operated by the Liberty Foundation, founded by Don Brooks of Douglas, Ga. He also brought along his C-47, a veteran of D-Day and Market Garden troop drops that served as a support and supply plane for the Greenland expeditions of Epps and his other partners.
The ramp also boasted several other vintage and restored military aircraft, including a Stearman, T-33, C-45s and T-6 trainers, including that of Syd Jones, whose T-6 served as the camera ship for CNN’s air-to-air coverage.
On February 18, Mercury Air Centers hosted a press conference and lunch for the birthday boy, and also several of Tibbets’ original 97th veterans from those early war years in Europe and North Africa, including Orville Splitt, Dick Wiley, Red Horning, Charlie Peach and Dutch .
They had all flown with or served with Tibbets when he led the very first mass daylight bombing raids ever staged by the 8th Air Force against occupied territory, many of those in his B-17, the “Red Gremlin.” Van Kirk was also the navigator on Tibbets’ hand-picked crew that later served with him on the B-29 “Enola Gay,” including its most famous mission of Aug. 6, 1945, when it dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and thus hastened the end of WWII.
The event helped Mercury Air, a national network of over 20 FBOs, proudly dedicate and showcase its newly refurbished corporate headquarters at the airport.
Undoubtedly the main event was on Saturday, February 19, when an afternoon of flying preceded a southern style hangar party for the 900 guests gathered at Epps Aviation to honor Paul Tibbets, one of America’s great aviation heroes.