Every summer, Bob and I go on tour with the CAF Airbase Arizona B-25 “Maid in the Shade.” Bob serves as a flight crew chief, and I contribute as a ride coordinator and flight loadmaster. Each tour takes us to various places across the country and even into Canada. This year took Bob to Indiana and Illinois and both of us to Missouri and Oklahoma. But we spent most of our time in Missouri.
On every B-25 tour, we work long hours to fulfill the Commemorative Air Force mission to honor, educate, and inspire. When the plane is on the ground, we’re open for tours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the weekends, we sell rides in the plane in the mornings and then open for static tours on the ground after, again until 6 p.m.
It’s a rewarding, completely volunteer effort, and we’re honored to be part of it. This year’s tour brought us many firsts.
While flying weekend passenger rides in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Bob and the two pilots spotted a locomotive from the air that caught their attention. The B-25 was built to take out trains and other forms of transportation. In fact, our plane flew 15 bombing missions during WWII, and most of them were to destroy railroad bridges.
Upon landing the last passenger flight for that day, Bob and the two pilots hopped into a vehicle and drove off to find the train they had seen. It turned out the Union Pacific Railroad’s Big Boy No. 4014, the world’s largest and most powerful steam locomotive, was on tour through 10 states, and we happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The WWII era steam train was one of 25 that could carry up to 56,000 pounds of coal and cruise at up to 80 mph. Starting in 2016, after 55 years of lying dormant, No. 4014 underwent a three-year restoration, including converting it from a steam engine to burn No. 5 fuel oil. Today, it’s the only operational Big Boy left.
Amusement Park-Size Store
Because of our busy tour schedule, we don’t get a lot of time off. We were blessed to have a window of opportunity to do a little exploring in Springfield, Missouri, the home of Bass Pro Shops. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the “Granddaddy of All Outdoor Stores,” which houses three museums and a whole lot more — and is in an expansive complex that also includes the Bass Pro Shops Catalog Outlet store.
One museum is dedicated to the humble beginnings of the enterprise giant. Another is a rifle museum. But the most prominent is the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, which features 35,000 live fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds and is said to be larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
We wanted to tour the wildlife museum but didn’t have the three to fours needed to do it justice, so we’ll have to go back another time with Gulliver and Tagalong when we can explore Branson too.
If you want a truly unique experience in Springfield, you’ll want to head to Lambert’s Cafe. Known as the “home of throwed rolls,” the restaurant provides a rustic experience in a fun atmosphere. Wait staff walk up and down the aisles between tables to dump a spoonful of fried okra on a napkin for you to enjoy. A roll tosser flings hot rolls at anyone who wants them. All you have to do is catch them.
Once you order and receive your food, more wait staff traverse the aisles to deliver pass-arounds of fried potatoes, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, and other additions to your plate. Lambert’s motto is “Come hungry, leave full & hopefully have a laugh or two,” and they mean it. We and the rest of our B-25 crew certainly left full.
In addition to those extraordinary encounters, we had our first evening flight on the B-25 as we had to dodge bad weather in Cape Girardeau and Springfield. That led to another first: seeing a rainbow from the air.
A torrential rainstorm in Springfield trapped us and the rest of the crew in the B-25 trailer, still another first. Fortunately, the guys had secured rain covers on the aircraft just in time. After about a half hour, we were able to escape our shelter and head to our hotel for the evening.
Our favorite experience, and the main reason we do what we do with the B-25, was a visit from a WWII veteran who said seeing our plane was “the best day of my life.” Ruben Olson was a heavy equipment mechanic on B-24 Liberators from 1943 to 1945 and gladly shared about his experiences. You’d never guess he’s 96 if you saw him dash up the ladders to see inside the B-25. We’re not sure who was more honored by the encounter: Olson or our crew.
This is the travel blog of Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong. We live on the road full time, enjoying all the adventures that come our way.