What vintage aircraft fly on: Donations, enthusiasm

'Fifi,' the last B-29 still aloft, is just 1 of nearly 160 old planes that members of the Commemorative Air Force keep going.

By Bruce Kennedy Jun 19, 2013 2:14PM

The engines of the B-29 bomber Think your hobbies are expensive? Try keeping up a vintage World War II bomber. Of the thousands of Boeing (BA) B-29 Superfortress aircraft that took part in the war, only one is still in flyable condition.

But "Fifi" is more than an expensive plaything. She makes up the backbone of a fleet of antique aircraft that tour the country as part of a nonprofit, educational association that relies heavily on volunteers and donations to keep flying.

That group, the Commemorative Air Force, was started in Texas in the 1950s by some ex-service pilots, who pooled their funds to buy a P-51 Mustang. (The group's original name, the Confederate Air Force, was changed in 2002.) Since those ragtag beginnings, the CAF has developed into one of largest private air forces in the world, with 156 aircraft in 27 states and about 9,000 members across the country.

According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, the CAF brought in $1.6 million in revenue last year, mostly from donations, membership fees, fundraising events and proceeds from tours and flights. And 95% of that funding was generated by Fifi.

The B-29 is "a huge draw," CAF finance officer Gerald Oliver told the newspaper. "An air show would pay us $12,000 to appear at the show, but they'll get all of that and more by the people who come who want to see her."

About 1,200 air enthusiasts a year pay between $400 and $1,000 for a half-hour ride in Fifi. But those proceeds are offset by the B-29's hugely expensive operating costs -- about $1.5 million last year, with around one-third going toward fuel. It also costs about $10,000 an hour to fly the plane point to point.

With its living, working aircraft, the CAF also faces some unique economic challenges that would never occur with forever-grounded museum pieces. One such hurdle would be an Obama administration budget proposal that includes a $100-per-flight user fee for general aviation (GA) aircraft.

Last year the CAF joined with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and other aviation organizations to oppose the proposal. "Imposing user fees on GA could not only impact our economy," said CAF president and CEO Stephan Brown in a press statement last year, "but the consequences of these fees could influence the future of GA."

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