WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A flying tribute for a World War I hero is one step closer to getting off the ground.
2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley is the only aviation Medal of Honor recipient from Wichita and soon a flying tribute will honor his service.
It’s a very exciting time for the Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation.
“On behalf of Wichita and the Air Capital of the world, welcome home Erwin,” Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation Board Member Grant Schumaker said. “This aircraft is so historically significant.”
WSU Tech Student Aidin Guidici is passionate about vintage aircraft.
“I think it is phenomenal that it has been brought home, a huge part of Wichita history,” Guidici said.
The only air-worthy DH. 4 in the world now calls Wichita home.
“This aircraft is as authentic as you can actually get,” Schumaker said. “It’s got the 1918 manufactured data plate in it, it’s got all the original air instruments in it, the throttle controls, it has the original 400 horsepower Liberty engine!”
It even has the 50th Aero Squadron marking, the Dutch Girl.
“Meticulous restoration to the exact specifications, that Harold Geottler and Erwin Bleckley flew on their MOH mission,” Schumaker said.
The plane has already seen more than 10,000 hours of restoration work.
“After all that time, all that energy they take it out on their initial test flight, unfortunately one of the turn buckles in the rigging bound up on them,” Schumaker said.
The damage is very visible on one side of the fuselage.
“They had some control problems on landing, and they unfortunately ground looped the airplane and it received some damage,” Schumaker said.
There’s even mud still caked in the grill from that hard landing.
“The odds and the probabilities of things happening, in our project are just uncalculable,” Schumaker said.
The plane’s journey started after it was loaded in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and after just over 700 miles and several days, the fuselage rolled onto the grounds of WSU Tech.
“Such a tremendous salute to the kinds of people who make sacrifices,” Schumaker said.
A 21-round salute, from the 130th Field Artillery, the same unit Bleckley signed up to serve in Wichita.
“We as Wichitans can be proud of what Erwin did,” Schumaker said.
An illustration shows Bleckley and Pilot Harold Geottler in their Plane Number 2, flying at 125 mph, looking for the lost battalion.
He documented the drop to the dough boys on the front lines in his diary.
The mission made history because it was the first-ever air supply drop in combat history, but they were fearful the enemy got the goods.
“Erwin went to his tent, wrote out his will, once again on the way out to the airplane the Captain says don’t do it,” Schumaker said.
Plane Number 2 was grounded with nearly 40 bullet holes, so they borrowed Plane Number 6, from a Leon, Kansas native. They decided on the second mission to fly lower and slower.
Bleckley is quoted as saying, “We will either make the delivery or die in the attempt.”
After his death, they found a map in his shirt pocket.
“He did locate them, he wrote it down, that was passed up to Pershings office, and they went ahead and found the lost battallion the next day,” Schumaker said.
Nearly 200 lives were saved thanks to the Medal of Honor mission.
“The prosperity we all enjoy, the freedoms that we have, those are all paid for in blood,” Schumaker said.
For years, the Bleckley Airport Memorial Foundation has been on a mission to ensure everyone knows Bleckley’s story.
“We want the support to come from the entire community of Wichita,” Schumaker said.
BAM Board Members said local talent, as in engineers and machinists, will bring the historic aircraft back to life.
“That way 30 years from now they can be pointing at the airplane up in the air and saying, I helped put that airplane up in the sky,” Schumaker said.
“Just the idea of working on it, is fantastic,” Guidici said.
More than 100 years after this plane flew in WWI.
“That airplane is going to be up over the skies of Wichita,” Schumaker said.
The Foundation hopes to see the plane take flight on Memorial Day and each year on October 6th, the day Bleckley died in France.
The BAM Foundation has big plans for the plane to be a centerpiece of a Bleckley tribute, with a bronze statue of the aviator, and many artifacts from his life and service.
Those artifacts include the original Columbia Killed in Action Award, given to Bleckley’s parents, after his death.
It at one time was on the wall of Bleckley’s Wichita home, but it ended up at a garage sale in Lousiana. A man who was once stationed at McConnell Air Force Base spotted it and bought it for five dollars.
The BAM Foundation hopes to set up the special place to honor Bleckley at the Eisenhower Airport.
They need financial support to get the restoration started, and plenty of volunteers to help bring it back to airworthy status, they also hope you take the time to sign up as a Bleckley Memorial supporter.
You can find out how to help by clicking here.