A water bomber that once carried Richard Dreyfuss through smoke-filled skies to fight forest fires in the 1989 film “Always” has landed in Central Texas, where Allen Maxwell said it will stay for good.
The Douglas TB-26C Invader aircraft has been at McGregor Executive Airport for a few weeks and will be one of the highlights at the Heart of Texas Air Show on Saturday and Sunday at Texas State Technical College’s airport. Gates open at 9 a.m. both days.
Though the pilot and the 1944 World War II plane have never seen wartime combat, both have a long history of soaring above the clouds, Maxwell said. He co-owns the plane with another pilot.
Maxwell estimates there are 15 B-26 aircraft still flying around the nation. Others are displayed at museums or military bases, including four in the Dallas area, he said.
“I love to fly, but I love to show what I have to other people,” Maxwell said. “Bringing it to the air show, everyone can see it and talk about it. And I know war is not really good, but kids like (learning about) war. It just shows some of our history. You know, it’s a WWII airplane, and people love the warbirds. Unfortunately, most of the WWII people have gone away.”
Maxwell first heard about the B-26 bomber in 2012, when a man from Georgia who had bought the plane contacted him about flying it from Montana to Georgia. For about a year, he and the plane’s former owner went to Montana every weekend to get it in working order.
“It had been an air tanker for a whole bunch of years, but it sat outside after they stopped using it as a tanker,” Maxwell said. “We had to get it going again and had to change the engine and everything. Then I had to ferry the airplane from Billings, Montana, where its home was, to Georgia.”
He was training the owner to fly the plane, but the job ended up being too much for the owner to handle, he said.
Maxwell traded a Douglas DC-3 airliner and took the B-26C to the Vietnam War Flight Museum in Houston. He used the bomber to train at least 10 other pilots and showed in other air shows, he said. The plane is part of the Vietnam War Flight Museum’s collection but will remain in McGregor for anyone who wants to see it, Maxwell said.
At 78, Maxwell has been in aviation now for 62 years. He started training at age 15 in New Jersey and took his first solo flight at 16. He joined the U.S. Air Force as a mechanic after high school, served as an airline pilot in general aviation for a while and flew with the Commemorative Air Force nonprofit historical preservation group, he said.
Maxwell is one of only a few people in the nation who has earned both the Wright Brothers Master Pilot award for 50 years of dedicated service, technical expertise and outstanding contributions and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the Federal Aviation Administration for his dedication to aviation safety.
“What this means is back in 2006, I had been a pilot for 50 years without an accident or documented violation,” Maxwell said. “And (the other) is a mechanics’ award that shows the same credentials, that I have not been guilty of any kind of violations.”
The “Always” plane was originally a single person Douglas A-26 bomber. Then the military converted it to the TB-26C, with a dual-pilot operation system to facilitate training, Maxwell said.
The military owned the aircraft until 1960, and he’s working to find out where the plane operated and who used it during that time, he said.
“People like a little more war history, but all this is was a trainer,” he said. “It trained all the pilots who flew the B-26 who went to war.”
The bomber, known as the Fire Eaters in the movie and owned by Lynch Flying Service at the time, still carries its red and white firefighting colors on the wings, but Maxwell has added some blue to the tips of the wings to make it more patriotic, he said. Then, under the plane’s logo sits the film’s title with a small camera painted next to it.
“If you look up its serial number and you look at the movie credits, you’ll see there were two B-26s in the movie: No. 57, which was an air tanker, and this is air tanker No. 59,” Maxwell said.
The aircraft was the most frequently seen water bomber throughout the film, according to the Internet Movie Plane Database, a community-driven website, similar to the Internet Movie Database but with a focus on the history of aircraft used in movies.
“My favorite part about flying the B-26 is it’s fast. It’s really fast,” Maxwell said. “This airplane is redlined at over 400 knots, and will outrun the old P-51 Mustang. It won’t outmaneuver it, but it’ll go right by it, it’s so fast. You can fly it in the air show and go 300 mph and it’s just like seeing an airliner go by.”
Having this kind of history in his own backyard has been cool, said Tim Taylor, who has been helping Maxwell take care of the plane since it arrived.
“It’s nice to have something like this, because I like that you can educate other people about it,” Taylor said. “They come up and say, ‘That’s cool. What is it?’ and you can tell them about it. It just shows how far we’ve come between what we have now and what we used to have.
“It’s cool to go online and look because there’s lots of people who talk about this plane all the time, saying, ‘It’s here. No, it’s there.’ But every morning I come to work, it’s right outside my hangar.”
Unfortunately, though, continual maintenance is needed, Maxwell said. The plane runs on money, and he’s looking for sponsors willing to help take care of the unique bird, he said.
The bomber runs on 150 gallons of fuel an hour and uses oil like there’s no tomorrow, and a single barrel of oil costs $1,000, he said. The plane is up to date on all its inspections but needs some cosmetic TLC to make it look sharp after sitting outside for a while, Maxwell said.
The plane is capable, but he won’t be flying anyone in it anytime soon. Overall, it takes about $4,000 for an hourlong flight, he said.
“It’s just because of the type of engine. It’s called a round engine, and because of the configuration, oil runs all down the bottom all the time and always leaks out,” Maxwell said. “People say it’s not leaking anymore, but that means it’s out of oil.”
What he needs are more volunteers and donations. After the air show, the plane will remain in McGregor for paint and polish, he said. He also wants to put back the eight gun barrels originally on the plane to keep it as authentic as possible, he said. The ultimate goal is to have the aircraft serve as a mobile museum and to open it up to anyone wanting to learn about it, he said.
“I never expected to be in a position of life where I’m flying all these warbirds,” Maxwell said. “It’s really an honor to be able to do this.”