WWII B-25 ‘Panchito’ Inspiring New Generations of Aviation Enthusiasts

Photo by Charles A Atkeison

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Standing before a B-25 Mitchell at any air show or museum the conversation before you will undoubtedly discuss the aircraft’s historic role during the 1942 attack on Tokyo during the Doolittle Raid of World War II.

A force of sixteen B-25 medium size bombers lifted the hopes of a wounded America as pilot LT. Col. Jimmy Doolittle lead his squadron on a strike against Japan in the months following Pearl Harbor. Each aircraft carried a five man crew and up to five huge bombs on its mission.

Photo: Delaware Aviation Museum

Today, nearly 76 years later, approximately thirty B-25’s remain flight worthy, including several of which perform at air shows across America. One B-25J Mitchell carries the name Panchito, and thanks to the fine care and refurbishment of this aging aircraft, is proudly flown by a pilot who is also its owner.

Larry Kelley is that pilot. A pilot with over 1800 hours behind the control yoke of a polished aluminum B-25; and 2017 marked his 20th year campaigning his beloved Panchito across America.

The original Panchito was named after the pistol totting rooster in Disney’s 1944 cartoon, The Three Caballeros. Kelley explained that his aircraft was named after the original Panchito which served with the 396th Bomb Squadron, 41st Bomb Group, 7th Air Force on Okinawa during summer 1945.

Photo: Charles A Atkeison

The original Panchito served in the Pacific theater performing bombing runs that hot summer. After the war ended, Kelley noted, many of the Pacific theater aircraft were gathered at Clark airfield in the Philippines and buried in a ravine.

Today, Kelley carries the torch once held by the Greatest Generation to teach and demonstrate to the younger generations the story of the B-25 and her crew members. From the aircraft’s home at the Delaware Aviation Museum in Georgetown to air show sites across North America each year, Panchito is a beacon of education illuminating the minds of those interested in learning about its rich history.

“This aircraft served during World War II in a training command,” Kelly explained. “After the war it went into mothballs for a short time and then brought out to go active duty with the air national guard units until 1959.” The pilot added his aircraft was fully restored to present day condition and marked to represent its original namesake.

Photo: Charles A Atkeison

And why a polished silver and unpainted? To save on weight, nearly 600 pounds. Enough weight to carry an extra bomb. It also allows the B-25 to soar over the heads of the enemy without standing out.

North American Aviation completed nearly 9,815 B-25’s between 1940 and 1945. Designed to perform at low altitudes between 8,0 and 12,0 feet, the Mitchell was powered by two 1700 hp Wright R-2600 engines which provided the aircraft’s crew a cruising speed of 230 m.p.h. It’s maximum speed is listed by official records of 275 m.p.h.

Named in honor of military aviation pioneer General Billy Mitchell, the B-25 Mitchell has a wingspan of nearly 68 feet and covers an area of 610 square feet. The aircraft’s length measures nearly 54 feet.

This aerospace journalist was invited by JLC Airshows to fly with pilot Larry Kelley and his crew during a flight over the beautiful Golden Isles on Georgia’s scenic coastline.

With both hands grasping the yoke and his checklist book in his lap, Kelley kept his aircraft steady as he and his co-pilot performed during an air show. His checklist includes several maneuvers performed by the pilots of the Greatest Generation.

Using show center as a marker, Kelley maneuvered Panchito into exact timed passes while ‘wowing’ the crowds with several flat passes and climbs. Panchito demonstrated a World War II bombing run as Kelley summoned his co-pilot to open the bomb bay doors.

“You want to see what a B-25 is like, come to an air show — see them fly, hear them,” Kelly explained on the gusty Brunswick airfield. “See the smoke as they start up, and nothing like the sound of a radial engine.”

During most air shows Kelley performs, Panchito will draw the attention of one or two fellow warbird pilots. Panchito’s flight demonstration usually concludes with a photo pass over the airfield flanked by fellow historic aircraft of the 1940 and 50’s.

As December turns toward January, Kelley will be busy preparing Panchito for her 21st season in 2018 — both scheduling air show visits and the normal winter maintenance.

Photo: Charles A Atkeison

“What people don’t see is the tremendous amount of maintenance it takes to keep these flying,” Kelley said. Last winter, he added, his team worked seven days a week for six weeks, putting in a minimum 12 hours each day, “That’s what it takes to keep these old, vintage airplanes flying.”

As March nears, you can discover this warbird’s updated flight schedule, and plan a rare opportunity to schedule a flight on the wings of history aboard Panchito.

(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)