Every day, the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Organization manages more than 50,000 aircraft in American airspace. On the morning of April 16th, controllers at Potomac TRACON coordinated the flight path of one very special plane, a World War II era B-25 bomber flying over Arlington National Cemetery to honor Col William Bower.
Col. Bower piloted a B-25 during the famous Doolittle bombing raid on Japan during WWII. The raid was a huge morale lift for Americans, coming shortly after the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen bombers carrying 80 crewmembers took off on April 18, 1942, from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier.
There were several catches to this extraordinary mission. First, a B-25 had never flown from the deck of an aircraft carrier, and no one was sure if it was even possible. Second, even if the pilots successfully took off and fulfilled their mission, the plane could not carry enough fuel for a return trip. After the bombing raid was completed, the crew would have to ditch their planes in the ocean, or perhaps in China, if they could reach the mainland.
Fortune was with the crewmen on takeoff; all of the planes made it off the carrier, reached their targets, and fulfilled their missions. One plane landed in Russia, where its crew was interned. The other planes ditched in the water or over China. Seven men died from drowning, execution, or malnutrition. Bower and his crewmen parachuted safely into China.
When Col. Bower, the last surviving "Doolittle" pilot, died in January at the age of 93, one of his final requests was to have a B-25 fly over his funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery.
Although the request was unusual and would require complicated arrangements, the crew at the Potomac TRACON understood its importance. J.J. Johnston, manager of the National Capital Region Coordination Center, was familiar with the Doolittle Raid and went to bat on behalf of Col. Bower and his family:
“It was the right thing to do. I took it upon myself to work with the TSA and the other air security partners in the national capital region to take a look and—consistent with security protocols—get this approved.”
“Everyone was terrific and jumped on board to get it done,” said Johnston.
Just before the funeral, Thomas Casey, director of Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, an organization dedicated to the memory of the raiders, who helped fulfill the pilot's final wish, offered his “deepest thanks” to everyone involved:
“The Bower family may never realize the time and negotiating involved in this effort; however, they will see and hear the results at 1100 hours on Monday, April 16th, on a hill at Arlington National Cemetery, when the B-25 breaks the morning silence overhead in a final salute to an American hero.”
On the day of the funeral, Johnston and his staff watched as the B-25 was put into its holding route to await its cue. “We watched the entire flight come in toward D.C. and climb slowly back out towards the east,” said Johnston.
Col.William Bower (Ret.) was buried just two days short of the 69th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, with full military honors and the final flyover of a B-25, the plane he flew into history.
As we salute America's fallen heroes this Memorial Day, I am thankful for the sacrifice of our brave veterans. And I am also thankful to lead a Department with professionals like J.J. Johnston and Natalie Smith, who go the extra mile to fulfill their mission.