The Liberty Gazette
February 21, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: A lot of people know what a Piper Cub looks like. It’s a small plane, a two-seater, introduced in 1937. A great training airplane, it’s a high-wing that rests on two main wheels below the pilot’s seat and a small wheel below the tail so when it’s parked on the ground the nose angles up a little. Most Cubs are yellow, and doors are optional. Back-country flyers love Cubs, and especially the openness with doors removed. Popular, even legendary, like the Ford Mustang, many great adventures owe thanks to the Cub.
Shortly before the U.S. entered WWII, Piper Aircraft Company created a special rendition of the Cub, a limited edition which they named the Flitfire. Here’s the story on that special airplane.
The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund had been established to support families of British soldiers after the Battle of Britain left them with 1,420 casualties. That’s when an American aircraft builder piped up with a plan. He would donate one of his Cubs, and departing from the usual yellow paint scheme, this one would be silver with RAF insignia. Whatever proceeds it brought would go to the fund. As generous acts often do, this one encouraged others to rise to the occasion, and William Piper’s sales manager, Bill Strohmeier, proposed 48 more be sponsored by the Piper dealers in every state. Their names, Flitfire Texas, Flitfire Oklahoma, and so on, would be painted on the nose cowls.
The Piper team got to work, building all 48 in just 12 days. Then it was time to deliver them from the plant in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Piper employees flew the 49 airplanes in military formation, seven groups of seven planes: the Flitfire Brigade.
Mike: Imagine yourself on Liberty Island, wrapped warmly, face whipped by blustery winds on that Sunday in the spring of 1941, gazing up at Lady Liberty’s magnificent features occasionally giving a glance over toward the Manhattan skyline as the air fills with a clattering commotion approaching from Staten Island. See yourself witnessing a flock of airplanes so massive it might partially eclipse the sun as 49 silver birds cross overhead and continue up the Hudson to the Washington Bridge and eventually the World’s Fair grounds. You would be joined by thousands of other people feeling the rush of pride in our country, in our people, and if you were a Who’s Who in New York, you would have gone to the gala where anyone who was anyone could be found, where the Champaign and the money poured, and the gala alone raised $12,000 for the benevolent fund.
Linda: After the gala each Flitfire departed La Guardia in the direction of their sponsoring state names, touring the country, raising more money for families whose loved ones had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Eventually, all the Flitfires were sold. Every penny went to the fund; not one penny went for expenses. No telling how much was raised in total, that would be hard to track, but it surely was a pile of money.
Just a month earlier Congress had passed the Land Lease Act, HR1776, a bill allowing the U.S. to provide military aid to other countries before we were even in the war. There aren’t many Flitfires flying today; only four have been fully restored to honor their history, including the first, the one William Piper donated, registration number NC1776.