By Dr. Earl F. Weener
Today, I and so many others stood in awe as we watched dozens of World War II aircraft fly in historically sequenced warbird formations over our Nation’s Capital and Washington Mall. The formations represented the War’s major battles, from Pearl Harbor through the final air assault on Japan. This historic event marks the 70th anniversary of the end of fighting in Europe, or VE Day. It’s also the first time civilian aircraft have been allowed to overfly the National Mall since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The flyover concluded with a missing man formation as “Taps” played.
Like millions of others of his generation, my father served in the Army during World War II and was stationed in Europe.
For me, like millions of others today who served or had family who served, it’s hard to see the missing man formation or hear “Taps,” without a deep feeling of both sadness and gratitude – sadness for those we lost, and gratitude for what they died protecting.
As a member of the NTSB, I felt another kind of gratitude as well. A great number of innovations in aviation came during the war years, and a great number of safety features were developed over that time. It is a testament to this nation’s commitment to each and every airman that safety remained paramount, even for airplanes destined to come under constant enemy fire.
The civilian aviation field continues to learn a broad range of safety lessons from the military, and the finest airline and helicopter pilots have often come from the ranks of veterans of this nation’s wars.
The United States produced around 6,000 military aircraft in 1940. In 1944, it produced just short of 100,000. In total, the United States produced more than 300,000 military aircraft during the war.
In 1939, there were 334,473 personnel in all the U.S. armed forces. By VE Day, there were 12,209,238 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen under arms.
Any one of them could have been among those lost, those who were honored in that final formation as “Taps” played, and that is a debt that cannot be repaid. On top of that, many of those who came home continued to serve as transportation professionals, protecting Americans in other ways.
On behalf of the NTSB, I would like to take the opportunity to thank them for their service.