When pilot David Oliver ’05 expertly guided the B-24 Liberator onto the runway at Kankakee Airport, the crowd of nearly 100 was surprised by the graceful landing of the World War II airplane. Some of that grace was due to the pilot’s expertise, and some to the commitment of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) to keep these Warbirds in the air.
The plane and its crew had just flown from an Air Power History Tour weekend air show in Marion, Ill., and were on their way to Rockford, Ill., before arriving at the EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wis., at the end of the month.
“Flying is in the DNA of the Oliver family,” said Dr. John C. Bowling, University president, as he greeted David and his crew on the tarmac.
One member of the four-person crew for this flight was Jonathan Oliver ’81, David’s uncle and CAF pilot. David is the son of Gerald “Buster” Oliver Jr. ’76 — pilot and member of Olivet’s Alumni Board of Directors — and the grandson of Gerald Oliver Sr. ’52.
Preserving a bit of U.S. history
This B-24 was number 18 off the assembly line and one of 18,000 built for the war effort. Today, only two are still flying, thanks to the efforts of CAF.
“Nobody ever thought about preserving these assets from World War II because there were so many,” David says. “They sent them to scrapyards and melted them down.
“These airplanes are a testament to every United States veteran. Flying them is part of the resurgence in preserving our national history.”
The B-24 is a very difficult airplane to fly — for several reasons. “This plane has no computers,” David says. “It’s like a giant Rubik’s cube of mechanical movement and systems. The pilot has to coax it around and know all the little mechanical quirks about it.”
Aviation family takes to the skies
Buster is credited with initiating the love of flying among the Olivers. As Gerald Sr. shares: “Buster and Jonathan restored a B-25 bomber together when they were just kids.”
Jonathan began flying while he was a student at Olivet. “The Warbirds were part of my first Oshkosh experience that I shared with Buster back in the 1980s,” he recalls. Soon after that, he completed ground school and received his pilot’s license in Kankakee before he finished his freshman year.
Today, he flies the C-45 Bucket of Bolts for the CAF and has logged more than 10,000 flight miles this year. He has flown over the Reagan Library, the Hollywood sign, Malibu Beach, the Hoover Dam and the south rim of the Grand Canyon — just to name a few locations. Recently, he was part of the fly over for the pre-race show at the 2013 Coca-Cola 600 in North Carolina.
David’s interest in flying began when he was eight years old. “When you grow up in an aviation family, you don't know anything different,” he says. In 2006, he was the National Collegiate Aerobatic champion.
David holds a Top Secret clearance and has served as a pilot in Afghanistan, Iraq and Panama. Following a successful corporate career in aviation and aircraft maintenance, today he flies the B-29 — and other vintage aircraft —coast to coast with CAF. He is also the youngest instructor pilot for the world’s only flying B-29 Superfortress.
World’s largest flying museum
Keeping these planes in the air requires a monumental effort of $2 million dollars and thousands of man-hours each year. CAF and its pilots are dedicated to maintaining them and continuing to share them with audiences around the country.
“This morning, a veteran came up to me and told me that he’s extremely thankful for the B-29 because it actually saved his life,” Jonathan shares. “It transported him out, and he made it out alive.”
“We want to keep these planes flying across the country,” David says. “If they cease to fly, we will forget the stories.”