The Fairchild Time Machine

By Aaron Dabney, EAA Lifetime 547930

The little silver trainer stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t the curviest or the most colorful among all the Art Deco masterpieces parked in the Vintage area at AirVenture Oshkosh 2023, but the lines weren’t what caught my eye. On the left side, just aft of the cowling, was stenciled a reference to a small town in central Texas. I’m not from there, and I’ve only driven through once or twice, yet this town holds great significance to my family.

“Coleman Field,” it read.

The Fairchild PT-19 was a mainstay primary trainer of the Second World War. In some ways, it was more advanced than its biplane cousins like the Stearman PT-17, but it doesn’t seem to have accumulated the same mystique and adoration over the intervening years. Still, nearly 8,000 PT-19s were built and they birthed many of the combat pilots who took on evil and saved the free world.

I knew one of those PT-19 students well. My grandfather, Joe Canion, completed primary training in the PT-19 in 1943. He earned his Army Air Corps wings later that same year. Through a fortuitous twist of fate, he completed advanced flight training at a base in our hometown and my grandmother got to pin them onto him.

He graduated up to the P-39 Airacobra and later the P-47 Thunderbolt and served with distinction with the “Devilhawks” of the 345th Fighter Squadron. He returned home decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal (with several clusters, signifying multiple awards), and a Presidential Unit Citation. To hear him tell it, he’d had the time of his life.

I always tell people that although I was born in 1980, I grew up in 1945. I idolized my grandfather. Many of my earliest and fondest memories are of his stories.

He loved telling stories that started with flying, like the time he had to bail out of a P-47 near Valentano, Italy. He ended up in a farmer’s field, on the business end of a couple of pitchforks, until it was quickly sorted out that he wasn’t Tedeschi(Italian slang for German). With the aid of locals, he soon made it back to the airfield where the final wrinkle of this flying story unfolded: the contents of his footlocker were already being distributed among several of his buddies, as they assumed he was dead!

He loved telling stories about the places, like the village of Tarquinia, Italy. The 345th was frequently on the move like most units are during wartime. When they arrived to set up shop at this airfield near the Tyrrhenian Sea coast, he and several buddies claimed an old building as their quarters. Much of the rest of the squadron ended up in tents which quickly became mired during several big rains. This was a subject of much good-natured ribbing at squadron reunions decades later.

He most loved to tell stories about the people, like the group of fellow pilots he shared a “Forty and Eight” railcar with as they trekked across North Africa to join the war for the first time. One night, it seems a local reached in and stole his shoes. Conveniently, a fellow pilot wore the same size and his shoes went missing too. That also became an often-told reunion story. I have a photo of the whole group posed in that railcar, smiling like they were ready to take on the world. And they did.

That journey halfway around the world and into the history books began in Coleman, Texas. At a civilian-run flight school at Coleman Field, the PT-19 was a nursemaid and teacher to my grandfather and the other members of Class 43-I.

Like most of his generation, my grandfather came home after the war and started a life. That life was interrupted for a few years by another stint in the Air Force during the Korean War and the early Cold War, flying big multi-engine airplanes like the C-119 Boxcar and the EC-121 Warning Star. Then, it was back to Victoria, Texas, where he was promised a hand in running his mother-in-law’s cattle ranch.

Aviation never left his heart. In the interim between World War II and the Korean War, he’d flown part-time as an ag pilot in Stearmans and even Cubs. By 1975, the kids were out of the house, and he bought a 1946 J-3 Cub. He soloed both of his sons in it, adding a second generation of pilots to the family.

Then, I entered the story. My family alleges that my first airplane ride was in that Cub at age three months, and memories of my childhood and teen years are punctuated with hours in the Cub with either he or my uncle Mark at the controls.

My grandfather always told me, “Bubba, flying that airplane is the most relaxed I can be.” I might not have felt that way when I first transitioned from eager passenger to student pilot, but I soon understood what he meant. I soloed the Cub just before college, and now I’m the third generation of my family to serve as its caretaker. I followed “Pop-pop,” as my sister and I called him, into aviation too, and have been a professional flight instructor for most of my adult life.

It turns out the “Coleman Field” placard I discovered at Oshkosh wasn’t just an aesthetic part of the restoration. I was lucky enough to catch the PT-19’s caretaker, Jim Hammond, and asked him why he’d chosen Coleman. His response was simple and to the point. “That’s where it was,” he said.

After a brief conversation, I found myself up on the left wing and climbing into the “front office.” So many stories came alive in my mind as I took it all in and rested my feet on the rudder pedals where my grandfather’s GI boots might have rested 80 years before. I caught myself quietly saying hello to him before dismounting—my week made and a core memory now in place.

My grandfather flew west in 2015. I don’t know if he ever flew that specific PT-19 and I’ll probably never be able to prove it one way or the other. That doesn’t matter. That he could have flown it and that it was definitively in such proximity to where my family’s aviation story began made the connection as real and palpable as it gets. The J-3 is in the shop right now, getting some much-needed upgrades and an engine overhaul so that it can be a fixture in our family for another half-century. I can’t wait to climb back into that rear seat and fly low, slow, and relaxed. Like in that PT-19 in Oshkosh, he’ll be right there with me.


While I was working on this story, something propelled me to dig a little deeper into the P-47 bail-out anecdote. As a family, we’ve long heard the stories about that day in October 1944, and we know as many specifics about the mission as possible after nearly 80 years through declassified action reports.

There was something I wasn’t aware of, though — and it was huge: In May 2021, Italian researcher Michele Mari and a team that included a local historian, the town mayor, and members of the organization Air Crash Po located a WWII-era crash site near Valentano. Through their research, they were able to identify the wreckage Michele eventually found there as parts of the P-47 my grandfather jumped out of that day. Over dozens of visits to the property, Michele has recovered many small fragments that have lain under a wheat field for nearly eight decades.

On my desk as I write this is a collection of Thunderbolt parts that Michele sent me. I’m probably the first American to touch this airplane since my grandfather bailed out of it, and I get chills — good chills — every time I handle the aluminum.  Soon, my wife and I will visit Michele, the village of Valentano, and the crash site in person, where I will once again say “hello.”

It all started in an airplane. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Post Comments