This week, all runways lead to Rickenbacker

The best of America's aviation history will descend on Columbus in the next several days.

Air Force Heritage Week, the first celebration of its kind, begins Monday at Rickenbacker Airport. The second-ever Gathering of Mustangs and Legends, paying tribute to one of the great fighter planes of World War II and the people who flew or worked on them, begins at Rickenbacker Thursday night.

Also beginning Thursday is what might be the last reunion of the 352nd Fighter Group, known during World War II as the "Blue-Nosed Bastards of Bodney" (after the color of their planes and an airfield in England).

The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends attracted the other two events, representatives of the Air Force and the 352nd said.

Several other groups have notified the Gathering Foundation Inc. that they are holding reunions in Columbus this week, said Angela West, the event director.

The Gathering picked Rickenbacker in April 2006 from a list of more than 20 airports that had expressed interest in hosting the event. Rickenbacker had the space that the Gathering needed, and Columbus had another airport and enough hotel rooms to handle the visitors.

West expects more than 150,000 people to come to Rickenbacker over four days to see more than 100 P-51 Mustangs and more than 50 "legends" -- pilots, crew chiefs and others associated with the fighter planes.

Noticing the Gathering's potential draw, the Air Force, wanting to celebrate its 60th anniversary, decided to come to Rickenbacker, too, said Maj. Stephanie Bindemann, the Heritage Week project officer.

The military could coordinate the event through Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton.

Heritage Week highlights include a performance by the Air Force Band of Flight on Tuesday and demonstrations by the Air Force Thunderbirds flight team on Saturday and Sunday.

And if a few recruits sign up, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

"Anything we do, we try to do a little bit of recruiting," she said.

Some of the 352nd Fighter Group pilots are among the Mustang legends, so they figured they should go ahead and have the reunion here, said Bob "Punchy" Powell, 86. Powell is the group's historian and lives in Atlanta.

The 352nd flew Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts during the war. Of the 200 pilots who served, 93 were shot down. Perhaps 39 are still living. Powell said there's a good chance this will be the group's final reunion.

"With the veterans dying, we don't know if we can do any more," he said.

The 352nd pilots will have a private reunion at an area hotel, but they'll be at Rickenbacker as well, for anyone who wants to meet and talk with them, he said.