100-year-old Colorado vet reunited with plane he piloted in World War II

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- What are the odds that an Army Air Corps pilot, who flew combat missions in the South Pacific in a P-38 Lightening, would be reunited with the very plane he flew some 70 years ago?

A betting man might say the odds would be very small -- just as they were in "Back to the Future," when fictional 2015 headlines read "Cubs win the World Series."

With the Cubs back in the playoffs this season, maybe 2015 is the year for long shots. That was certainly the case when 100-year old Frank Royal was reunited with his “White33” in Colorado Springs this summer.

"I heard about this new air museum that moved in to the Springs a couple years ago and thought it'd be neat to walk through it," said Royal, who served as Squadron Commander of the 39th Fighter unit when Lockheed delivered the what was dubbed "the plane that changed the war" to the South Pacific.

"The owner walking me through kept talking about the White 33," Royal continued. "And I said, 'Wait a minute, I used to fly that plane!'"

And with the chance encounter, Royal and White 33 were reunited.

"The whole deal is kind of crazy," said Bill Klaers, who moved his West Pac restoration business to Colorado Springs several years ago from Southern California. "To have a pilot of one of the five P-38 platforms we were able to get after they were recovered from jungle graves in New Guinea is just short of amazing."

Royal flew missions out of New Guinea in World War II. After his plane was damaged in combat, it was scrapped and buried on the island nation in the South Pacific.

Seven decades later, Royal and the aircraft he used in combat are back together again.

Royal drops by the museum from time to time, watching the progress on the “Fork-Tailed Devil,” as the Germans called the P-38s. It was a plane with better fire power -- four 50-caliber machine guns and twin 20mm cannons mounted in the nose -- that could climb higher at a quicker pace than both the German Messerschmidts and the Japanese Zeros. It could also carry a bigger payload than a B-17.

The plane gained its glory when it attacked the armada that contained the Admiral who led the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor.

“(The Japanese) would cringe when they saw the turbo-charged 38s coming their way," Royal said.

The repair project on the plane is currently underway and engines could fire up in a few weeks. This plane is being rebuilt from the ground up, and while the old pilot had often thought he had little left to live for, Klaers has reminded him that he needs to "complete the circle" and be on hand -- maybe even in the cockpit -- when White 33 rolls down the runway.

"They better hurry up on this thing, because I have a last ride coming for sure" Royal said. "It sure would be nice to get up there one more time."

The crew working on the restoration had this to say: "We will put him in a lift on a crane to get him in this plane one more time. You can bet on that."