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EAA’s B-25 Berlin Express History

Our B-25, construction No. 98-21433, was assigned serial No. 43-4432 when it was first accepted by what was then the U.S. Army Air Forces in late December 1943. As an H model, when it left the factory, it would have had a blunt, solid nose fitted with two fixed .50-caliber machine guns and a massive 75 mm cannon, essentially the same as the main gun used on several models of the venerable Sherman tank. Ours was the 327th H model off the assembly line of the thousand or so that were built. The airplane served out the war in a low-key role as an administrative aircraft, stationed at bases in Washington, Colorado, and California, and was at one point modified for use as a trainer.

The airplane was sold as surplus shortly after the war and changed hands several times over the next 20-plus years. It was heavily modified for use as an executive transport and spent a few years in service of Woolworth’s heiress Barbara Hutton and her husband, Dominican diplomat, race car driver, polo player, and maybe-assassin Porfirio Rubirosa. Then, in 1968, after a stint with Long Island Airways, Filmways, Inc. and the legendary Tallmantz Aviation got involved and decided that N10V ought to be in pictures. As it was for many movie stars of the day, step one was a nose job. The airplane was given a J-model greenhouse nose section, historically inaccurate but giving it the traditional look that, to some people, makes a B-25 a B-25. Tallmantz assembled N10V with 17 other flyable B-25s to begin production on Catch-22, director Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Joseph Heller’s bitter satire about life in wartime.

On the Silver Screen

Alongside star Alan Arkin and just about every other working actor in Hollywood at the time, our B-25 played two roles in the film: a VIP transport for Orson Welles’ Brig. Gen. Dreedle, and a bomber named Berlin Express, complete with nose art that features Hitler himself in the crosshairs. The movie takes place in Italy, but the scenes with the B-25s were shot at a purpose-built air base set in Mexico, the remains of which still survive today on an area known unofficially as “Catch-22 Beach.” N10V and the other B-25s logged more than 1,500 hours of flying time during the three-month shoot that generated about 14 and a half hours of film. If that ratio — flying more than 100 hours for every hour of film shot — seems remarkable, then consider the fact that, of that 14 and a half hours, just 17 minutes ended up being used in the final cut of the picture. Such are the vagaries of Hollywood economics.

The film, released in 1970 against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, is considered a classic by some and an acquired taste by others. Regardless, those 17 minutes of B-25 flying, in particular a mass short-interval takeoff sequence, are not to be missed. Once filming had wrapped, Tallmantz sold 13 of the airplanes at an auction at Orange County airport. An orthodontist, warbird collector, and accomplished air race pilot from Merced, California, Dr. William Sherman Cooper, bought N10V in May 1971. Cooper was killed in a crash while practicing aerobatics in his Pitts Special a year later, and the B-25 was donated to the EAA Aviation Foundation.

EAA staff and volunteers fully restored the airplane starting in 1975, removing the airplane’s movie livery and repainting it as the City of Burlington, including nose art that honored our home state of Wisconsin. The airplane flew in these colors for several years, even hopping rides for visiting VIPs like Sen. Barry Goldwater, until it was damaged after a gear failure on landing. At that point, it underwent a cosmetic restoration and was moved into the EAA Aviation Museum’s Eagle Hangar, where it remained for the next few decades.

Now, fully restored in its movie star markings, Berlin Express is ready for its next mission: joining our B-17, Aluminum Overcast, in honoring WWII veterans as well as helping inspire a new generation of aviation enthusiasts.

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