Bush's military legacy lives on in WWII fighter planes

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In the cockpit of a plane named Barbara, young George H.W. Bush and his two crewmen were armed with a torpedo, but they were in a big target.

"It's kind of an intimidating airplane because it's so big," said aircraft expert Kermit Week, founder of Fantasy of Flight in Polk County.

He owns a Grumman TBF Avenger like the one flown by the late president after he became the youngest pilot in the Navy in 1942, just shy of his 19th birthday.

"The wings folded, so you could get a lot of them on a carrier," said Weeks.

A lot of them didn't come back.

"You have to understand the mission of this airplane was a torpedo bomber, so they were putting themselves at the mercy of the guns shooting at them," Weeks said, adding they had to dive low, straight at the target. "The airplane was basically a sitting duck."

George Bush was shot down in September of 1944. His two crewmen were killed.

After hours in a raft, he was rescued by a U.S. submarine. Bush turned down a chance to come home and rejoined his squadron.

When he ran for president in 1988 he came to Tampa and so did Weeks in his Avenger.

The Republican National Committee wanted to use the plane for a commercial.

"He saw this airplane and he did a beeline. He took his jacket off, loosened his tie, ran over and jumped into the cockpit," laughed Weeks. "He said 'Kermit, if my life depended on it, I could take it up and fly around the pattern."

His life did depend on it in 1944. With his Avenger burning, he released his payload and hit his target - a radio tower. He would later be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Weeks says he enjoyed talking aviation with Bush that day in Tampa.

"I think it was a pretty cool thing for him, a trip down memory lane, and it was a great honor to meet him," Weeks said.