Ian Garstka was born much too late to fly P-38s.
But he got to do the next best thing Friday — meet and talk to the pilot of one, plus get his picture taken with him.
Edward Gray, who flew the B-29 escorts in the Pacific in the closing months of World War II, was one of the star attractions — at least of the human variety — at the World War II AirPower Expo on Friday at Lakefront Airport.
“The kids about Ian’s age are really inquisitive,” said Gray, who at 98 was a first-time passenger Thursday aboard “Fifi,” one of just two B-29s still flying. “I don’t doubt that Ian could learn how to fly a P-38 in about 15 minutes and do it better than I did.”
Garstka, a fifth-grader from Mandeville, was one of an estimated 3,000 youngsters from more than 100 schools who took advantage of free admission on Student Day at the expo.
But it would have been hard to find one more knowledgeable about the war, or at least the aerial portion of it, than Ian.
“I’ve always loved planes, and I want to be a fighter pilot one day,” he said. “The P-38 is my favorite just because of the way the controls work.
“It looks like it was pretty easy to fly.”
Unfortunately for Ian, there were no P-38s among the more than 20 planes at the expo from the Commemorative Air Force fleet of more than 160 aircraft.
But there were plenty of veterans and CAF members for him to meet and greet.
And, in return, the veterans relished the experience.
“These kids are fantastic,” said 97-year-old Air Force veteran Harold Gournay of Eunice, who has attended the previous two expos. “I hope they know what it took to win the war."
On Friday, kids, teachers and parents could see the planes both on the ground and in flight, tour some of them, talk to re-enactors and see demonstrations of their equipment.
And they got to go through a “basic training obstacle course,” which included climbing over walls and nets, crawling under more nets, negotiating the overhead bars and finishing by advancing along the rope rings.
“It was pretty hard,” said fourth-grader Simone Scott. “Especially climbing over ropes and the obstacles.”
Added Kaygen Christian, a seventh-grader at Belle Chasse Academy, “If you join the Army, you’d better be fit.”
Naturally the bombers and fighters were the center of attention.
But they didn’t get all of it.
The J-4 Spider owned by retired Gen. Clay McCutchan and flown to New Orleans from Navarre, Florida, by Jimmy Beavers drew several groups of youngsters as McCutchan and Beavers described how bullets would pass through the canvas wings of the two-seater that was the predecessor of the Piper Cub.
That was of particular interest to 7-year-old Benson Rebnour, a second-grader at St. Rita’s School in Harahan, who was brought to the show by his grandfather, Raymond.
“I wanted to know what happened when they got shot at,” Benson said. “And I want to know if they were fun to fly. I don’t think it would be dangerous.”
Actually, it was.
The J-4 was primarily used as a trainer, and Beavers said that 75 percent of all Air Force pilots first flew in them. Built at a cost of $2,500, they were expendable.
“They didn’t cost much, except your life,” he said.
Lajare Whatley, a West Jefferson High School junior who was there along with the rest of the school’s JROTC corps, plans to join the Air Force after she graduates in 2018.
Seeing the expo Friday, she said, gave her a special appreciation of just what that means.
“Being both a girl and a person of color, I appreciate all of the things that were done to make it possible for me to join the Air Force,” she said. “It’s really interesting to see what made our country the way it is today.”
That was music to the ears of Mike Varnado, an Air Force veteran from New Orleans who represents the Tuskegee Airman, the famous all-black flying unit during World War II.
“I want them to be inspired,” he said. “It sounds like that young lady gets it. That’s pretty neat.”
Still, any event focusing on air combat naturally should appeal more to boys than girls.
But that wasn’t always the case Friday. “Women were important in the war, even if they weren’t allowed in the planes,” sixth-grader Lily Jacobs said. “They stayed home and worked in the factories to make the supplies and stuff.”
Sixth-grader Skylar Bayhi said she wanted to be there because of her great-grandfather, who died a few years ago after “surviving” World War II.
“He was in a lot of the fighting,” said Skylar, who did not know any other details. “I wish he could be here. He’d be enjoying it."
The expo, a production of the National World War II Museum, the Commemorative Air Force and the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, will continue Saturday and Sunday.