Frank Cross, a World War II bomber pilot who turns 92 in January, is not only the museum’s oldest volunteer but also has the record for most volunteer hours. He has worked more than 13,000 hours, and that’s not even counting the hours he put in before the museum started keeping track.
He was volunteering for the museum before it even existed, helping clear the land and constructing the first building. Besides flying planes in World War II and Korea, he also was an aircraft mechanic. He helped restore planes at the museum until he was 75. That’s when Peggy Young, the museum director at the time, called him up to the office.
“Peggy told me I was getting too old to be climbing around on planes,” he said. “She was afraid I would fall off.”
The museum then began dispatching him to give presentations to civic clubs. Someone else does that now, but he still makes his contribution by welcoming visitors at the World War II Hangar every Wednesday afternoon. He used to work three days a week, but his doctor had him cut back his schedule after he had heart surgery a few years ago.
He flew the B-25 bomber in North Africa in World War II, supporting Gen. George Patton’s epic tank battle against Nazi field marshal Erwin Rommel.
When Rommel’s troops were caught in valleys with no escape, Cross would swoop down to a low altitude and drop parafrags, which were explosives tied to small parachutes. When the parafrags came close to the ground, a proximity sensor would trigger a fearsome spray of shrapnel in every direction. The parachutes allowed the planes to get clear before detonation.
“You could see those Germans on the hillside with dirt just flying, like a cat in a kitty box,” he said. “They were trying to get below the shrapnel.”
He flew 270 combat missions between World War II and the Korean War. In Korea, he switched to fighter planes, the F-80 jet and the F-51 Mustang, known as the P-51 in World War II.
“I wasn’t trained for it,” he said. “It made a nervous wreck out of me.”
His scariest moment in combat came in Korea when enemy fire caused a loss of oil pressure in the F-51. As he was going down, a rice field came into view.
“The rice was tall,” he said. “It was just like landing on a foam runway. It was so smooth. The plane wasn’t hurt very bad.”
However, he was still in danger. In another stroke of luck, a Marine helicopter happened to be in the area when the distress call went out. It was there within minutes.
“When I saw that helicopter come in, I thought ‘My God, an angel with rotary wings,”’ he said.
When visitors find out about him, they often like to have pictures made with him in front of the B-25.
A native of Texas, he moved to Fort Valley in 1960 when he went to work for a company that supported Blue Bird. He later worked for the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery in Perry, and upon retirement there he happened to hear about plans to start an aircraft museum in Warner Robins. He immediately began helping.
“Frank has been a loyal and very dedicated volunteer for a good many years,” said Dan Hart, the museum’s coordinator of volunteers.
He also noted Cross is the only World War II veteran who volunteers.
“They love it, the visitors, when they come through,” he said.