The Commemorative Air Force, originally known as the Confederate Air Force, is an nonprofit educational organization dedicated to preserving, in flyable condition, a complete collection of aircraft flown by all the military in World War II. In addition it provides museum buildings for the permanent protection and display of the aircraft as well as nonflying artifacts from the same period. The idea for the organization began in 1951, when a group of former military pilots around Mercedes began to acquire surplus fighter aircraft. In visiting various disposal facilities they realized that the 300,000 aircraft produced by the United States during World War II, were about to be melted down for scrap metal; in the process an irreplaceable part of the world's heritage was about to be lost.
The first aircraft, a P-40 Warhawk, was acquired in 1951 by Lloyd Nolen, a flight instructor during World War II. In 1952 he sold the P-40 to purchase a P-51 Mustang, but because of the Korean War, the air force recalled all P-51s in civilian hands. Interest in the old warbird grew; the small group of former military pilots pooled resources and purchased a surplus P-51 Mustang in 1957. The group grew, and when someone painted Confederate Air Force on the Mustang they had a name. That day marks the unofficial birthday of the organization. The airfield at Mercedes became Rebel Field, and the mystique was born. Their high-spirited camaraderie also provided the rank of "colonel" to each member. In 1959 the group acquired two navy F8F Bearcats. The collection has grown to include military aircraft from all the nations engaged in World War II.
By 1963 the CAF had acquired one of each of the ten American fighter planes from World War II. By 1967 the force had signed two movie contracts for films depicting air battles of World War II. In a British film entitled The Battle of Britain, the CAF was commissioned to do the flying in return for two British "Spitfires" and three German ME-109s to go into the flying museum. Another film commitment was Tora, Tora, Tora, a story depicting the Japanese preparations for and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. By 1972 all of the available bombers, helicopters, trainers, and gliders had been added. By 1974 a fine collection of fighters, bombers, transports, and trainers of the Royal Air Force, German Luftwaffe, and Imperial Japanese Navy, as well as a fleet of replica Japanese aircraft, had been added.
By 1968 the group had outgrown the small airfield at Mercedes, and they moved to the old Harlingen Aerial Gunnery School facility at Harlingen. They renamed their new facility Rebel Field and remained there until 1991, when they moved to the dryer climate and more central location of Midland. In 1983 the American Airpower Heritage Foundation, Incorporated, was formed to develop financial support for the CAF. On June 14, 1989 Governor William Clements signed a resolution that named the Confederate Air Force the official air force of the state of Texas. In 1990 two additional corporations were established: the American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum, to obtain and maintain legal title to CAF aircraft, and the American Airpower Heritage Museum, responsible for the acceptance, preservation, and display of all nonflying artifacts, relics, and documents, as well as on-site display of aircraft. The CAFremains the flying organization. In 1993 the CAF was composed of some 10,000 members, organized into ninety units called Wings, Squadrons, and Detachments, located throughout the United States and in France, England, New Zealand, and Australia. The corporation holds title to 140 aircraft. Most are in flying condition and are regularly flown in air shows throughout the country. Following a membership vote in 2001, the name of the organization was changed to the Commemorative Air Force effective on January 1, 2002.