VAN NUYS — For Col. Jack Sims, this was the mission that mattered the most.
As a surviving member of the Tokyo Raiders, Sims came from Naples, Fla., to the Van Nuys Airport for a memorial flight to honor the late Gen. J.H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, who led the daring 1942 bombing run on Tokyo that marked the first American victory against the Japanese in World War II.
"There was a twinkle in his eye and you'd follow him to hell and back again," Sims, 75, said of Doolittle.
On Saturday, Sims and several of his former comrades began the first leg of a statewide air tour in World War II vintage planes. The tour will culminate today when a wreath of flowers for Doolittle is dropped from bomb bay doors over the sea near Pebble Beach.
A tough street kid who grew up in Los Angeles, Doolittle died last September at the age of 96 in that seaside town.
Saturday's mass departure from Van Nuys Airport's new Petersen Aviation Terminal featured B-25 Mitchell bombers, P-51 Mustang fighter planes, F-18s, F-16s and other war birds. The flight drew aviation buffs from as far away as Minneapolis and as close as Newport Beach.
"Jimmy Doolittle's been my hero since I was knee-high to a pup," said Terry Terrell, 70, of Newport Beach, who thundered out of the airport as a co-pilot on a silver B-25 nicknamed "Pacific Princess."
A 20-year-old co-pilot fresh out of flight school when he joined Doolittle's Raiders, Sims saw the event, which began Friday, as an opportunity to reflect on the changes in aviation since the war.
Vintage aircraft stood alongside state-of-the art corporate jets such as Gulfstream IIs, IIIs and Hawker HS 125-700s, which operate out of the Petersen Aviation Terminal. The terminal also includes five hangars, an observation tower, and pilot and patron lounges.
But while their aircraft may be outdated, Sims, a retired Air Force colonel, believes no technology exists to replace the spirit of the men who risked their lives in Doolittle's famous bombing run, which was chronicled in the 1944 movie "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."
With their planes capable of holding only enough fuel for a one-way trip, Doolittle's crew set off knowing their only hope of survival was reaching the friendly shores of China after dropping their bombs on Japan. Seven of the 80 crewmen on that mission died, some executed by the Japanese, and Sims himself ran out of fuel and bailed out over China.
Their sacrifice in delivering the war to Tokyo crushed Japanese morale and inspired Americans then and continues to inspire aviation and military history buffs today.
"I don't think anyone will equal Doolittle's stature," Sims said. "He was a spunky little guy."