Flyovers and drone demos planned to commemorate 80th anniversary of WWII pilot’s death

Source Email Bert Christman
Bert Christman plane

These images show Bert Christman during his time as a cartoonist for The Associated Press and the decal on John Newkirk’s plane honoring him.

The namesake of one of World War II airman Bert Christman’s fellow Flying Tigers and other aviators will do low passes over Christman Field to commemorate the 80th anniversary of his death. 

Evergreen resident John Newkirk and numerous other pilots will honor Christman at noon on Sunday, Jan. 23. Multiple members of Christman’s family plan to travel to Fort Collins for the memorial, which is also open to the public. 

“It would be a shame to have Jan. 23 go by without having some kind of commemoration of this hero from Fort Collins,” Newkirk said. “Most of today’s generation doesn’t even know about Christman, and it would be unfortunate to have him simply pass into history.”

Details about the flyover 

When: The flyovers will take place between noon and 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 23, weather permitting. The airfield will open to the public at 11:30 a.m. 

Where: Christman Airfield at 3985 Laporte Ave., Fort Collins, Colorado 

Register: The public is invited to attend to watch the flyovers. Please register to attend here.

After the flyover, members of the CSU Drone Center will be on hand for demonstrations of unmanned aircraft systems and allow the public to try drone flying.

Who was Bert Christman?

Bert Christman with plane
Bert Christman joined the American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, better known as the Flying Tigers, to fight against Japan for the Allied cause before U.S. involvement in World War II. Photo: Courtesy of David Armstrong

Christman was born in Fort Collins on May 31, 1915. A graduate of Fort Collins High School and Colorado State College, he developed a passion for illustration at an early age, something that led to his big break writing and drawing the famous Scorchy Smith comics for The Associated Press. 

These comics depicting an American flyboy daily reached thousands of readers across the country. In 1937, the 22-year-old artist’s comics told the stories of heroes and villains in the runup to World War II, and Christman got his pilot’s license in an effort to ensure that his art better reflected real life. 

In 1938, Christman drove to Pensacola, Florida, where he began naval aviation training alongside John “Scarsdale Jack” Newkirk, who was present-day John Newkirk’s father’s cousin. 

Christman was commissioned as an officer that same year and was assigned to Bombing Squadron 4 in 1939. In the spring of 1941, he was recruited to join the American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, which is better known as the Flying Tigers. 

These pilots flew Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter planes that were famously painted with a shark mouth design. The Flying Tigers were mobilized into action after the U.S. formally entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the pilots worked to help Chinese forces defend Burma. 

On Jan. 23, 1942,  Christman flew one of the 18 planes that was mobilized to intercept Japanese aircraft that had attacked Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). His plane was shot down, and Christman died at 26 years old. He was one of the first American pilots to lose his life in World War II. 

Jack Newkirk was also killed in battle just two months later while flying a mission over Thailand, and the sacrifices of both airmen served as an inspiration to Americans throughout World War II. 

Jack Newkirk photo and plane

These photos show Jack Newkirk and the decal that John Newkirk put on his plane to honor his father’s cousin. (Photos courtesy John Newkirk)

Christman’s body is now buried at Grandview Cemetery in Fort Collins. One year after his death, the bustling airfield on the western end of Fort Collins was renamed Christman Field in his honor. 

“Growing up, my mother and grandmother always told us how tragic it was that Bert Christman died at such a young age,” Christman’s niece Janis Bunchman said. “It’s important to remember how remarkable of a young man he was, and how dedicated he was to his family and his country, and what a talent he had.” 

Bunchman will be traveling to Fort Collins from Phoenix for the flyover in honor of her uncle.

‘Life imitates art’

Read CSU Magazine’s feature on Bert Christman at

A new life for one of Colorado’s oldest airfields

Christman Field aerial photo

An aerial image of Christman Field, which now serves as a drone research and testing ground.

Throughout its life, Christman Airfield has been everything from a training ground for pilots preparing to fight in World War II to a staging area for the aircraft that were dispatched to battle Colorado’s largest wildfire. 

The pasture that became what’s now Christman Airfield was first purchased by the city of Fort Collins in 1928, where it served as a municipal airport. 

Pilots trained at the airport during World War II, and the airfield was named after Christman in 1943. Colorado State University later purchased the property. 

In the decades since, the 4,000-foot-long runway has been used as a staging area for aircraft battling Colorado’s wildfires (most recently the record-setting Cameron Peak Fire).

A CSU drone flies at Christman Airfield in Fort Collins. (Photo courtesy Chris Robertson)

In 2018, Christman Airfield found new life once again. 

“The memory of Bert Christman lives on through the airfield’s continued imagination as a training and testing facility for unmanned aircraft systems at CSU,” said Chris Robertson, the director of the Colorado State University Drone Center. 

The Drone Center allows members of the University, other institutions and governmental entities the opportunity to research and test unmanned aerial systems (UAS). It is also the home of a weather station that reports the current conditions at the airfield every five minutes. 

Robertson worked with Newkirk to facilitate the upcoming flyover in Christman’s honor, and he might pilot a plane himself as part of the memorial. 

After the flyover, Robertson and other members of the CSU Drone Center will be on-hand for UAS demonstrations. 

This article draws on previous reporting by Coleman Cornelius, David Armstrong and Andrew Glaess of the CSU Magazine.