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Stroh Brewery Co. has World War II and American industry to thank for a high-flying summer promotion.

A half-century ago, industry produced more than 18,000 B-24 Liberators, the most widely built U.S. plane of the war. Today there's said to be only one of the bombers left flying, and it's hopscotching the country for Schlitz beer.

The massive B-24 is only one of hundreds of vintage World War II aircraft buzzing across the country, offering corporate sponsors the opportunity to tie in to the 50th anniversary of the war's end.

There may be cheaper, easier ways to commemorate World War II, however. The "Schlitz Golden Girl All American" B-24 cost the non-profit Collings Foundation more than $1 million to restore. The organizer of another tour, Freedom Flight America, estimates it takes as much as $60,000 to fly a bomber coast to coast.

Targeting air shows

A big lure for sponsors is that when the planes land, it's usually at an air show, and such shows drew more than 26 million spectators last year (AA, May 15).

Stroh is sponsoring the Stow, Mass.-based Collings Foundation's B-24 and its B-17 bomber in Schlitz's "Salute to Veterans '95 Tour." The two aircraft will visit about 100 cities by late fall. Stroh expects 4 million to 5 million people to view the aircraft.

"Originally, we were going to just tie in with American Legion halls [to commemorate World War II] because Schlitz has an older profile," said Mark Duchovic, Stroh director of customer marketing. "Then we realized we could do something more exciting with retailers."

Schlitz is linking the B-24 bomber to its 24-pack of beer. Promotional agency Flair Communications, Chicago, designed a "Golden Girl" mascot that has been painted on the plane. An accompanying promotion earlier this summer had for sale a retro serving tray, and a sweepstakes now under way is awarding limited-edition bomber jackets.

From the tarmac of Texas

More ambitious, as far as numbers of aircraft being sent aloft, are the Lone Star Flight Museum Spirit of Flight Air Show and Freedom Flight America.

The Galveston, Texas-based museum is seeking sponsors for a seven-month tour sandwiched between two air shows set to start next April, said M.J. Naschke, principal at M.J. Naschke Public Relations, which is handling such deals.

This summer, the museum is conducting the tour in preparation for the more heavily promoted effort of 1996. The 28-city tour consists of five planes, including a B-17.

Title sponsorships are being offered at $50,000; there's also a $50,000 tour sponsorship, and $10,000 and $25,000 one-day sponsorships. Product exclusivity is available.

In addition, Ms. Naschke mentioned the possibility of providing product endorsers. Race car driver A.J. Foyt is on the museum's board, she noted, and Gene Kranz, the NASA flight director who played a crucial role in the Apollo 13 adventure, is a certified flight engineer on the museum's B-17.

Also out of Texas is Freedom Flight America, a tour that's being powered more by the passion of its creator than sponsor dollars.

"I've lived the American dream," said Morey Darznieks. "The veterans who paid the price are the ones I'm trying to say thanks to."

An immigrant's tribute

Mr. Darznieks, a native of Latvia, immigrated with his parents to the U.S. in 1950 after spending time in a refugee camp in Germany. He now owns a Dallas company that supplies parts for World War II aircraft.

Freedom Flight America kicked off July 28 in Long Beach, Calif., and will climax with 190 planes flying past the Statue of Liberty Aug. 11. The final stop at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey is expected to attract about 250,000 people a day Aug. 12 and 13.

More than 250 planes have registered for the nine-city tour; about 100 will fly the entire route.

Sponsorship deals have been slow in coming, however.

"We were offered $750,000 for a title sponsorship," Mr. Darznieks said, "but it was so important not to title it, emotionally, that I had to turn it down. I was concerned about the integrity of it for the veterans. It just hit me as very wrong. It was hard to say no, but in a way it was very easy."

The only big-name corporate sponsor is MCI Communications Corp., which is spending $100,000 and will send skywriting planes ahead of the tour to publicize it. Oregon-based No Violence Apparel is providing a corporate aircraft for Freedom Flight staff.

Mr. Darznieks admitted being "ignorant when it comes to how to get sponsors."

Organizing Freedom Flight America was "one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life," he said. "I've worked on it seven days a week for two years. I've spent all the money I've got and borrowed all I could."

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