On December 7, 2020 the aviation community lost a legend of the industry. Chuck Yeager was an Ace fighter pilot in World War II, a historic test pilot, author and even had some acting experience in movies and TV commercials. When I was growing up, I idolized Mr. Yeager. He was larger than life and was the hero type for an airplane obsessed kid like me growing up in the 1970s and 80s. I read his two autobiography books, I clipped out his advertisements for AC Delco and the F-20 that were in the magazines. He had done it all in the aviation world and was the coolest pilot in the world in my eyes.
I always said if I ever had the chance to meet him, I would do so. I finally had the opportunity to meet him on August 9, 2003. At the time, the Thunder Over Michigan airshow was in its infancy. It was primarily a warbird airshow and would bring in a number of special guests to attract visitors. In 2003, amongst the special guests was Charles “Chuck” Yeager. It was announced that Mr. Yeager would be signing autographs during the Sunday show. I got in line to wait for my turn to meet my childhood hero.
Up to this point, I had never met any of my person celebrity icons. I had mixed feelings about doing so. I was always afraid that I would make a fool of myself, fumbling for something to say or that the celebrity would be rude or different than I expected. My brush with Mr. Yeager confirmed my fears!
In short, Mr. Yeager was rude to me and his personality was not what I had hoped for in meeting my aviation icon. However, I believe that there is an explanation for his actions. While in line, the guy in front of me had a HUGE bag of items. He clearly was at the show for the autographs. As we drew closer to our turn, he started grabbing out his items. A photo, a couple magazine ads, a X-1 die cast plane, etc. Meanwhile, I was in awe seeing the legend in front of me smiling and speaking with the people in front of him. Fast forward a few minutes and I was next in line. I get my item to be signed ready, confirm my camera is working and anxiously wait my turn.
Then the trouble started. I was watching the guy that was in front of me at the table. He started talking to Mr. Yeager and pointing for him to sign this and that. Also do not sign here or put his hand there while signing. Finally, Mr. Yeager yelled at him “stop barking orders and this is the last thing I am signing for you!” The guy packed his items and Mr. Yeager’s assistant asked me to step up. Mr. Yeager was now visually upset.
I handed over my photo and Mr. Yeager asked my name to personalize the photo. “It is an honor to meet you Mr. Yeager” I said. “You are my childhood hero.” Mr. Yeager grunted as a response and personalized my photo. He shook my hand and brushed my photo to the side quickly to move onto the next person. I was terribly disappointed with the experience. Crap…that was not how I wanted my time to go with him. I was in shock at that point. Excited to have met a historical figure, but disappointed.
After time has passed, my feelings have changed about the matter. Many of my aviation friends and colleagues have met Mr. Yeager and expressed their opinion about him. Some positive, some have been negative. I chose to think that the guy in front of me tarnished the experience. He upset Mr. Yeager with his demands and bossy demeanor. Mr. Yeager did not have time to “shake it off” and get back to his normal self. Like I mentioned, most of the people before me were treated friendly and given some time with him. I wish my interaction with him was different, but I consider myself fortunate to have had the experience.
Although my time with Mr. Yeager was brief, I accomplished my goal of meeting him and shook the man’s hand. I still believe him to be an icon of the modern aviation era, and he is still one of my heroes!
In August, 2018 I had the opportunity to take a ride on the Yankee Air Museum’s B-25D Mitchell. This ride was special in several ways, and it was something I had been dreaming about doing since I was a kid. This specific aircraft was likely the first flying “warbird” I ever encountered. I first saw “Yankee Warrior” back in the mid-1980s at the local Muskegon Air Fair, the main airshow near my home town. Although at the time it was known as “Gallant Warrior”. Every year it seemed to be there, and it was always one I snapped a quick photo of the nose art using my Kodak 110 camera. As my knowledge of WWII history and the B-25’s importance to the war effort increased, so did my desire to fly in one. The dream has finally come true.
Unlike many of the other flying B-25s, this is an early D model. The difference between the early and late models is easily distinguished. On the earlier models, like “Yankee Warrior”, the top turret is located in the rear third of the fuselage, and the tail gun station is merely an observation bubble with a single machine gun. On later models, the turret was moved to just behind the cockpit to allow for waist gunners, and a formal tail gunner’s position was created.
The B-25 was made famous by the “Doolittle Raid” of April, 1942. Sixteen B-25s took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and made the first strikes against mainland Japan. Although the strikes did minimal damage, the impact to the Japanese defense strategy was immense. Additionally, the raid provided a much-needed boost to the morale of the American public.
Yankee Warrior was produced by the North American plant on December 15, 1943 as serial number 43-3634 and was originally destined to be a part of the Royal Air Force (RAF) lend-lease program. Instead the USAAF took possession and assigned it to the 12th Air Force in Corsica, Italy. The aircraft was assigned to the 57th Bomber Wing, 340th Bomber Group, and flew eight combat missions between April and May 1944. The journey to the RAF began on May 12, 1944 when the aircraft was flown back to the United States. The RAF took possession of the aircraft in October 1944 and assigned the airframe to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Vancouver, British Columbia as a multi-engine trainer. The airframe remained in RCAF service until 1962, and was sold as surplus. After briefly flying in Canadian civil registry, the aircraft was sold to an American and brought to Ohio. Glen Lamont purchased the aircraft from the owner in Ohio in July of 1968 and the registered the aircraft as N3774 with the FAA, the code which remains today. Mr. Gallant had the nose art painted and the aircraft became known as “Gallant Warrior”. In 1988, the fledgling Yankee Air Force (now known as the Yankee Air Museum) purchased the B-25 to add to the museum’s flying collection. The aircraft was later renamed to “Yankee Warrior”.
The day of my flight was warm with minimal overcast skies. My partner for the ride was my daughter, Samantha, along with three other passengers. We were shuttled out to the active side of the airport and given a planeside safety briefing. The briefing was short yet provided all of the safety needs for the aircraft. Me, Samantha and one other passenger were assigned to start the flight in the aft section of the aircraft. Sammy and I took position near the waist windows while the other fella took the tail gunners seat in the very aft of the aircraft behind the top turret. The other two riders started out in the radio operator and bombardier positions in the front of the aircraft.
Once everyone was seated and the safety belts were inspected, the all clear signal was given and the two large R-2600 Double Cyclone radial engines coughed to life. As the engines warmed up, the loud backfires could be heard and felt. The B-25 has a reputation as being a very loud aircraft inside, and it is one I can confirm! The engines are mounted close to the fuselage and have a “short stack” exhaust system. The minimal sound muffling of the engine exhaust lead to many of the aircrews having some degree of hearing loss after numerous flights on the aircraft. Although loud, I loved it. Reluctantly, we placed the ear protection over our ears and waited to taxi for takeoff. After a brief taxi, we were ready to go. The engines were run up to full power and the brakes were released. The Mitchell began to climb as the wheels retracted into the gear nacelles behind the engines. We leveled off and were cleared to explore the other aircrew positions. The fuselage in the Mitchell is narrow, with little room to move easily about.
The real challenge was to move into the forward compartments or stay put. Between the forward cabin and the rear is the bomb bay. The only way between is a small rectangular tunnel that can only be traversed while on your back. I am a big guy, so there was no way I was going to risk getting stuck. However, Sammy swallowed deep and decided to go for it. She climbed up and a few seconds later was into the forward crew compartments. She climbed down into the cockpit area and between the pilot and co-pilot into the bombardier’s position in the glass nose. Also known as the best seat in the house! Meanwhile, I checked out the top turret and went as far as I could to check out the tail gunner area. The other passenger from the front came back and checked out the gunners’ positions while Sammy was up front.
After a few amazing minutes, I got the signal that Sammy was coming back. She arrived fine and had an enormous smile on her face. “Dad is was awesome” she exclaimed with an equally satisfying smile. We tried to talk about her experience, but the interior noise just did not allow for easy conversation.
The signal was sent to get back into our seats and buckle in for landing. A few brief moments later, we touched back down at Willow Run Airport. We pulled back into our parking position and the engines were shut down. A brief calm encapsulated the aircraft. The crew door was opened and we climbed down. There was no doubt that all five passengers were in awe of our experience. Handshakes were exchanged between passengers and crew. Our time with a living piece of history was nearly over.
We took a quick walk around the aircraft for an up-close final inspection. The engines pinged and popped as they cooled. Traces of oil were evident on the engine cowlings, a normal event with radial style engines. We got back on the golf cart and were driven to the inactive area of the airport.
I was quiet. I wanted to listen to Samantha as she told me all about her experience up front. This was her first time in a warbird. It was our first time doing something like this together. It was a special occurrence we shared. We had different experiences. She was awed by the flight and the view. I was transported in time to the 1940s, imagining myself being flown on an important mission. Did I have the guts to do my job, or was this my final flight? Would I get back okay or would I be hurt by enemy gunfire or flak? It is surreal for me to think that these were daily occurrences during the Second World War.
Our ride was arranged by our dear friend and colleague, Kerry J. Newstead, the Canadian Editor of World Airshow News. Although he was originally supposed to be my ride companion, he sacrificed his spot to allow Samantha to experience it with me. Her ride experience ultimately resulted in a published article in World Airshow News. A huge debt of gratitude must also go out to Kevin Walsh, the Executive Director of the Yankee Air Museum, for the amazing support and generous opportunity. I had to wait a number of years to live my dream in a B-25. It was an experience that I will cherish my entire life, and it thrills me that I shared it with my daughter. It was drastically different than I envisioned as a kid, but it was such a fantastic experience. Of the approximately 10,000 B-25s produced, there are only about 100 airframes left, and of those remaining, about 45 are capable of flying. If you’d like to experience a flight in the Yankee Warrior (or one of their other aircraft), check out the Yankee Air Museum’s website for details on how to book a ride for yourself. Take the opportunity if you can, it is an experience that does not disappoint.
In the air, a squadron can be identified by the type of aircraft being flown and squadron logo or tail codes. On the ground, a squadron’s identity is reflected in their vehicle. For semi-truck drivers, wood in the cab is the decor of choice while chrome is king for most “hot rods”. In a squadron vehicles, anything goes. The more gaudy and outrageous the better! Everything from wild paint schemes to spare aircraft parts can be seen on what has become the squadron’s ultimate alter ego.
The tradition appears to have started with the Navy. According to lore, official transportation was generally unavailable to squadrons that were deployed or on training detachments. Accordingly, the squadron car was born out of necessity. Several members would chip in a few dollars and buy a cheap vehicle to get around. Usually, the junior officers were tasked with driving the senior officers around to the base functions and parties.
The original squadron cars were plain and simple, what my generation would call a “beater” – cheap and usually in need of some sort of repair. Over time, the cars started to get custom paint jobs that reflected persona of the squadron. Standard cars morphed into retired limos. Not to be outdone, limousines transformed into old school buses and RVs. As the type of vehicle changed, so did the exterior details. Modern squadron vehicles are adorned with anything and everything to make their ground transportation match their aerial rides. Retired tails are mounted, maybe a refueling boom or perhaps simulated missiles/guns. Basically, the rule of thumb is this: it has to be bigger, wilder and more flashy than the other squadron’s ride yet, reflect the squadron’s history and culture. The early cars were very politically incorrect and crass. When ladies began to incorporate into the flying units, the crude references were mostly stricken. However, a few may still have a reference or two if you look close enough.
Ultimately, the squadron car is a symbol of pride for the unit. It gives the men and now women a fun diversion from the everyday routine and shows the wild imagination and creativity these people have. While the members of the squadron may rotate, the squadron vehicle passes to each successive generation to modify and carry on the tradition. The legacy builds as more customization or modifications are completed.
The “squadron car” has become such a legend that the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida displays the Lincoln Continental limo formerly of VAQ-134. The automobile was driven all the way from NAS Whidbey Island to NAS Pensacola to be put on display in 2003!
Next time you are at an airshow or open house at the local military base, keep an eye out for the unique and imaginative works of art from the Navy, Marine and USAF/ANG units.
The early evening sky can offer some of the most vibrant and beautiful views of the entire day. Thousands of people flock outdoors to glimpse Mother Nature’s beauty daily to watch the evening sunset. For aviation lovers, a twilight airshow combines the beauty of the sunset with the beauty of the flying machine.
“Twilight shows” are popularly hosted on the eve of the formal airshow, on Friday for example. It allows the casual fan to come onto the show grounds and get a teaser of the formal show, usually at a lower gate price. For others like me, the evening show provides an extra day of the weekend “holiday”. These evening shows are usually a blend of aerial talent, food/beverage and live talent. In other words, it is a Friday night airport party! The overall atmosphere is usually a little more relaxed and the crowds a bit easier to tolerate. The sometimes oppressive summer heat is reduced making the early evening much easier to tolerate.
My exposure to twilight shows began in the late 1990s at Michigan’s popular Muskegon Air Fair. The Friday evening show started as a casual way to party before the show and eventually morphed into a widely successful event in and of itself – the “Friday Night Runway Bash”.
Ever since those early Runway Bashes, I was hooked on the evening shows. I always try to attend them when the timing works out with the travel schedule. I like the different views and early sneak peak into the weekend show. I have even met some of the performers casually walking around the grounds.
The Early Evening…
Early evening is when the magic sky transformation begins. The sky begins to grow darker as the sun lowers on the horizon. The yellow tones begin to show on the polished finishes and gloss coatings of the aircraft paint.
The Mid-Evening…Golden Hour!
This is likely my favorite time of the day and is no exception during evening airshows. The aircraft begin to darken and they sky begins to pop with the vibrant evening sunset colors of various reds and oranges. Exhaust flames and afterburners begin to become evident.
The Late Evening…
As the day turns into evening, the last bits of color erupt over the horizon, casting the final hues of red and orange for the day. With the loss of visual cues, the skill set of the pilots increase.
Many performers have developed a specific routine for evening shows to showcase the elegance of flight in the late evening sky. Some have even catered to this type of performance by adding special lights to the aircraft to make them easier to track in the darkening skies. The hours and hours of practice are evident as the routine unfolds as flawlessly as a daytime performance.
Has the sun set on evening shows?
No! But ultimately, an airshow is a business. Like all businesses, decisions are made based on the economics of the times. People outside the industry do not understand that an airshow is not put together just a few weeks prior to the scheduled date. Instead they are planned a year, sometimes longer, in advance. Budgets are set and performers are signed based on those budget figures. A brief look into your own checkbook will likely reveal the costs of daily life are rising. Aviation is the ultimate motor sport and like all motor sports is a wallet draining hobby without a sponsorship to offset costs. Vintage piston and jet warbirds are costly to own, maintain and fly and therefore charge an appearance fee. Civilian acrobatic performers use equally expensive aircraft that can handle heavy g-forces.
An evening show simply adds to the overall costs. Performers get paid more, additional volunteers are needed and municipalities require payment for the additional police and traffic control. If it rains, those costs are likely not recovered. With today’s economics, an extra day is usually just too costly and risky to plan. However, there are planners and performers that enjoy the evening shows and take a chance. Some shows are even beginning to plan the airshow later in the day to take advantage of the timing to incorporate the airshow, ground entertainment, concerts and a fireworks display.
If you are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to attend a twilight airshow, take advantage. Vendors get a bit of extra business, the airshow’s profits increase and the performers get to show off their talents. A lot of time and effort went into the planning for the evening. Enjoy the casual atmosphere, visual beauty and the people that come with you to share in the evening fun!
During the 2017 Thunder Over Michigan airshow, I had the opportunity to ride on Yankee Air Museum’s B-17G Flying Fortress “Yankee Lady”. The aircraft, serial 44-85829, was built by Lockheed Vega at their Burbank, California plant and delivered to the USAAF in July of 1945, but never flew combat missions. After the war ended, the aircraft was transferred to the Coast Guard and configured for air-sea rescue. In 1958, she was retired by the Coast Guard and subsequently sold for scrap. However, she was spared the torch and used for aerial survey and aerial fire-fighting work. She even appeared in the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”.
Thanks to the warbird movement to preserve the historic aircraft of World War II, she escaped the torch again when the fledgling Yankee Air Force purchased her in 1986 and began the extensive restoration from aerial tanker to her original bomber configuration. After a nine year restoration, Yankee Lady took to the skies as the flagship of the Yankee Air Force (now Yankee Air Museum) fleet.
Yankee Lady‘s Nose Art
The flight experience began with a safety brief at planeside and seating assignments. The crew of three boarded first, then the twelve passengers. Yankee Lady came to life as the four Wright R1820 engines coughed to life. After the engines warmed up and safety checks were complete, we began to taxi to the runway.
As I sat there, I could not help but think of my Mother’s uncle, who served as a B-17 tail gunner in the 99th Bomb Group in Italy during the Second World War. He shared countless stories of his missions over Europe and of his experiences as a prisoner of war after being shot down on his 23rd mission. The vibrations, the noise and even the mechanical smells he described to me as a kid came to life before me. This was a machine of war. There are no comforts for passengers and every space was used for required equipment. As we turned onto the active runway for take-off, I remember him saying that besides flak, the worst part of the mission was take-off. When fully loaded for war, a Fortress needed a lot of runway, but not this day. Even with a full load of passengers, the aircraft took off smoothly and with little effort.
After takeoff, we were permitted to move freely about the aircraft to explore the various crew positions. Forget any preconceived notion that the aircraft is spacious. Moving around was challenging due to the cabin’s small space and the continuous movement of the aircraft. The experience of walking in flight was similar to walking on a boat in a light chop. You had to develop a sense of balance to move around easily. Transitioning from the waste gun position to the radio/navigator positions required walking around the ball turret. No easy task for a novice flyboy. To get to the main cabin required a trip across a very small bridge across the bomb bay! It was challenging, and one can only imagine doing it with a full bomb load and the stress of war around you. Access was available to the top turret and bombardier/navigator position in the nose, but was unable to take advantage of the opportunity this time.
After a few minutes, we began a sharp turnaround to begin our return to the airport (below us was the University of Michigan football stadium) and eventually got the signal to strap back in. As we touched down, one passenger looked at us with a huge smile on his face and two thumbs up yelled “that was awesome!” and none of us disagreed. As we taxied back to the ramp, we all smiled and the chatter was non-stop about our amazing flight experience. Each was different as many of the passengers went to all of the available crew stations, including the incredible bombardier position in the glass nose. In addition to rides in the B-17, the Yankee Air Museum offers flight experiences in three additional aircraft: B-25D Mitchell, C-47 Skytrain and a Waco biplane. The museum is located at the historic Willow Run Airport in Belleville, Michigan and rides can be purchased at their website yankeeairmuseum.org. Thank you to Yankee Air Museum Director Kevin Walsh and Canadian Editor Kerry J Newstead for making this opportunity available. The flight was truly an unforgettable experience.
This article was previously published in the January/February 2018 edition of WORLD AIRSHOW NEWS.