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Squadron Vehicles: Gaudy and Spectacular!

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.

VMFA(AW)-225 Vikings hurst squadron car. A fitting ride for sure!

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.

VFA-32 Swordsmen RV . Note the unit awards painted on the upper portion.

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 fire engine of VMFA-232 Red Devils is a fantastic example of the squadron’s symbolism reflected in the squad car.

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!

I imagine the VMFA-314 Black Knights former fire truck is probably now the ultimate party bus inside!

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.

Here is the 107th Fighter Squadron “Red Devils” Limo, an example of a USAF ANG squadron car. Plenty of room for a group and/or some fun times!

A Different Perspective: Twilight Airshows

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”.

F-14 Tomcat Demo Team performing pre-flight checks during the Friday evening 2004 Muskegon Air Fair

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 setting sun casts a golden hue on the F-22 Raptor Demo Team taken during the 2015 Planes of Fame evening show.

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!

Stick Time with: The Yankee Lady

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.

Yankee Lady in flight during the 2014 Thunder Over Michigan Airshow

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.

The author with Yankee Lady. Photo by Kerry J. Newstead.

This article was previously published in the January/February 2018 edition of WORLD AIRSHOW NEWS.