Warbirds: a living tribute

There is a steady, light rain falling from a 600 foot overcast. I stand among a handful of spectators sheltered beneath a large, green, canvas tent. Two sides of the tent have been rolled up to allow a clear view of the runway and the aircraft parking ramp. Although this is a public-use airport, it’s also home to a National Guard unit and the tent only serves to enhance the look and feel of a military base.

A radio under the tent, tuned to the tower frequency, announces the imminent arrival of an approaching aircraft. We move to the open side of the tent and gaze toward the clouds beyond the north end of the runway. Suddenly a B-17 appears from out of the overcast on a final approach for runway 17. I know the date is the 1st of September 1973, but my senses tell me I have somehow been transported back in time to an allied air field somewhere in World War II England.

B-17 on ramp
The B-17 always attracts a crowd.

I watch spell-bound as the B-17 slides down the final approach to kiss the runway in a graceful two-point landing before gently lowering her tailwheel to the asphalt. As she turns off the runway, the crew shuts down two of her four engines and continues to taxi slowly toward the parking ramp. As she arrives on the ramp, marshalers in yellow rain coats, orange wands in hand, stand ready to direct her crew into their parking space, directly in front of where I stand. As she comes closer, the deeply pitched roar of her engine exhaust and the propellers beating the air send a vibration through the very ground upon which I stand. I am awed by the sound of her raw power. After she stops, the engines suddenly cease their roar and the props quickly spin to a stop, leaving for a few moments, only the sound of the rain.

This is my first look at a real B-17 and I am a little surprised to see that it’s actually smaller than I had imagined. But the lethal appearance of the “Flying Fortress” leaves no doubt in my mind that this machine was built to carry destruction to the homeland of our enemy. I stand watching the rain add a slight sheen to the flat green paint on her skin and I find myself filled with admiration for the courage and sacrifice of the young aviators who flew these magnificent machines into combat. Maybe because of the dreary, damp atmosphere I find it difficult to shake the feeling that I have just watched an aircraft and her crew return from a bombing mission over Germany. I would expect to see bullet holes and flack damage if I could just get a closer look.

The B-17 is soon followed in turn by a B-24, several B-25s, a couple of C-47s, and other types I have probably forgotten. The aircraft suddenly appear, one at a time, below the overcast at a point where a second before there had been nothing but cloud. I watch as each descends gracefully down the final approach. Drawing nearer through the misty rain their form gradually becomes more sharply defined. It almost seems as if they are materializing from the mists of time. After touchdown each slowly taxis to her place on the parking ramp. The CAF “Ghost Squadron” is assembling on the ramp at Max Westheimer Airport in Norman, Oklahoma, having flown in from their home base at Harlingen, Texas, for tomorrow’s scheduled air show.

Because of the weather, most of the single-engine warbirds won’t arrive until tomorrow morning, but that’s OK because I’ll be back at the crack of dawn to watch them, too. Standing under a tent in the rain that day, I was a 17-year-old-boy with a four-day-old private pilot certificate in my pocket. I was, and still am, fascinated by anything that can fly, but this was my first exposure to the world of warbirds. I hadn’t expected it, but even at that young age, I immediately realized there must be some very profound meaning behind the flight of these old machines. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. It was one of those life-shaping events I will never forget.

B-25
B-25s like the ones that flew over Tokyo are a living tribute.

The next day, a Saturday, dawns clear and bright with not a single cloud in the sky. The show begins with a re-enactment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with the part of Zeros being played by AT-6s that were modified for use in the movie Tora, Tora, Tora. The Pearl Harbor attack is followed by B-25s re-enacting the carrier takeoff and Tokyo bombing mission of Doolittle’s Raiders. There are formation fly bys, dog fights and aerobatic demonstrations. It’s all designed to showcase the unique abilities of each type of aircraft and give the spectator an up close and personal look at the aircraft that fought the war in the air.

For me, on that day, the thrill of the brute power, grace and beauty of warbirds in flight was over all too soon. As I made my way home, the curious feeling came over me that I had just witnessed something very important, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.

Sunday morning I found an article covering the air show in the local newspaper. I was still excited and somehow deeply affected by the events I had witnessed over the previous two days. I started reading the story, hoping to relive the experience through the writer’s words and maybe even have the meaning of it all explained. By the time I finished the writer’s story, I had the feeling he must have seen a different show than the one I saw. What he described sounded more like an aerial circus with “death-defying stunts” performed by “dare-devil” pilots flying “really cool” old airplanes. As I thought it over for the next few days it gradually became clear to me the writer had completely missed the whole point of the CAF.

What I saw was a very vivid demonstration of the gallantry and courage of my father’s generation. They were the everyday Americans who suspended their normal lives to become the warriors who would fight and die defending the freedom our nation stands for. Their mission on that day in 1973 was to preserve the legacy of these old birds and the everyday heroes who flew them by educating my generation and reminding their own. On the day of that show, I suspect most of the Ghost Squadron was still being flown and maintained by WW II vets. I developed a tremendous respect and admiration for those men, and the men and women who carry on their legacy today. To me these airplanes represent a living tribute to the American workforce that built them, and the airmen who flew them.

Keep them flying, Colonel!

5 Comments

  • I am remembering today Robert B. Parke, publisher and editor of Flying magazine when I first worked there. He was a B-17 pilot, and I adored him, really, for many reasons not the least of which was rather than having some buxom babe as nose art on his airplane, he had Eustace Tilley, the little New Yorker magazine icon.

    At the time, we both smoked cigarettes (yes, I’ve long since quit) and often he would pass my desk on the way to his office and say to me, “Let’s have a gasper.” That’s what he called cigarettes. And I’d go in his office and he’d close the door and we’d smoke a cigarette while he told me war stories, literally, all about flying the B-17. I wish I remembered more but two things stand out — once he told me the training he got about what to do if you were shot down and survived and how to contact the resistance… the other story was more fun.

    His base in England was near some grand estate where the pilots could go as guests during their off-time. The place had tennis courts, but of course, none of the pilots had tennis whites and their hosts insisted they only wear white while playing tennis so they
    would play tennis in their underwear — white shorts and t-shirts.

    Back to the present, well, the late 70s, he was invited to fly a B-17 and write about it for Flying. Everyone expected him to be all gushy and sentimental about being back in the airplane, but he wrote something to the effect that flying the airplane was like bumping into an old friend on the street “and realizing you don’t have much in common any more.” Many readers were disappointed by his reaction — some of them angry about it, but he told his own truth.

    We all called him by his last name, at his request, so on Veterans Day, I’ll say thank you, Parke, for your service.

  • Two memories: In September of 1990, my oldest son and I visited Duxford, England for the 60th anniversary Battle of Britain show. At about 5 PM, the sound of Merlin engines could be heard all down the flight line. Within the next few minutes, they launched 20 Spitfires and 3 Hurricanes, taking off in two’s and three’s, wheels awkwardly retracting as they climbed away into the evening. The sight…and sound…was simply breathtaking. The actual date was two days off, but it was Saturday, sixty years almost to the minute, since the Saturday evening in 1940 when Douglas Bader finally got his 242 Squadron airborne in the first of the efforts at getting his and Leigh-Mallory’s “Big Wing” into action against German raiders…from exactly the same runway, into the same gentle evening sky. As the third or fourth gaggle started their takeoff roll, I told my son to just close his eyes and listen, because the sound alone would transport him back to that very evening when everything was so desperately on the line.

    They all formed up and made several passes, then breaking into small groups for low flyby’s and then the circuit to land. There were hundreds of people there, many old enough to remember, and many quietly welling tears.

    A couple of years ago, I had a Frontier Airlines pilot on my jumpseat enroute to Dallas for, of all things, B-29 recurrent ground school. He told a wonderful story of a woman bringing her aging father to see Fifi, the CAF B-29. Her father had flown them in the Pacific. They ended up putting him in the left seat, his daughter in the right seat, and for over an hour the old man regaled other visitors with everything there was to know about flying B-29’s. When they left, the woman stopped to thank the CAF volunteers. She said, “I never knew what he did. He’s never, ever, talked about it. I can’t tell you how much this has meant to me…I just had no idea.”

    That’s why this is so worth doing.

  • It is a rare pleasure to know an author of heart felt and fine writing, especially when it concerns flying. When you read something they publish, you receive a special blessing. Reading this for me means a double blessing. Clyde let me know he wrote a special tribute to veterans and I looked forward to reading it. Thanks Clyde, you captured the plane and the pilots. It allowed me a golden moment to think back to flying and working with you in some of the most challenging environments of every color in the spectrum in regards to missions, weather, and personalities. To this day, just over 10 years back I remember the relief on your face as I landed in break in a sandstorm – not knowing the alternate closed as I shot the approach. Your friendship of wings never forgotten.

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