Flying With Passion

Warbird owners fly with history on their tails

July 1, 2005

The military aircraft are flying close together, nose to tail. "Red Lead, Red Two has a bogey at 2 o'clock." The airplane in front rocks its wings, and all the aircraft smoothly maneuver into a fingertip formation. A calm voice broadcasts, "Smoke," and instantly white vapor lines stream simultaneously from each aircraft.

Is this a combat mission over the Nevada desert? No, just a routine flight of five warbirds on their way to a Saturday fly-out. The bogey? Another warbird on its way to rendezvous with the Red Squadron at breakfast.

Although some purists would disagree, at a minimum an American warbird is a flying machine once owned by the U.S. military. Even a Civil War surveillance hot air balloon qualifies. The best estimate is that there are about 2,000 American warbirds around, owned by folks of all shapes and sizes, and with all motivations. While attempts to stereotype warbird owners — such as wealthy ex-military pilots flying their former airplanes — generally fail, there are nonetheless some common characteristics. As kids these pilots were probably rotten center fielders, for they were looking up at every military airplane that flew overhead regardless of whether a ball was coming. Some had so many warbird models in their rooms that no parent would dare intrude into their "airfields." Later in life they were apt to overdose on reruns of Black Sheep Squadron.

For some it's a family affair, such as for father and son Dick and Mark Russell who, while living on opposite coasts, each own a Beechcraft T-34. Most possess prodigious quantities of passion for their airplanes and the culture that surrounds ownership of these aircraft.

Regardless of their political views, warbird owners tend to harbor tremendous respect for veterans, and particularly for World War II pilots. An oft-heard phrase is, "We must remember the sacrifices made by the greatest generation." These owners enjoy the camaraderie they find at warbird meetings, at aviation events where they exhibit their airplanes, or — for those who do it — after a formation flight. Money does not play much of a role, with the owner of a $45,000 North American L-17 Navion feeling comfortable parked next to a million-dollar North American P-51 Mustang. While most warbird owners are men, a few women are in the fraternity.

One of these women is Cathy Harrell, who flies a North American T-28 and T-34 from her home base in Indiana. Any of the following adjectives could describe Harrell: animated, ardent, enthusiastic, avid, ebullient. It is probably most accurate to add passionate to the list and say she is all of that.

As a child, Harrell was a spectator when her brother took flying lessons. That changed 10 years ago when she met partner Jim Reed, and today they have a hangar full of operational warbirds. She is emphatic that warbirds have to be kept flying, for the reason perhaps best explained by the rhetorical question of Dave Desmon of the Cascade Warbirds in Seattle, "Would you rather see an eagle fly or look at a stuffed one in a museum?" Harrell says it is only during flight that you can relate to "the power of these engines — the smoke — it's almost like a fire-breathing dragon." Although she enjoys the freedom of flight when she flies general aviation aircraft, a unique element is added by the history of each warbird. Flying along with a group of Mustangs, she gets into the heads of the World War II pilots who flew them. "When you look out the cockpit and see the other P-51s in formation, it gives you the chills. You can just imagine the pilots getting ready to engage in battle, knowing that it could possibly be their last flight. And seeing those planes together makes you think, 'I would have hated to have been on the receiving end of those fighters.'"

Harrell says that warbird owners are a warm group of individuals and she considers them to be her brothers (and protective brothers, at that). She is determined to be a role model for girls, explaining, "As I taxi by I see the look in young girls' eyes when they see I am a woman, because they're just assuming that it's all men. Their faces light up, and they start yelling, jumping, screaming. I just want them to know that they can do whatever they want to do."

The best payback for Harrell is when the World War II veterans stop by the airplanes. Some are rendered speechless and cover their eyes, and she knows they have traveled back in time. She quietly walks away and lets them sit in the airplanes that played so significant a role in their lives. "The aircraft that we have are extremely rare, and we feel like we have been handed a mantle to protect these aircraft, to preserve them. They are pieces of American history and if we're not careful they can disappear. If so, the younger generation would never have a chance to actually see them and touch them and know the battles that were won with them. So we take very seriously our role to preserve these aircraft. It's a privilege to be able to own them for a while," Harrell says.

Harrell is pleased to have found a way to thank the many men and women who flew those airplanes, and especially those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The depth of her feelings is underscored by the fact that she and Reed have started a warbird museum.

Fun is central in the vocabulary of Ken Terry, of Daytona Beach, Florida. He lists his reasons for owning a warbird unhesitatingly, in the following order: to have fun, to remind all that a significant part of American heritage can be attributed to air power, to inspire patriotism.

There is nothing understated about Terry, who freely states that just thinking about flying warbirds gives him an "adrenaline overload. I am the luckiest guy in the world to be able to do this and I cross my fingers, eyes, and toes that I can continue." You will not find a glass cockpit in his airplane, and there probably will be bugs on the wings. "I fly the rough-and-tumble old stuff," he says. "When I strap in with all the noise and smoke, and looking good in my airplane, I love it." For Terry, warbird ownership satisfies an inner passion that cannot be taught, although it can be re-energized. One source of passion renewal comes from experiences such as one he had at an airshow, when a pilot approached him and, with tears in his eyes, told him that his airplane was the very one he had flown in the Marine Corps.

A resident of Spruce Creek, a large fly-in community in Florida, where a number of warbirds are based ("where else could I live?"), Terry has owned 25 airplanes and cannot remember a point in his life when flying was not center forward. A significant part of his time is spent flying formation, either as a pilot or instructor, for which he refuses to accept any compensation. He estimates that he has ignited the inner spark of 200 pilots who may not have known they were formation fliers waiting to happen, and he is putting the final touches on a 168-page formation-flying manual. During a formation flight he seems unaware that he is constantly and enthusiastically talking to himself, as if to cajole other aircraft into perfect position by the sheer force of his will. And flying with him, you almost think he can do just that.

Nowhere is the passion more apparent than at a meeting of the burgeoning 235-member Cascade Warbirds in Seattle. While a poll of the group for most enthusiastic warbird owner would end in a hopeless tie, with most owners self-voting, 42-year-old Bill Lattimer would rank right up there. Although he has been a self-described warbird nut since childhood, his entry into flying was delayed by other life commitments. After taking a ride in a Boeing Stearman 10 years ago, he bought himself a leather jacket and a bunch of pilot lessons, in that order. A few years later, he decided to keep his rusty but trusty truck, and spend his money instead on a neglected North American L-17 Navion. A lot of work and an $11,000 annual later, he was in the air.

A computer guy by profession, Lattimer becomes animated when talking about serial number 48-1007. "I love that airplane! It's a gorgeous, no-compromise aircraft." He makes no effort to conceal the fact that, for him, owning a warbird is all emotion. "You have to feel, smell, hear, and see a warbird to experience it." It took Lattimer three years to get his L-17 airborne, and during that time he unabashedly admits to sitting in it and making flying noises, until that exhilarating day when he was able to yell, "Clear!" Lattimer is not interested in IFR flying, and during Seattle's rainy season he satisfies his warbird hunger by visiting his airplane. When he does go up, he "flies to fly, not to go." It's a mystery to him why so many pilots spend hours coming up with justifications to go flying. He would never spoil a perfectly good flight with a day at the in-laws'. Instead he will cloud chase, and after "asking nicely," will fly to the limits of his airplane.

Some of the rewards of warbird ownership come from outside the organization and personal flying. The Cascade Warbirds flew in formation to greet a ship returning from the Persian Gulf area, a day that generated as much positive feeling among the pilots as it did among the sailors.

Lattimer put me in touch with Glen Murphy of Pennsylvania, another L-17 owner. The original military pilot of his warbird got in touch with Murphy, and the two arranged to meet at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. The pilot had not seen the L-17 in 50 years, and Murphy arranged for him to fly it.

Some owners of nonwarbirds have managed to capture some of that same feeling by putting stars and bars on their airplanes. Mike Kelly fell from a tree and broke his arm as a youngster on the day he was to have his first flying lesson, a flight that was financed by a collateralized loan on his bicycle. He did not tell his dad about the injury until after the lesson. That spirit served him well when he built his 14,000-rivet Van's Aircraft RV-8. One day he and his wife/pilot/co-owner, Dianne, realized that, with military markings, their RV-8 easily could be mistaken for a small Mustang. The couple's airplane is called Dianne Di, after the nose art on the cowling. Pictured is a pinup of an attractive blonde. Dianne explains that the face was made from a picture of her dancing with their son at his wedding. She politely declines to answer whether the shapely figure from the neck down is hers as well. In awe of World War II pilots, the couple derive great satisfaction as they taxi by older people and are given a thumbs-up.

Norm Pesch's German immigrant father, who worked on the Republic P-47, raised the American flag at their home every day of his life, instilling in Pesch a sense of respect for the men who served their country. The military paint scheme on his RV-8 is a tribute to them. Pesch flies at least once a week at some event honoring veterans, whether it is a missing-man formation over a national cemetery or a static display for youngsters. On his living-room wall is a newspaper headline of a flyover he flew titled "Honoring the Fallen."

The Mentor is the naval version of the T-34, and "Mini Mentor" is painted on Bill Merkin's Varga. Merkin remembers his father, who worked on Martin B-26s, putting him in the seat of a Lockheed P-38 in 1941, and traces his love of World War II airplanes to that day. He enjoys talking to older war pilots, paying tribute to the heroes of all wars, and the camaraderie that comes with formation flying.

Meanwhile the markings on Connie Shad's Varga have special meaning for him. A former member of the Air National Guard, Shad has a son serving in the Air Force. "I was the proudest when I flew in formation, in my stars-and-bars Varga, with my son at the controls," he recalls.

Sometimes doing a good deed with a warbird can be fun. Carter Teeters was flying a Grumman Wildcat back to California from a trip to Canada. The warbird had been painted in British Squadron colors in honor of the U.S. World War II Allies. The mission had been to take the airplane for a reunion with an 83-year-old pilot who had used it to earn his country's Distinguished Service Cross. He was genuinely moved to be able to show the airplane to his sons.

After a tearful reunion, Teeters headed back to the West Coast. He was talking with Toronto Approach, and the controller, curious about the airplane, asked him if he had time to give some information. After Teeters provided a brief description and history of the aircraft, the controller inquired if he would be willing to do a flyby at Buttonville Airport. Teeters agreed, and did so.

Then came the real fun. He was asked if he would do a flyby at Toronto Pearson International Airport and, after responding in the affirmative, was given vectors for the runway. At that point the controller he was working with handed him off to another controller, explaining that he was going outside with his camera.

Teeters heard approach control telling the airliners in the area to disregard their traffic alert and collision avoidance systems, as the tower had a fighter coming by for a flyby. Air-craft were given a ground hold to allow Teeters to show off the airplane, and comply with the additional request that he fly as close to the tower as possible. In his words: "Now, we are talking Toronto International, no podunk muni!"

As he flew by, he heard a couple of the airline pilots say simply, "Nice."

The list of warbird ownership tales, dedication, and interest is endless. Eighty-five-year-old Dick Foote was a test pilot for the Grumman Wildcat during World War II, and today flies that same airplane. Tim Savage left his business to start a magazine dedicated to warbirds. An inquiry to the Varga owners group about whether there were any Varga warbirds (there were) produced a deluge of responses within hours. Ask yourself this: The next time you land at an airport and see a Vought Corsair parked across from a brand-new four-seater where do you think your feet will take you first?

Richard Axelrod, AOPA 492142, of Lyndonville, Vermont, has been flying for more than 34 years and owns a Cessna 210 and a Varga.

Links to additional information about warbirds may be found on AOPA Online (

The Saga of the T-34

BY JUD NOGLE, T-34 Association, Inc.

The Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, a tandem-seat trainer built for the U.S. Navy and Air Force, is a versatile aircraft that has become a popular warbird for private enthusiasts. The airplane also is flown commercially to give pilots and the public an "air combat" experience. The T-34 has been used, and used hard, in this commercial mock combat role since 1990.

Because of the distinctly different flight demands of these two uses, the T-34 Association does not believe that a "one size fits all" approach will work when it comes to maintaining these older aircraft and ensuring airworthiness. The T-34 Association Inc. is a nonprofit corporation that promotes the safe enjoyment of the T-34.

Tragically, there have been three fatal accidents involving commercially flown T-34s. The first occurred in 1999. Fatigue in the main spar was discovered — and blamed. Several engineering solutions were designed and became alternate means of compliance (AMOCs) to an expensive and recurring airworthiness directive.

The second fatal accident occurred in November 2003 during simulated air combat. The cause of this accident was identical in nature to the first. This airplane had not been modified using any of the AMOCs.

On December 7, 2004, a third air-combat T-34 crashed as a result of metal fatigue. This time, however, the wings had been modified but fatigue was now found in the center carry-through section.

On December 10, 2004, the FAA grounded the entire fleet of T-34s.

By the time you read this, it is expected that T-34s will be released to fly for 60 hours after completing a surface eddy-current inspection of the center section. Getting the FAA to this point required an expensive, four-month effort on the part of the T-34 Association and the AMOC holders.

The FAA considers this to be an aging-aircraft issue. The T-34 Association strongly disagrees and feels that this is a use, and potentially an abuse, issue. The association maintains that commercial air-combat hours involve many more high-G cycles and flight-envelope excursions and can potentially accelerate the fatigue process.

There are only nine aircraft in the entire fleet of 300 active T-34s that have had significant commercial air-combat experience. Three of these have crashed and a fourth has been identified with fatigue. Meanwhile, there have been no T-34 fatigue-related accidents outside the commercial air-combat fleet.

Only one other T-34 has been identified with possible fatigue cracks. That airplane, one of the very highest-time airframes in the fleet, was a survivor of a 1999 midair. The center section, just recently inspected, was found to have cracks on the impact side. It is unclear whether these cracks were caused by fatigue or overload.

The FAA has based its regulatory approach for the fleet on the experience of the air-combat airplanes. The agency has steadfastly maintained that there is only one fleet, not two, as the association contends.

The T-34 community is eager to inspect the fleet, get real data, and develop a longer-term solution that will ensure all parties that our airplanes are safe.

Additional information about the T-34 Association and its ongoing efforts to support the aircraft and owners can be found online (

An Air Show for the General

Warbirds salute the ninetieth birthday of Gen. Paul Tibbets


Gen. Paul Tibbets is best known as the pilot of the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 named after his mother that dropped the first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan. Before that, though, Tibbets flew 29 missions in a Boeing B-17 called Red Gremlin — most of them either dangerous or important, such as when he and his crew transported Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in poor weather to command the war in Africa and a commandolike mission involving Gen. Mark Clark.

For Tibbets' ninetieth birthday celebration in Atlanta on February 18 and 19 (his actual birthday was February 23) the crew of the Red Gremlin came together again, not to fight but to tell war stories about the man who, even after the war, helped many of them to live successful lives. Many of them got rides in a newly restored B-17, which is painted to represent the 390th Battle Group's Liberty Belle — including Dutch Van Kirk, former navigator on the Red Gremlin and the only crewmember present to also have been on the Enola Gay with Tibbets.

Briefly, the original Liberty Belle was in formation on September 9, 1944, over Dusseldorf, Germany, when flak entered the open bomb-bay door of one of the B-17s and exploded the load of 1,000-pound bombs, instantly destroying the bomber and five flying near it. Liberty Belle and two other bombers were knocked out of formation but landed safely, one in Paris after flying on one engine for two hours and the other in Belgium. The Belle returned to a suddenly lonely base in England — hours after the rest of the formation.

Other Red Gremlin crewmembers joining the celebration were Orville Splitt, radio operator; Dr. R.C. Wiley, the Gremlin's copilot who is now blind; and Charlie Peach, assistant crew chief. Before one of the flights, Peach kidded Wiley, saying he had arranged with Liberty Belle pilots Ray Fowler and Al Malecha to let Wiley fly. "I wouldn't fly any differently [blind] than I did during the war," Wiley joked. Their exchange demonstrated the camaraderie that existed during the war and continues today. Fowler had just returned from yet another tour flying an F-16 fighter in Iraq, and was a new father by four days.

Tibbets was treated to a review from the ground at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport of the Liberty Belle followed by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter Glacier Girl. Organizers had planned the birthday celebration to commemorate Operation Bolero in which Tibbets and other B-17 bomber crews used their long-range navigation gear to guide P-38s to Europe, thus delivering fighters and bombers on one mission. The North Atlantic seas were controlled at the time by enemy submarines. It was hoped Tibbets could fly in the bomber, but at the last minute it was decided his health dictated watching from below.

The bomber and fighter were preceded by the photographers' aircraft, a Douglas DC-3 (C-47) that had flown on D-Day and is owned by Don Brooks, of Douglas, Georgia. Brooks also owns Liberty Belle, the bomber on which his father once served as tail gunner. Brooks joined DeKalb-Peachtree fixed-base-operation owner Pat Epps on an expedition to Greenland more than a decade ago to recover a B-17 and P-38 that didn't make it to Europe and were forced to land on a glacier — part of the famous "Lost Squadron" of aircraft that landed on the ice that day. Brooks had hoped he might find a B-17 under the ice to restore, but the one he and Epps found had been crushed by the weight of the ice, so the P-38, now called Glacier Girl, was lifted through shafts melted 250 feet into the ice and loaded aboard the DC-3 that was on skis at the time. Glacier Girl and the DC-3, flown by Epps, were in formation together for the Tibbets celebration, along with Liberty Belle. Brooks now has another B-17 ready to restore that he found in a lake in Labrador, which he has dubbed the Labrador Retriever.

Glacier Girl lives in the Lost Squadron Museum at the Middlesboro-Bell County Airport in Kentucky, and can be visited seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The aircraft's trip to Atlanta was made possible by the Atlanta Flying Mentors, a group that aids underprivileged youngsters and raised $18,000 to bring the aircraft to Atlanta. It was flown by Steve Hinton of the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California; Hinton is also a movie stunt pilot and flew in the movie Pearl Harbor.

Reminiscences poured from the crewmembers throughout the weekend, mostly about their missions together in Europe. The story of the atomic bomb is all in Tibbets' book, Return of the Enola Gay, available on the Web ( There were stories about Tibbets' cooking gasoline-flavored chicken in empty five-gallon fuel cans; about fueling B-17s in North Africa with 1,800 gallons or more by pouring it from five-gallon cans; about an enemy radio operator who answered the Gremlin's call for navigation steerage by attempting to direct Tibbets and his crew toward the Atlantic Ocean to force him to run out of gas and crash; and fond remembrances of crewmembers who have passed on. There's also the story about Eisenhower and what happened when the Red Gremlin's latrine had an accident, but that's the one the public relations folks at the Atlanta event hoped would not be told. You can imagine.

Tibbets and his crew represent a living history of World War II, as was evident from this anecdote involving yet another key player in the conflict: After the war, Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, asked to meet Tibbets, the pilot who helped end the war against Japan short of a planned bloody invasion by American forces. "Japanese people understand [why the bomb was dropped] more than American people," Fuchida told Tibbets.

E-mail the author at [email protected].