I had an emotionally wild and totally unexpected thing happen last week. I was droning around the pattern with a student when I heard, "Scottsdale tower, this is Fortress 23Zulu, I'm five south and would like to make a low pass down the runway."
My ears perked up at the "Fortress." The CAF (which I STILL call the Confederate Air Force, not Commemorative…it's the old dog/new trick syndrome at work) bases their AZ Wing less than 10 miles south, so in this area, when the call sign includes "Fortress," you know you're about to share the pattern with a grand old survivor: B-17 Sentimental Journey is a regular and welcome sight around here.
The tower responded, "The pattern is full, negative on the pass, Fortress."
I was disappointed.
The Fort pilot said, "Roger, can we overfly your traffic area to Deer Valley? We have Pearl Harbor survivors on board."
At that, my ears perked up and my eyes misted over. Oh, holy crap! Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Here was a chance for all of us to be present as a survivor carrying other survivors flies past, and the tower was turning him down. Better yet, I'd be in the pattern with him. Definitely a moment to remember. Damn!
The tower operator was slower than normal in responding, and I was about to say something to him that would probably get me in trouble, when he came back, "Fortress, low pass approved." I'm betting those in the tower decided this was a moment they, too, couldn't pass up.
I came up on frequency and said, "Fortress, we're proud to share the air with you and your passengers. Please tell them I said so. And thank them."
I was on downwind when the Fort made its pass. It was a very special feeling. This even though I can't come close to estimating how many times I've seen B-17s in flight. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. I've been seeing them at air shows for nearly 50 years. I've been privileged to sit at their controls and roam their history-ridden nooks and crannies in flight. I've been snuggled down in the back cockpit of a camera plane while as many as four B-17s at a time stacked up on my wing, and I froze their images into Kodachrome 25 that will outlast any digital image ever taken. I'm not sure, but I think I've shot every B-17 that still exists, including Sentimental Journey. But seeing it this time was different. This time, I knew I was watching history fly past: It was probably the last time I'd ever see a Pearl Harbor survivor in the air. Maybe the last time I'd even be in the presence of someone who had seen the course of world history change in only a few hours.
Time moves in cycles for everything ever created. At the beginning of the cycle, be it man, machine or monument, something is created. It's brand-new with an undetermined lifetime ahead of it that may be measured in decades, centuries or even millennia. The only thing that's absolutely sure, however, is that as time goes on, initially their numbers will swell, then stabilize, then slowly dwindle until only a few still survive. And then there are none.
Right now, we're in the wind-down phase for those who wrote that chapter of history we call WWII. They'll all be gone in less than a decade. Their noble steeds, the aluminum monuments they rode into battle, will last longer. But eventually, they too will no longer fly, and few, if any, will even exist. Then they, too, will be gone. Museums will provide temporary storage, but it's temporary, at best. Museums go out of business. Or politics, economics or world history turn against them, e.g. the last Fokker Triplane died in Berlin during an Allied bombing raid. Even monuments as seemly eternal as the pyramids will eventually be meaningless humps of wind-carved sand, and things that fly are laughably fragile by comparison. Their time on Earth is infinitesimally small.
As someone who spends much of his time retelling the tales of survivors through my magazine, Flight Journal, this is a painful process to watch. Every single day, we get the word that such and such a pilot, famous or not, has made his last takeoff. When we started that magazine 17 years ago, WWII vets surrounded us. Some still showed up at fly-ins flying Mustangs, just as they had done in their youth. Not so today.
One of the downsides to the enormous and well-earned homage we've been paying veterans, and especially the Doolittle Raiders, is that we've invaded the privacy of a proud group of men. In the case of the Raiders, we've made their dwindling numbers a national countdown. At this writing, four of the original 80 Raiders survive, and there was huge public fanfair when they had their last official reunion. Together, they opened the brandy and toasted those Raiders who had gone before.
On the one hand, we want to make sure those who fought for us know how much we appreciate their effort. On the other, we're invading their final moments. It's a hard thing to watch.
But then, I think back to whom we've lost in the civilian world. Better yet, in my own tiny corner of it. Poberezny last year. Betty Skelton Frankman Erde, she of the Lil' Stinker Pitts of the early '50s left us, in 2011. We lost the ultimate aviation wordsmith and good friend, Jack Cox of the EAA, the same year. Curtis Pitts, The Man himself, has been gone nine years, which seems impossible.
As the B-17 pulled up and disappeared in the distance, I had a tangible feeling of history slipping away. Of things that were important that would soon exist only in the minds of those who remember, because those who had made that history will be long gone. So, when we have the chance to experience history in person, even if it's only looking down from a tidy little cockpit at a retired warrior carrying other warriors, we should grasp it and mentally hold it as long as possible. We should also remember that the cycle is universal, and eventually, it will be our turn. So make the most of that small snippet of time allotted us that we call life. Every moment comes by exactly once, and we should treat it as the unique experience that it is.