I knew I was in for a special treat when I received Doug Rozendaal's message: "Have I got a deal for you… call me!" Rozendaal is an accomplished pilot who flies everything from B-25 bombers to Citation bizjets, performs low-level aerobatics in P-51 Mustangs and spearheaded the CAF Red Tail Squadron. He's always up to something interesting. I called back as soon as possible. "Would you like to fly by Mount Rushmore in a formation of eight warbirds?" he asked. "A B-25, TBM Avenger, Corsair, P-40, Wildcat...," before he finished the list, I had already packed my bags and booked my airline ticket, "…two P-51 Mustangs and an authentic Zero?"
Ellington Field, in the greater Houston area, is home to the Texas Flying Legends Museum (www.texasflyinglegends.org). With an immaculate collection of flying warbirds, the museum is dedicated to honoring war veterans and inspiring the next generation of pilots. To share this sentiment with as many as possible, each spring the fleet journeys to Minot, N.D. The Dakota Territory Air Museum showcases the collection until it heads to EAA AirVenture, taking center stage on the warbird ramp. Late summer, some of the aircraft will continue to Wiscasset, Maine, to perform at local air shows.
This year, a special stop was planned in Colorado Springs for the USAF Academy graduation. To support the class of 2013, the Texas Flying Legends would do a fly-by during the ceremonies, in place of the Thunderbirds, who were grounded for sequestration. The formation of eight warbirds would cross overhead at the exact moment of the graduates' hat toss.
I met the group on the ramp at KCOS for the leg to Rapid City, S.D. Through the waist gunner's window in Betty's Dream, I could see a crowd had gathered to watch our departure. They snapped photos and waved enthusiastically. This became a theme throughout the trip as it seemed fans and onlookers would materialize everywhere the warbird entourage went—even the most unexpected of places.
Nine mighty engines roared in harmony as we lifted off and headed north. We leveled at 9,500 feet as the late May skies darkened with the threat of stormy weather. The B-25 offers unusual vantage points for air-to-air photography, and in spite of the bumps and foul conditions, the all-star team of talented pilots enabled us to capture the fleet en route. Chief pilot Warren Pietsch positioned the Zero directly below the bomber, flown by Alan Miller, and we shot it through the Plexiglas on the fuselage floor. Later, I wriggled over a huge pile of baggage and gear to twist my body into the tailgunner seat. From the very rear of the bomber, I could shoot directly back as our wingmen took turns flying at our six o'clock position.
And then the rain started. Up ahead looked even worse, so a decision was made to divert to the nearest airport, Chadron Municipal, in the northwest corner of Nebraska. After several orbits to configure the approach, our eight-ship touched down safely. Coming off runway 29, I could make out a small crowd on the wet ramp. Our unmistakable growl overhead had drawn the local community to the airport, in hopes of a glimpse of our traveling showcase of history. The instant we shut down and climbed out, our defeat was replaced by delight: the awe of onlookers admiring the World War II birds and chatting with the crew. This impromptu and intimate meet-and-greet hadn't been planned, but it was exactly what the Flying Legends are all about.
|(left) Congressman Sam Graves flies the 1,900 hp TBM-3E Avenger. (right) Last Samurai is an A6M2 Model 21 Zero and is one of only a few flying Japanese Zeros left in the world.|
After several hours of watching the weather, we bid farewell and launched a second attempt to reach Rapid City, 70 nm farther north. This time, we traveled in two groups: fast (Mustangs, Corsair, P-40) and "slow" (B-25, Zero, Wildcat, Avenger). My ride in the B-25 was cold and bumpy, and we had only been in the air a short while when a P-51 radioed from ahead with bad news: "There's a black hole of death over the airport." We made a 180 and headed back to Chadron, rain intensifying.
|Bad weather forced the eight-ship of warbirds to deviate to Chadron, Neb., much to the delight of the local community.|
As we taxied to the now-familiar ramp, the community emerged again—elated, with some vets donning uniforms. A woman explained how she and her husband had rushed to the airport earlier when word spread of our first arrival, but they had arrived moments after we had departed. As they drove home disappointed, what sounded like the hum of warbirds resonated through the beating rain. To be sure, they pulled over and turned the car engine off. The hum had escalated to a roar! They turned back to the airport, thrilled at the opportunity. Again, our misfortune wasn't such a misfortune after all.
The forecast looked bleak, and an overnight stay was now the best choice. With eight aircraft to fuel, unload and reposition, it took some time. The Chadron community was as eager to marvel at the planes as they were to lend a helping hand. A local pilot cleared space for the Zero in his hangar, where a group gathered around the Last Samurai to hear a vet tell his flying stories. Others loaded up their cars with our bags and shuttled us along Crazy Horse Memorial Highway to a hotel in town just in time for dinner.
By chance, Chadron was sending a small group of WWII veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., the following day. It was another perfect opportunity for the Texas Flying Legends to do what they do best. Without hesitation, president Tyson Voelkel arranged for a fly-by of the Mustangs over the festivities. I strapped into the backseat of Little Horse, flown by Mark Murphy, and we departed as a two-ship with Casey Odegaard in Dakota Kid II on our wing.
The radar improved midday, and we headed north once again. Mount Rushmore is inspiring from any angle, except perhaps the middle of a weather system. High winds, brutal turbulence and low clouds over the Black Hills forced our attention elsewhere, and the pass was limited to the Mustangs. But at that point in the adventure, a glimpse of the National Memorial was just icing on the cake. The true story was on the ground, measured in gasps of wonderment and jumps for joy. As the Texas Flying Legends pulled onto the ramp in Rapid City, S. D., a line of spectators waited eagerly—the next audience of young and old to be inspired and honored.
|Mark Murphy (left) flies Little Horse off Casey Odegaard in Dakota Kid II (above). Doug Rozendaal pilots the Aleutian Tiger, a P-40K Warhawk.|