Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Survivors In The Pattern

History is fleeting moments of the Human Experience strung together

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.


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