My sincere apologies to Charles Dickens for stealing the best opening line in literature but I can think of nothing more fitting to describe the weekend that just ended.
The best of times – Part 1
A couple of weeks ago my friend Bill Shepard – callsign Shep – asked whether I would be interested in flying from Ontario to Dayton Ohio to see the air show. Shep is a great guy, why not? Oh, I forgot to mention that “flying” meant back seat in one of only two P-51C Mustang fighters still flying in the world! Would I? You bet!
The CAF Red Tail Squadron Mustang is one of the most iconic warbirds on the air show circuit today. Commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen, “By Request” is an incredible tribute to the men who overcame such adversity to, in the words of the project, Rise Above and become legends. The Red Tail Squadron travels North America to instil those same values in the youth of today.
Shep and I left Tilsonburg Ontario and flew to Dayton Ohio. The flight was perfect, blue skies, calm winds and the sound of a Packard/Rolls Royce Merlin engine in all its majesty.
In just over an hour we landed at Dayton International Airport with a friendly greeting and a quick visit by Customs officials who were much more interested in the airplane than us. We were quickly directed over to the hot ramp display area where we positioned the Mustang with the incredibly impressive traveling exhibit housed in a 53 foot trailer that blossoms to become an IMAX theatre showing a movie documenting the triumphs of the Airmen and the message that they pass on today.
I spent the rest of the day following Shep and the lovely Marvona around as they met with children, signed autographs and posed for pictures. We spent the evening with her daughter having a great time with their horses, dogs, cats and great food from the grill. I was in heaven. And we still had an air show to go.
Saturday morning dawned beautiful. Clear, blue skies. No wind, warm heading for hot. Off to the airport to get ready for what looked to be a fantastic day. I wandered the static display and settled down in the photographers’ area to get ready for the day’s performance. It was going to be magic.
No one does air shows like the Americans. They wear their pride and patriotism on their sleeve and they don’t care who sees it. Corny? You bet. Stirring? Absolutely. Skydiver carrying a huge American flag is just par for the course. A rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by announcer Rob Reider and we’re all set for some good old barnstorming and thunder.
The show started with a nod to the birth of flight by the Wright brothers from Dayton with a replica of the Wright B Flyer flying by at what looked like a walking pace. Don’t get bored because the next act is a F-86 Sabre shiny and loud.
USA! USA! What could be better? What could be done to top this?
The next performer was one of the stars of the show. A woman, in a vintage biplane, who walks on the wing, who sits on the wing, who hangs from the wing. Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the one and only Jane Wicker. Beautiful, tough as nails and an consummate professional. I’ve seen Jane perform a number of times. I’ve met her at meetings and air shows and I had talked to her that morning. You meet her and you fall in love.
The worst of times
Nearing the end of her performance, Jane and pilot Charlie Schwenker set up for the most impressive part of the routine. Charlie pushes Jane’s Stearman biplane inverted while Jane sits on the bottom on the left wing which has magically become the top of the right wing. But something is wrong. Horribly wrong. The aircraft is not level and is losing altitude. In seconds two lives are lost forever. I’m watching through the long lens of my camera capturing the awful progression of images that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Beautiful Jane, dashing Charlie and Aurora, the name that Jane gave her beloved airplane, lie broken and burning 100 feet away from me. There is no time, there is no hope. There is only disbelief and anguish.
Everyone is stunned. The fire and rescue personnel respond immediately but it is already too late. The announcers reassure the crowd, advise the parents to look after their children and look away from the sights in front of them. The show is on hold. Tradition demanded by all performers that the show go on if possible but it takes time to gauge the situation and decide on the next steps. Finally, the decision is made to cancel the rest of the day’s show. The air show is still open and everyone moves to the static and hot ramp areas. The food concessions do a good business. The exhibits are busy. Then the rains come. Pounding, relentless. The brave try to stick it out but on and on it comes. The show is over for today.
The performers regroup at the traditional party on Saturday night at one of the sponsor hotels. Lots of food, lot of drink, lots of stories. There is laughter, there are tears, there is bravado (probably a fair share of the false variety). Jane and Charlie are remembered and Jane’s fiancée is warmly greeted and made welcome. The discussion never talks about whether there will be a show on Sunday. It is a given. It is the code.
The best of times – Part 2
Sunday. Another beautiful morning. Yesterday is a bad dream. We need to go on. It is the code. Off to the airport again. Pictures of the aircraft bathed in that golden light that photographers dream of.
The performers are briefed. The aircraft are readied. The pilots go into that zone that makes them different than the rest of us – quiet, contemplative, anxious. Crowds build and the anticipation grows as noon hour approaches. The giant US flag flies again and everyone rises for the anthem. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!
Everyone flies hard. Safe. Determined. They fly for Jane and Charlie and they fly for themselves. Death came calling and they were spared. Perhaps tomorrow their name will be on that index card but today they will give it all they’ve got.
Shep gets to fly today. The Mustang is gleaming and there is a special treat in store for the crowd. The Red Tail is one of only two P-51C model Mustangs still flying today. Different than the more common “D” model with its teardrop canopy, the C is a rare bird.
Today it finds itself escorting the only aircraft rarer. The world’s only flying B-29 bomber, affectionately known as “FIFI”. Shep gets the incredible opportunity to fly formation with FIFI in the skies over the birthplace of aviation.
We are in awe of the incredible sight of two vintage icons in a performance that very few will ever see. The airshow ends with noise and thunder. A four ship formation routine concluded with a pyrotechnic display. The crowd goes home happy.
The best of times – Part 3
My weekend hasn’t ended. Shep and I climb back into the Mustang for the trip back to Canada. On the way we circle the town of Fremont, land at the Sandusky airport so Bill can see old friends. We then fly back across the border to London Ontario for a quick stop for Customs and finally off to Tilsonburg for the final stop of the amazing journey. Of course, Shep has to buzz his house to let the family know he’s almost home. Me? I’m in the back seat, a little bruised from some of the turns that Shep has been putting us through and cramped from the close quarters. But happy. Insanely happy. Absolutely nuts with joy.
I’ve rambled on enough. I’ll always remember this trip. The good and the bad. The wonderful people I met on the way and my wonderful friends and family who knew when I returned that I was a little fragile. What will I most remember?
Blue skies and calm winds Jane. You will be missed.