Headed for the Rendezvous

Birds fly south in winter. The Monarch butterfly leaves the deciduous forests of the States for the rainforests of South America. Somewhere in their complex individual hierarchy is a mystical trigger which pulls them away from one comfort zone, into the unknown and back each year. Sure would like to sit a few of them down at the bar and hangar fly for a while – the flying stories they could tell!

In contrast to the ephemeral flutterings of the Monarchs, the Curtiss Crew has begun a ponderous, thundering migration of our own. The RV Chase departed New Market on the 21st, the first day of Spring, bound for points South, and another adventure, Andrew King and I driving the Beast down I-95, dealing with crippling diesel fuel prices, traffic and wind gusts that added some sport to the journey. Mark Holliday headed Southeast from Denver, first on his own mission, then to join up with us. We’ll hitch up in Polk City, FL, home to Kermit Week’s Fantasy of Flight, near Lakeland. This first stop is to unload, assemble and test fly the Pitcairn Autogiro after the New Carlisle Boys deliver it to its new home. Jerry, Herman and the gang are a man down this trip. Our great friend and the master restorer behind the resurrection of the Pitcairn, Jack Tiffany, is laid up following a pretty serious stroke. Andrew is here to assist with the assembly and conduct the test flights. Mark and I are go-fers and extra wrenches when needed.

This is a distraction from the Curtiss mission, no doubt, but an opportunity not to be missed. Clear Florida skies, a warm sun and the historic aircraft crowding every corner of Kermit’s Fantasy of Flight- not a bad way to spend a few days. NAS Pensacola beckons a few hundred miles to the West, and there we’ll be on Sunday. The plan is to leave Polk City with Andrew and Mark in the RV, arriving in time to roll the Curtiss out of the National Naval Aviation Museum at 0800 Monday morning. Servicing and inspection should take 2-4 hours, so a noon launch is what we’re planning. If the winds and weather cooperate, we should fly a couple of legs East by sunset. The flight path will retrace our arrival along I-10, stopping every 50 miles or so for fuel and a pilot swap. Destination: Lakeland, FL and the 2012 Sun ‘n Fun celebration. The Curtiss will be on display for a couple of days at this wonderful aviators’ harbinger of Spring before flying North by Northeast and its new home.

Yes, there is soon to be a new owner for NX44VY. Jerry Yagen’s Military Aviation Museum in Pungo, VA has acquired the Curtiss and the Crew will deliver her home, hopefully, during the first week of April. The delivery will mark the end of the Curtiss Crew’s odyssey, but a new beginning for the Curtiss at Jerry’s Museum. Like his British counterparts at Duxford and Shuttleworth, Jerry believes that the Museum birds are meant to fly and do. The Curtiss will join the WWI and Pioneer era birds on display and in the air during the Museum’s show season, a perfect venue for the Ely-Curtiss Pusher.

So far, this chapter is a lot about planning and speculation, a bit shy on action, which is what you all tune in to share. Hold on a bit! Wheels are turning and we’ll get in the air shortly. Photos of this last adventure will follow as time permits, including some shots of the 1932 Pitcairn Autogiro as it comes together and flies at Kermit’s. We’ll need a bit of luck and continued tailwinds as we wrap up the odyssey. Stick around a bit longer!

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Just Over the Horizon…..

This little rag has been quiet over winter. The 1911 Ely-Curtiss is still basking among friends inside the National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, FL., nestled beside the NC-4 and Jenny and below the Curtiss Hawk. On the home front, the Curtiss Crew scattered to the winds after Pensacola, resuming busy lives so often interrupted last year to fly and support the Curtiss presentations at the 15 air shows we attended. Even though we’re not flying, the winter has seen several PowerPoint shows covering the beginnings of Naval Aviation and the role of this Curtiss Pusher in the Centennial Celebrations.  Lots of fun interacting with varied audiences.

This site has been quiet, but things have been percolating nonetheless. We realized that the Curtiss needed a new home, preferrably a flying Museum committed to displaying and airing out this unique bit of history, so a few discrete notices were mailed out. We’ll keep you posted as we walk this new path.

Meanwhile, there are flying and air show days for the Curtiss Crew just ahead. On 26th March, Mark Holliday, Andrew King and I will roll the Curtiss out of NNAM in Pensacola and launch across theFlorida Panhandle to Lakeland and Sun ‘n Fun 2012. Should take about two days to fly the 400 miles if the weather cooperates. Look for us in the Vintage parking area, near the Red Barn. Bill Smith, the Vintage Coordinator for the show, has promised a spot up front. If we make it there in time, look for us there. If we are delayed, we’ll be somewhere near the Barn. You know how those cherished spots up front are fought over. Please keep the wind and thunder away this year!

The plan is to man up after SnF for a coastal flight north to Virginia, visiting friends and interesting places along the way. The GoPro HD video camera and our SPOT locator will be online all the way, so you can follow us actively enroute and here afterwards when we post the video links.

Stay tuned for action.

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The Unbroken Circle

Dateline: Noon Sunday, November 13, 2011, NAS Pensacola, FL with the Curtiss Crew

Andrew King lands on Runway 07R, rolls out to just past mid-field. He landed about a third of the way down the runway to reduce taxi-time and distance, passing the intersection of the North-South, the modern control tower to the east, Air Operations buildings opposite and rolling beyond the Blue Angels ramp and hangars into a place lost in time. Turning right onto the outdoor ramp of the National Naval Aviation Museum sheds an immediate 50 years from history, even more if you look closely at the cocooned  and semi-derelict relics waiting in repose on the crowded ramp. Each of the hundred or more planes stored there  – if only they could tell their own stories, of oceans flown or wars fought; of peaceful missions and lives preserved; of hours upon hours with Navy crews, training and preparing and waiting at the ready. Perhaps a few of these veterans could boast of carefree flights from first to last, but most would nod and shake their gray beards, the lines and wrinkles foretelling the failures of men and machine in countless aerial “situations”. The simple fact of their presence this day on this ramp, mute testimony to the flying skills, sheer luck, engineering reliability or outright audacity of the planes and crews who survived each mission’s challenges. In amongst this venerable collection, the 1911 Curtiss replica putters up a narrow ramp, headed to the front of the line, that shell and gravel ramp leading into the sanctuary of the Museum. Eventually those much more deserving birds, sunning on the storage ramp, will have their place inside, restored or at least preserved for posterity so that aviators a hundred years from now can view their ancestral DNA – if there are aviators in 100 years, of course. And, if the Museum can sustain its growth through support from today’s aviators.

The Curtiss is headed for the entry door to the newest display hangar for a winter’s stay. Shutting down just before the gravel ramp, we are joined by Rick and his restoration crew, who volunteered to come in on a Sunday expressly to manage the hand-over of the Curtiss to the Museum’s care. The six or eight of us lugged the Curtiss up the ramp and across the parking lot, tail first to a massive set of hangar doors. The warning klaxon sounded and the doors rumbled slowly  open, revealing a movie-set-perfect backdrop within. Suspended over the parting doors, a gigantic American flag appeared to unfurl as the doors rolled over their tracks. The Curtiss slid into the slot below, accepting the flag’s invitation and nearly disappearing underneath the dazzle of sun-sparkled red, white and blue. The horns and the rumble of doors brought out a crowd of Museum visitors and staff, photos were taken, and rather quickly, the klaxon sounded and doors rumbled tightly closed. We stood outside, the flag and the Curtiss headed into another world, the Curtiss Crew headed away.

For thirteen months, 120 flight hours and over 4500 air miles, the Crew had planned and plotted and executed a hundred or more missions with this one relic of early Naval Aviation. In less than an hour on that Sunday, she was removed from our care and the freedom of flight we breathed into her bones. She’ll stand for a winter, at least, quietly listening to the Docents’ tales of her meaning and exploits. Perhaps she’ll cough a few oil drops onto the gleaming floor to remind one and all that she was built to fly and did. We can only hope the cleaners leave the spots as testimony.

Too soon, Tom and Pat Lavery departed, headed for the airport and DC by jet. Andrew, Mark Holliday, Steve Roth and I retired to the RV chase and plotted our 900 mile route to Virginia. We needed a rest stop enroute, choosing Birmingham, AL because there is a museum there with some old airplanes we had never visited, the Southern Museum of Flight. Rumor had it there was a replica Headless Curtiss and some vintage birds in the collection worth seeing. So, Birmingham it was to be.

On the drive up the interstate, not much was said and certainly no notice was taken of the dates and our destination. We were just tired, as usual, from the full plate of this final air show. On the way up Andrew checked the website for SMOF and found they would be closed Monday, but he also found a phone number for the Museum Directors. A call and an explanation early Monday morning gained us access to the closed Museum and pretty much free run of the place, guided by the two Directors, both of whom had followed our Curtiss adventures as part of the Centennial of Naval Aviation celebrations.

I might have commented before, in the haze of memory and rush to write about thoughts provoked by flying this Curtiss, about an oddly surreal or weirdly coincidental occurence, something guided not by our deliberate actions, but steered by chance or a stroke of luck. Like most old and semi-bold pilots, I live by a pretty pragmatical code – a duck’s a duck and so forth. What happened that Monday in Birmingham, though, gave us all pause to reconsider. And the loop was closed for us with the touch of one piece of ancient steel.

The date that Monday – 14 November, 2011, the time about 11:30, the place, a neat Museum in Birmingham, AL. The four of us, the core of the flying side of the Curtiss Crew, were ushered into the pioneer hall of the Museum. A Headless Curtiss replica hung over our heads, an original, restored Huff Daland Puffer stood beyond in a crop duster’s diorama, silver doped and resplendent in its Delta crop dusting service logo, balloon tires marked with the red clay of the cotton fields she spent her working life protecting.

But all that eye candy in the dimly lit room scarcely mattered because we were drawn to the floor along the back wall. There, 20 some feet long was an iron ship’s nameplate escutcheon, spelling out in rusty and worn letters: USS Birmingham.

Slipping under the stantion ropes, we touched this one remaining piece of the history we had been living these past thirteen months, on the very day and nearly the same hour, one century after Eugene B Ely flew from her decks. Was it fate or blind chance that steered our course to this place on this day, to touch the ship where this all began? Ernie Gann pondered a pilot’s superstitions in prose far better than mine. We’ll settle for the realization that “something” guided us into the circle we spent many years forming and closed the loop for us that day.

How in the world did this nameplate literally drop at our feet? The USS Birmingham, CL-2, was commisioned in 1908, when Glenn Curtiss was first spreading his wings with aeroplanes of his own design. On November 14, 1910, in Hampton Roads, off Naval Station Norfolk, one Eugene B Ely flew into the record books by successfully launching from her forward deck in the Curtiss Pusher, “Albany Flier”. In 1914, she sailed to Mexican waters, launching two Curtiss Model F flying boats on Naval Aviation’s first mine suppression mission off Veracruz. World War One combat service was mostly as convoy escort off Gibralter. In 1923 the aging Cruiser was mothballed and then cut up for scrap in 1930. Just by chance, one of the salvage yard crew was a young man from Birmingham, AL. He had the foresight to torch off the massive escutcheon and nameplate, cutting it into three chunks and shipping it to the city fathers. Without a better place, the plates remained stored for decades in the attic of the city library, ignored but preserved nonetheless. With the recent opening of the Southern Museum of Flight, the nameplate was rescued from oblivion and placed in the Pioneer Hall with a large ship’s model of CL-2, complete with the wooden bow ramp and Ely’s Curtiss flying off into history.

Had we known before that USS Birmingham still existed, we probably would have made a run down in the beginning just to keep the timeline in perspective. However, I like this happenstance even more. Back four years or even 13 months ago, we probably would not have understood fully the impact that ship, that day and that flight had on history and what it would come to mean to us. Driving away from our Curtiss with the CoNA celebrations at an end and 15 successful events in the logbooks, the abrupt and unexpected leap back brought us magically full circle. It was a chilling and thrilling way to fade away home.



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Otto and a License to Thrill

Simply getting to the NAS Pensacola Centennial closing show was a short-term miracle. We had been contacted early in 2011 about attending the November event, but knew even then that there was no way to get there, based on timing and costs. Then, in August, 2011, the air show coordinator, Stephanie Oram, called to ask again. I explained that we were broke after the season’s hectic schedule of 14 shows. She promised to work on funding from Pensacola and I promised not to give up on our chances. Wyle Aerospace, our primary corporate sponsor, contacted us at that time, offering additional funding offsets, if we could raise the remaining amounts. With 3 weeks to go, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation called to report that they had taken up the challenge of locating funding for the Curtiss.  The Museum Foundation went into action and secured a corporate donation specifically to finance our Curtiss Pusher’s attendance at the Closing Air Show! Appropriately and most graciously, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation stepped up to ensure the 1911 Curtiss Pusher would perform in Pensacola.

With that great news, the Curtiss Crew in Virginia got things spooled up for trucking the disassembled Curtiss to Pensacola. We spent a lot of phone time with Capt. Ed Ellis of the NNAM, making arrangements for receiving the Curtiss and working out details for displaying it inside the Museum over the winter months, while awaiting the warmer Spring conditions for bringing it home. In a very short period of time, a mountain of details were resolved – a heartening lesson in how smoothly an organization can operate. This was an eye-opening insight into the Museum’s professional character.

Wyle Aerospace got the ball rolling for us, contributing additional funds and volunteer support for NAS Pensacola. The Curtiss Crew was joined by the Wyle Team, some of whom had joined us at NAS PAX River and NAS Oceana. The Wyle graphics department (David Craddock’s magicians) provided full color posters describing the Centennial to distribute to air show fans. The Wyle Team manned the display booth every day, their mission to talk up the birth of Naval Aviation, ADM Chambers – Glenn Curtiss – Eugene Ely and the earliest shipboard operations. They were in costume for the most part, joining the Curtiss Crew in realistically recreating the atmosphere of 100 years ago. To keep this in perspective, consider this, keeping in mind your own corporate, business or military professions. Wyle, first of all, committed substantial funds toward the success of the Curtiss season of flying. They also provided tremendous graphics and photographic support. Then, they encouraged a large corps of volunteers to follow the Curtiss to three Centennial events this Fall to support our mission. In a way, the Curtiss Crew worked for Wyle this summer, and what we saw makes us proud we did!

The fact that Curtiss-Wright Corporation stepped up at the last minute to underwrite shipping the Curtiss Pusher speaks volumes about this venerable successor of the Glenn H Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company. Our earlier discussions with Curtiss-Wright indicated that their 2011 funding was targeted for the Glenn Curtiss Museum at Hammondsport, NY, a priority we fully understood in these lean economic times. The corporate leadership at C-W decided to support our efforts at this grand finale air show, an act of generosity backed with their sense of the history to be relived at the Cradle of Naval Aviation on this one November week-end. Hooray, congratulations and thank-you’s to all who made this happen!

The catalysts for coordinating the funding side came by necessity from the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. The Foundation, with VADM Hoewing and Captain Kevin Miller at the fore, wears many hats in support of the Museum and quite a few civic, education and government programs via the newly dedicated Flight Academy.

Did we disappoint, given all the time and dollars expended? In only one regard, and that was mostly a matter of geography and nothing more. At every other show, the Curtiss Crew moved all over the airport to make sure the plane was available to the visitors for as much of the show as possible. In the main, when we weren’t flying, we were in among the visitors with the Curtiss, talking with and photographing all who passed by. The physical lay-out at NAS P-Cola proved a tough one. That and the fact that our flying schedule was more complex. This air show was the longest one we had all season, starting at 0900 and ending at 1530. We were away from the audience all morning, flying or positioning for our two flying segments. Then, when we completed the flights, we could not get through the “Hot Ramp” safety fence to stage with the display booth and the audiences. Consequently, the Curtiss and the booth sat rather forlornly at the very far end of the ramp. Yes, we had our fair share of visitors, but not the record crowds we noted at NASPAX and Oceana or our other events. The up-side to this all is that there were over 100,000 visitors who watched the shows that week-end, who saw the Curtiss flights. There was tremendous TV coverage each evening following the shows, even more than you might expect from such a nationally recognized Navy-Town. Each night’s news did have the Curtiss Pusher inflight as part of the coverage. Prominent on the videos and proudly flying from the trailing edge struts were the flight weary and tattered “FLY NAVY” banners which Captain Bob Watts donated to the adventure. These “FLY NAVY” banners have been with us at every show, reminding all of why we are there. This time, at Pensacola, we flew with another special “partner”. Mark Holliday was scheduled to fly with the Stearman trainers on Saturday. Kathy Holmes, the MWR representative who was also instrumental in producing the air show, approached Mark with a proposal and a bear. Kathy had a stuffed teddy bear, a school project of some sort, which she was ride-hopping with willing performers. She asked Mark if there was room to fly the bear during his flight and he agreed. Mark had on his flying jacket and was able to stuff Teddy into it, and around and around the two of them went. Teddy became the first and only passenger this Curtiss Pusher has flown! For the bear and his student-keepers, this flight will establish the record for the oldest type airplane flown in the dozens of flights recorded to date.

So, sun and flying and fun marked the Friday and Saturday shows. Thursday was a no-fly day for us because the winds were just too strong and gusty. The previous Wednesday evening, just before sunset, we did complete a test flight before beating up Mustin Beach, the seawall and the O’ Club for the Meet and Greet. Having recently watched Spig Wead’s “Wings of Eagles” and John Wayne’s outrageous antics as a nugget aviator, it was like a step back in time to run the Curtiss Pusher over those same sand dunes and seawalls. I looked for the Admiral’s swimming pool, but there was no way I’d waste the Curtiss landing in it, Spig Wead or no!

And thus the weekend passed into Sunday. There being no air show scheduled, the morning was reserved for flying off the visiting airplanes. The Curtiss Crew had a surprise mission that morning, one that ranks highest in a year of high adventure. We worked with Air Ops, the Tower gang, the Museum and a very spirited Roger Buis to pull off a real coup for the entire air field and to add to our string of Centennial triumphs. Roger Buis flies “OTTO”, a Hughes 300 helicopter, in what he advertises as a ‘clown act’ but which is actually an intricately performed aerobatic routine in which he exacts every possible ounce of performance from that tiny helo. Roger flies a hilarious act with OTTO, thrilling the kid in us all and confounding the pilot in those of us who marvel at how he does it. Well, Roger was asked to fly the NNAM videographer for two flights on Sunday to film the Curtiss Pusher. Steve Heffernan, the Museum cameraman was to fly in the Hughes. I was to fly the first flight from NAS to downtown Pensacola and return. Then, Andrew King was to fly over most of NAS and the historic sites around base with OTTO filming everything. If we succeeded, this HD footage would be edited by the Museum staff into a DVD to be used to support the Museum and the Museum Foundation. Roger jumped at the chance, as did we.

After a morning’s briefing, OTTO and Curtiss lined up on the last 1500 feet of Runway 19, awaiting clearance to depart for downtown. The Tower cleared us outbound, to remain below 200 feet for departing traffic. Since we stayed over water much of the time, we never really got above 100 feet. OTTO ranged tight and sometimes uncomfortably tight by the Curtiss with Steve hanging out of the right passenger’s door, camera running. Roger made several positioning maneuvers to allow Steve the best light and shot as we overflew Ft. Pickens and the barrier island on our way to Seville Quarter and the Gulf Breeze bridge. With the winds up to 15 knots, the ride was pretty harsh over land, but smoothed out over the bay. The heavy whitecaps on the water and the sailing flotilla racing before the wind verified the strength of the breeze, but the flat surface provided a uniform river of air for the Curtiss. I knew Roger was working every angle possible because I could see him as he slid into and out of my periferal vision on my left wing. Then, to my amazement and consternation, there was OTTO, barely ahead of the front elevator, sideways, flying along with me. Roger was parked in my face, flying sideways at 50 mph while Steve was filming so close I felt it would have been a cinch to reach out and shake hands. That miracle of formation flying over, Roger proceeded to the right wing, flying backwards at 50 mph so Steve could film from that perspective. With the air smooth and comfortable in Roger’s ability and judgement, I was pretty sure we’d get this done without damage. However, I had to wonder at Steve’s thoughts as he dangled out the door, camera in one hand, bracing with the other and seeing the Curtiss full in his face through the viewfinder. Discounting the two pilots, I couldn’t help wondering at Steve’s suspended sanity. I wonder if his family knew what he was up to that Sunday morning? And thus, rotor blade to bamboo, off we flew, circling Pensacola’s Wharf District and back along the shoreline to NAS. A pass along the seaplane wall and lighthouse got us on right base to runway 01 and landing in the first 1000 feet.

After a briefing stop for flight two, Andrew King and the Curtiss led OTTO airborne to beat up the airfield and its surrounds. We were given license to overfly every historic and significant point of interest on the air field. Admiral’s Row, the seaplane wall, the National Naval Aviation Museum, the lighthouse, Fort Barancas, Mustin Beach and the Club, the Carrier Pier and Coast Guard Station – in fact, all of the airfield got the full treatment, including the flight line and the control tower. Otto sometimes flew formation, sometimes hovered fixed as the Curtiss circled, with Steve hanging out the door, filming.

When the flying was finished, Andrew brought the Curtiss to the Museum ramp and we pushed her into Hangar B for the winter. Eventually, she will go into the main building to be displayed in the Pioneers of Flight section with the Curtiss NC-4, the Hawk and the Jenny, establishing a comprehensive timeline of Glenn Curtiss’ dominence in the beginning of Naval Aviation.

Lest anyone get the idea that NAS Pensacola is running wild with maverick barnstormers, you must know that a lot of permissions and approvals were sought and obtained beforehand. The gratifying acknowlegment that OTTO and Curtiss could accomplish this mission safely was tempered by the fact that I knew any one of our antics would have resulted in a FENAB Board for a Naval Aviator! That kind of flying just isn’t allowed in Today’s Navy, young man! Until the Curtiss was in the Museum and we were well on our way home, I was expecting the call to that long green table and the stern countenances of the Board to have my Navy Wings of Gold ripped from my chest. What we did, we did for history, and yes, because it was one hell of a great time. Also, we knew this would probably be the one shot anyone would have to record a Curtiss Pusher flying over what is known as the Cradle of Naval Aviation. Roger Buis, Andrew King, Steve Heffernan and I, with OTTO and the Curtiss stitched up a good one for the Centennial! And had a blast doing it!

Now, we’ll wait for Steve and the video crew at the Museum to sort through the footage and edit down a DVD. Perhaps he’ll find we missed some vital fly-past, necessitating our return for another rousing beat up – OH, we can only hope!

As soon as we see the final draft, we’ll clue one and all on how to get your hands on it.

The Curtiss Crew, 2011:

The 1911 Ely-Curtiss Pusher, Bob Coolbaugh, Andrew King, Steve Roth, Mark Holliday, Tom and Pat Lavery, Rick and Carol Clarke, Lynn Dawson, Julie Appleby, Win Coolbaugh, Cara Coolbaugh, Sherrie Souder, Joe Santana, Vet Thomas, Steve and Juliett Lindrooth, Brook and Kathryn Lewis, John Coolbaugh and Tate Hoeffel – all members of the main gang. There are others who helped along the way, lending a hand or buying a tank of gas, lending a place to sleep or loaning a hangar for a while between flights, reaching out to join us in making this one heck of a successful Centennial of Naval Aviation. Hats off to them all!

The sponsors who assisted us financially may have imposing corporate images, but the individuals behind the veil are the ones we’ll long remember for their vision and their commitment to this 100th year of Naval Aviation. The Curtiss Crew salutes them!

With that last adventure behind us, and the final Centennial celebration a wrap, you’d think the Curtiss Crew would follow Douglas MacCarthur and simply fade away. As we were shaking hands to friends and supporters in the parking lot, that realization lay pretty heavy on us all. We had lived an odyssey for 15 air shows and 13 months and we were on our way back to our old lives. I, for one, don’t have a second act to follow this year’s spectacle and will probably fade back into the peace of a comfortable retirement, restoring old airplanes for fun and certainly not for profit. Then again, you never know what lies around the next bend in the road. That’s the subject for the next post. Stay Tuned!

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Heads’ Up for a Neat YouTube Link!

Just a quick note: Flip over to our Pics & Flicks page, go to the bottom and click on the latest YouTube link. That will take you to a preview 3:35 minutes of some of the video we shot flying over the Cradle of Naval Aviation on Sunday, NOV 13, 2011. The National Naval Aviation Museum staff is processing the video shot in two overflights into a DVD. We will post more from this unprecedented filming as it becomes available. Also, the next posting here will attempt to describe those fantastic photo flights for you. Stay Tuned!

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Cradle of Naval Aviation Wrap

The Curtiss is safely tucked into its Winter home – The National Naval Aviation Museum. Shortly, it will move deeper into the display courtyard, to eventually rest beneath the other early Curtiss birds, the NC-4, the Jenny and several others in the Pioneer quad of the main building. When it arrives under the NC-4, you absolutely must go to the Museum, if only to look at the monsterous NC-4 of 1919 in comparison to the tiny Curtiss Pusher. What is significant about those two Curtiss aircraft? The Pusher replicates the aircraft in which Navy men first attempted to spread their wings. The NC-4 IS the very aircraft in which Navy men first spread those wings across the Atlantic Ocean. It took the US Navy and Glenn Curtiss less than eight years to go from fledglings to transoceanic pioneers. Not to be lost in the viewing are the other Curtiss planes in the quad which emphasize exactly just how vital the Curtiss partnership was in forging the birth of Naval Aviation. All up, this winter  of our Centennial will mark a “must-see” addition to your bucket list. Do it!

To wrap the Pensacola Air Show, we’ll rehash some already reported ground, with changes as new facts have emerged; then, the delivery, reassembly, performances and some very special post-show flying.

The overall Air Show Coordinator for Pensacola is Stephanie Oram. There is none better, in  our book! Stephanie emailed about two months ago, asking whether we would reconsider bringing the Curtiss Pusher to the final CoNA air show. We corresponded and comiserated, citing the lack of funds to make the trip. On her end, Stephanie said she would see what she could do. On our end, VADM Brent Bennitt, now an Exec at Wyle Aerospace and our primary sponsor contact, was equally committed to having the Curtiss at KNPA. The Triad was complete when the National Naval Aviation Museum and its Foundation took up our cause with its corporate supporters. By early October, word came down that funding was available if we could manage the logistics of shipping the Curtiss. We jumped at the chance, knowing she would need to stay somewhere in Pensacola over the winter if we got her there for the show. The Museum stepped right up, offering us the chance to display inside the main hall as part of the Pioneer Aircraft venue. With so many great and serendipitous pieces of the puzzle gliding into place, we wondered if there weren’t well placed “angels” working under deep cover to make this happen. Heartfelt thanks to them all, if this is so! To follow the money only, without knowing what transpired at the “angel” levels, we do know that Wyle Aerospace kicked in a large boost to their already substantial support. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation stepped up with a tremendous contribution, allowing this all to gel. So, here we are – Wyle Aerospace assistance got us through the year of Centennial flying, with Curtiss-Wright Corporation stepping in to ensure we could close the season in style at the Grand Finale of the Centennial of Naval Aviation. The Museum gang and Stephanie Oram’s Crew added the human touch to make this the top event for CoNA fans and for the Curtiss Crew. And that’s just about how this story came to be.

The devil’s in the details, and we’re pretty sure you’d rather not spend time reading through the trials and tribulations, so we’ll stick to what is most fun – showing off the Curtiss. Breakdown and reassembly took a week, including the two day truck transit time. In the day, Curtiss advertised that his crew of four could completely disassemble or reassemble a Model D-III in 2-4 hours, including crating everything into 5 wooden boxes for train shipment. Their technique escapes me. It took four of us an hour each just inspecting each of the 130 plus drag, anti-drag, brace, flying and landing wires, for crying out loud!

By Wednesday evening, the checks were done, the logbook entries completed and the engine run-in. A quick call to Air Ops got us permission for a test hop right before official sunset, as long as we avoided the runways, as there was a constant flow of arriving air show aircraft. We opted for the last 1500 feet of runway 19, heading out over the Channel, with a turn by Ft. Pickens, past the Lighthouse and over water to Mustin Beach Officers’ Club. The test flight was completed in time to allow a couple of teaser passes along the beach for the Sponsors, Guests and Performers who were gathered at the O’ Club. Aside from the salute to our Sponsors, we were also able to run up and down the original 1910’s seawall area, where Curtiss Triads flew the first Naval Aviators. Sadly, a decade of recent hurricanes have removed the hangars and ramps. Only photographs remind us of the sea-borne orientation of our earliest aviators. The seawall is there, a few hangars remain over by Admiral’s Row, and a couple of beautifully preserved brick buildings stand as steadfast reminders of those glorious early times. And here we are, the Curtiss and I, puttering past at 50 feet, offshore, watching the Brown Pelicans who were watching us. On Mustin Beach, the gang waves back as we glide around just for them.

The test flight portion was something we all were interested in. Would she fly as she did before we took most of her apart? Any noticeable trim or rigging changes? Anything we missed with our 5 pairs of eyes going over and over each section? Happily, the trim didn’t change. She doesn’t fly any differently, still makes you work to keep the blue side up, but there were no heavy wings or crooked tendancies to overcome. Since there were no extra pieces laying around after the reassembly, we were fairly confident all was well. Nothing fell off during the 15 minute flight. Label this one a success! Having flown the shore where no Curtiss Pusher has flown since 1912 made for a nice bonus, too!

The Show included a Thursday practice day, but winds never dropped below 15 knots, so we left the Curtiss inside its Transient Line Hangar. The 0700 briefings were eye-opening. Air Boss, Wayne Boggs (yes, his brother is Wade) was correct – they were definitely stuffing 15 pounds into a 5 pound bag. The shows prior to this one have averaged about 4 hours. This proved to be a 7 hour ballet of planes and bombs and fireworks and after-burning jet-trucks and gliders and on and on. Made for tremendous excitement and a huge coordination nightmare. Proudly, I can report that the professionals who performed for the crowds did so well that no cues were missed, no timing marks fudged and no hiccups made. All the drama and angst of getting the production safely completed was cloaked from view. The audience was left to gasp and cheer, enthralled at the magic show these pros unfolded before their eyes. Seven hours each day, for three days and before over 100,000 fans – without a single incident. There might have been a timing eror of a second or two or a spectacular surprise, but the best air show announcer in the world was on the mic, flowing everything smoothly back into place. That gentleman was none other than Rob Reiner. Listen for his voice at your next air show and you’re certain to agree he is outstanding! At briefing Day One, the FAA lady came down pretty sternly on us all, leaving no doubt there would be no room for shenanigans. By briefing Day Three, the FAA safety brief was almost a joyous affair to behold. Someone even laughed, once.

There was thunder, there was fire and there was light (Friday’s night air show), all to celebrate the end of the Centennial Year. PT Barnum would have run out of superlatives, announcing this three day spectacular. And, right there with the roar and thunder, the little Curtiss Pusher, strutting its stuff as the slowest and most unusual airplane these crowds had ever seen. Our contribution was in two parts, an early event with two Stearmans, showing off the trainers flown by early Naval Aviators, flying circuits along the 500 foot crowd line, two Stearman passes to our one, for 15 minutes. We were at about 200 feet, they flew above at 300. Once that profile was completed, we’d land and await the afternoon’s “Legacy Formation Flight”, our last daily mission.

The Legacy Flight featured the leader, in the Curtiss Helldiver, with the F4U Corsair and F/A-18 Rhino off each wing. The flight of three made several passes down the show line. The Curtiss Pusher was pre-positioned at the far end of the runway, running and ready. The plan called for the final legacy pass to fly a long straight-in at 300 feet with the Curtiss Pusher launching on cue, flying down the runway at 150 feet, and all four planes passing the show center simultaneously, before going our separate ways for landing. Right up front, I’ll admit that never happened – not even close! On day one, the “GO” call from the experts put the Curtiss well past the crowd before the three-ship caught up. The formation final was far too long and the call was premature. The Curtiss and Mark Holliday sped past before the lumbering herd could catch us. So, Andrew and I decided that we would do our own launch timing on day two, as we’d had plenty of practice with this stuff at other shows. Didn’t work this time, either. The three-ship was working a tailwind that day and turned well inside our “GO” window, so that by the time we started rolling, they were on top of us off a very short straight away. Didn’t matter, either way, because Rob Reiner, the announcer, glibly talked his way through our gaffs as if we had executed perfectly. It’s not how we did, but how Rob told the crowd that we did, that resulted in a great performance!

Before during and after the actual flying, the entire Curtiss Crew was kept hopping. This time, we were very fortunate to have a Wyle Aerospace Team manning the Curtiss booth and assisting with all the details of a well run presentation. Curtiss Crew, Tom and Pat Lavery, manned the booth with Wyle volunteers, Elizabeth and Lynn and Ron and Roger (and their families) – all dressed in 1910’s costume or barnstormers’ outfits. They spent their 7 hours on duty at the booth, fielding questions about the Curtiss Pusher and its role in the beginning of Naval Aviation. We had great visual displays available until the afternoon, when the Curtiss act finished and we were able to position plane with people to close the show. By 6 PM, we called it a day, broke camp, parked the Curtiss and headed out for dinner, pretty much as a Team – Wyle and Curtiss Crews together. Seville Quarter for the final dinner, and a chance to see watering holes every new student Naval Aviator absolutely had to frequent. The buildings and businesses from my 40 years past still remain, but it was much quieter now than then, it seems. Yet, hanging with the wonderful and talented Wyle Team and the semi-lunatics of the Curtiss Crew was its own reward. We spent an evening looking back at the last year and 15 air shows and amazing at what we’d accomplished. Gotta admit – never thought we’d pull this one off, but we did – and we did it with more than a little panache and adventure! Thanks all go to the volunteers who made this happen!

Attached are a few initial photos of the Pensacola flying. There is another story lurking about the special Sunday flying Andrew King and I did. The Curtiss, on that Sunday, did things that will probably never happen again. That adventure will follow, too, so stay tuned.

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Overwhelming Inputs!

As I write this from the guest room at Navy Pensacola, the talking heads are infuriated about the Penn State mess, aimless children camp in city parks, protesting they know not what, funded by they know not whom and the Nation’s legislaters are throwning more coal into the firebox, accelerating the economic train wreck of this great country with their disparate political agendas. Makes you want to head for Montana.

Outside my window, in this beautiful setting of ancient Live Oaks and Spanish moss, amid buildings alive with the memories of John Towers, Spuds Ellyson, Washington Chambers, and all Naval Aviators and Flight Officers “winged” over the last century, lies a sanctuary from the insanity that is modern politics and televised trauma. On this 11/11/11 Veteran’s Day, I find humble honor in having served my Navy as an Aviator for 21 years. More than that, I feel so small as I reflect what the men and women on duty today are steadfastly achieving despite the chaos at home. Mission focussed, mission prepared, mission accomplished – these troops put their lives on the line for the greater good of One Nation, Under God! They are not liberals or neo-cons or radical protesters. They are the one shining light in a miserable time in our Nation’s history.

How did our troops reach this plateau? They followed the footsteps of every Veteran who served, lived and died for this Country. More than most, each servicemember carries the traditions and honor of those who served before. Thanks to every Flight Instructor, every Marine DI, every Seargent, every Skipper and CNO who kept to the righteous path. Today we have a chance to honor and thank them – please take the time to do just that.

How will the Curtiss Crew pass along a salute to our Troops? We’ll fly twice as part of a tremendous flying demonstration at the NAS Pensacola Blue Angel’s Homecoming Air Show. Andrew King and Mark Holliday drew the straws to fly today, Andrew during the historic aircraft fly-pasts with the Stearman Boys and Mark, later, in one of the Legacy Flights with an F4U Corsair, the Curtiss Helldiver and an F/A-18 Hornet. Andrew will do pattern circuits with the Stearmans, who are quite pleased that they’ll be the fastest ones in the pattern – for a change. Mark has been tasked with a monumental timing exercise which we have yet to test. Imagine, if you will, the dynamics of this event. The Helldiver will set the pace in the overhead pattern, the Corsair and F/A-18 will overtake and join him, coming off the abeam, and this Section will run down the outside show line. Mark will drop the hammer on cue from the Air Boss, to be airborne and at altitude precisely as the Section overtakes him at the mid-field crowd center. Then, Mark is to power back and land on the remaining runway available – if that can be done safely. All the while, at the far side of the runways, Chuck holds the Red Bull helo in a hover with the camera crew, trying to nail the perfect four plane juxtaposition. All I can say is that it’s quite a challenge, and looks like a lot of fun. Time will tell.

Early as it now is, we’ll have to wrap this up, as it’s time to make the donuts. The days start early for the Curtiss Crew and run pretty late. Chew on this Veteran’s Day opener for a bit and we’ll rejoin the interrupted adventure later. “FLY NAVY!”

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