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!