America’s WW-II Ghost Squadron..!

Some years back I had the great privilege and unalloyed excitement of flying with America’s ‘Confederate Air Force’ down at its base at Midland-Odessa in Texas. One of the world’s largest private air forces, it comprises an absolutely fabulous collection of hugely famous and most eye-wateringly expensive, airworthy US fighter & bomber aircraft from the Second World War, all coming together to fly under the banner of ’The Ghost Squadron’..!

Dating from 1957, a small group of oil-rich Texan millionaire buddies clubbed together to purchase a ‘Cadillac of the Skies’ -  a stunning P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft that came into its own as a never-bettered, long-range escort to the USAAF Flying Fortresses & Liberator bombers in the skies above the Third Reich between 1943 and 1945 – and then one year later they bought 2 US Navy carrier-borne Grumman Bearcats and so, with two of the fastest piston-engined fighters in US aviation history, an unofficial squadron was formed.

With each CAF member being given an honorary title of ‘Colonel’ and a fictional Squadron Commander known as Colonel Jethro E. Culpepper, the group began what was to be a long & extensive search for other aircraft that served so valiantly during WW-II; but they were shocked at just how little was being done by America’s military to preserve these wonderful ‘Warbirds’. Indeed of those that still flying, many had been modified into air-racers, (something that was, and still is, very big in the US), or bombers that had been converted into civilian freighters! .

Nowhere had any official body been formed or come forward with any suggestions on how to preserve flying versions of these famous marques… so in 1961 the official Confederate Air Force was formed in Texas to focus on locating and restoring to full flying condition as many types of America’s famous fighters & bombers as they could…  and by the time the little group had grown enough to put on its first actual flying display in 1963 they had added an additional 8 aircraft to their original, P-51.

The Confederate’s first home-base was at Mercedes, then in 1968 they moved to Harlingen where they set-up a museum and continued to grow and add examples of USAAF medium & heavy bombers to their inventory: a B.25 Mitchell, a B.17 Flying Fortress, a B-24 Liberator and the world’s only flying B.29 Superfortress, the type infamous for dropping the Atomic bomb at Hiroshima & Nagasaki in 1945 and so bringing about the end of the war in the Far East..

The CAF slowly continued to grown and by the early 90’s had moved from Harlingen, (due, I was told, to the close proximity of the sea and the accompanying salt air that would eat away at these valuable historic aircraft), and took up home at Midland-Odessa, where today the CAF, (renamed, sadly to my mind, as the Commemorative Air Force), boasts over 150 flying aircraft and 11,000 Members (all ‘honorary Colonels,) spread over 70 regional ‘wings’ in 27 US States and 4 overseas countries.

The CAF membership established the American Air Power Heritage Museum at Midland-Odessa and every year the ‘Ghost Squadron’, (happily as it is still known), puts on a mind-blowing weekend of display flying in what is now deemed the largest annual gathering of Warbirds anywhere in the world…  and it was to one of these weekends that I rolled up, looking to film a German aircraft in action, a very rare Luftwaffe ‘Fiesler Storch’ communications & reconnaissance aircraft..

Teamed up with a local cameraman & his sound-recordist I headed off to the sun-bleached airstrip at Midland one very hot dusty Texan morning, (with the pungent smell of the nearby oil-wells carried on the very light wind), to be faced with a boy-hood dream! There before me was almost every American fighter & bomber that I had ever dreamed of seeing as a young man..Mustangs, Tomahawks, a Dauntless Dive-bomber, an Aircobra, a Helldiver, DC.3 Dakota troop transports, Flying Forts, the beautiful Liberator..and bomber nose-art as far as the eye could see…Holy Moly there was even an original carrier-borne Japanese Zero…. I truly thought I’d died and gone to heaven..!

But I was here to work and following a very strict flight briefing, (something all air shows and their display pilots take very seriously indeed), and signing a ‘Hold Safe’ form, without which nobody can fly in these beautiful historical Warbirds, (effectively my legal American declaration that if the plane I fly in decided to ‘bite the dust’.. so be it, it was a risk I was prepared to take, though my travel insurers would have been doing hand-springs, no doubt!)

With cameraman John safely ensconced in the rear seat of his A-6 Texan, (better known in RAF & RCAF circles as the Harvard), and me happily belted up in the front seat of a small American WW-II Army co-operation reconnaissance Grasshopper, the Fiesler Storch we were hunting, almost with no ceremony, lifted gently and in a very ‘lady-like fashion’ from its short take-over and headed out over the Texas ‘desert’ with our two planes in hot pursuit…!

So followed an incredible 30 minutes or so, (that seemed like a lifetime), filming this rare Luftwaffe plane as it gently turned and floated above those Texan oilfields… a superb flight that was only ruffled by the sudden presence of a USAF ‘Fighting Falcon’ jet-fighter that buzzed over us and my little lightweight plane bounced around in its jet wash, (the F.16 pilot must have missed the briefing!), and suddenly I was facing the earth from a rather unnerving angle..the ‘Hold Safe’ form in my pocket understandingly taking on a whole new significance…!

However my veteran pilot sitting behind me obviously wrestled skillfully, (and successfully), with his controls, caught our dive and we managed to return in relative safety to Midland-Odessa, John’s Texan landing a few minutes before us…. to date still my only flight in an original World War Two aircraft.

The rest of the weekend was taken up filming the actual Air Show itself in which, entitled Tora Tora, Tora, the complete attack on Pearl Harbor scenario was acted out by all of the aircraft involved in that sudden surprise Japanese attack on the Hawaiian islands in December 1941… even down to recreating the famous shot of a returning B17 Flying Fortress return to Pearl with just one  undercarriage wheel down. Amidst all the amazing pyrotechnics and fighter aircraft in mock combat, you could have quite easily believed that you were actually back there in that time & place, such was the noise, the heat, the sound of straining aero-engines.

The sheer amount of explosions, tension & excitement of the display all gave lie to the fact this was just a facsimile of a real bombing raid…the pilots all giving a superb example of combat flying… each and everyone a volunteer!

Sadly the Messerschmitt Bf109 I was hoping to film crashed on its way to the show and though the pilot was OK, the rare plane itself was not, so I would have to make alternative arrangements, (which will be detailed in a forthcoming Blog); meantime the most surreal event of the weekend, during which I met some incredibly welcoming and kind fighter pilots & Texan combat veterans), was the scrum of people, coming towards me in one of the airport’s corridors after a day’s filming out on the strip…

With cameras flashing and microphones thrust forward I thought I was about to be flattened by the entourage of a ‘Grade A’ movie star…but amidst the crush of ‘minders’ was a tiny little Japanese man in his 90s, but trying desperately to fight my way into the scrum to see what’s what, I was gently, but politely pushed aside by one of the little old man’s ‘bodyguard’ as the group swept past me and on up the airport’s corridor…

On asking one of my most hospitable CAF guides.. “who was that”?  The answer came..”the world’s only surviving Kamikaze pilot”…dang! now that would have been an interview and a half..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013

Kalamazoo’s ‘Air Zoo’ Michigan USA…

Standing in the shower this morning listening to Chris Evans’ BBC Radio Two breakfast show I was fascinated to hear the studio take a call from a ‘weekend display’ pilot of a veteran aircraft, talking about the cockpit of a former de Havilland Vampire jet, (the second jet-fighter to enter RAF service, just missing out on WW-II), that he had sitting on his drive-way!

Bought ‘on impulse’ at an auction of a former independent aircraft museum up north that had ‘gone west’ and was subsequently having to sell off all its wonderful exhibits, including a number of original aircraft cockpits of varying hues & conditions, the chap had bought this particular decrepit cockpit, restored it and was now looking for a museum that would like to take it away from his driveway and have it on display for other enthusiasts to enjoy.

With my other ‘great historical love’ being Second World War vintage aircraft this radio exchange immediately called to mind a superbly displayed ‘front half’ of a twin-engined, USAAF B-26 Marauder bomber, (an aircraft that had operated with great distinction from UK airfields and flew in the skies above Germany during the Allied heavy bombing campaign of WW-II), that I saw at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington on one of my many US trips… and my mind then drifted further to another superb air museum that I was also very lucky to have seen on another of my exciting US jaunts:

Whilst over on another US Veterans’ gathering as a result of the treasured contacts I had made when travelling with the US 79th Infantry Division on their pilgrimage back to Normandy’s D-Day beaches in 2000, I was staying with my great mates up in the stunningly beautiful state of Michigan, when it was suggested that I might like to visit the Kalamazoo Zoo.. (and yes, Kalamzoo does actually exist – it’s not just a song..!)

Thanking my hosts (the Brantingham family), for their suggestion and imagining what strange North American wild-life might be housed within: Moose? the odd Raccoon? or perhaps even evidence of the original Big Foot?… I was soon put right!  We were indeed talking about an exotic collection… of ‘cats’…for the small, friendly American town of Kalamazoo is home to the Flight of Cats, a mind-boggling collection of Grumman fighter aircraft lovingly restored and displayed on the edge of the town’s small airport.

Opened in 1979 with nine aircraft, the Air Zoo was the brainchild of war-time ferry pilot Sue Parish and husband Pete. A former member of the American Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service, Sue’s own Curtiss P40 Tomahawk fighter aircraft, (after which our archival company Tomahawk Films is named), is on show complete with its ‘lipstick pink’ paint-work. The pink hue was originlly the ‘planes undercoat showing through its 1942 desert livery and today is one of the star attractions of this much loved fighter collection.

Excitingly, the whole of the illustrious Grumman fighter family is on display at the Zoo: from the famous US Navy carrier-borne fighters of the Pacific War, the Wildcat, the Hellcat and the Bearcat, through to the F7 twin-engined Tigercat that just caught the end of World War two, but which distinguished itself as a night-fighter in the Korean War, up to the modern day and the awe-inspiring and beautiful front-line carrier-borne F14 Tomcat, an example on loan from the US Navy’s ‘Fighting 84t.h’ Squadron.

Far more than just a collection of static aircraft, the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, (much like our very own Imperial War Museum’s Airfield of Duxford, where our SFX CD Sounds of War, offering a number of original WW-II aero-engine sounds is on offer), is actually a living, breathing museum, with a daily display flight by one of their restored aircraft, a comprehensive reference library & education centre and a fully working aircraft restoration and renovation department.

With over 70 aircraft on display, museum guests will find a small, dedicated team of ‘Docents’ (tour guides), drawn from a collection of war-time pilots, including Canadian Bill Clearly who flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain with Tangmere-based 601 Squadron. Known as ‘Pranger’ due to several mishaps whilst with a ‘Mossie’ squadron, Bill was eventually credited with four kills in the Battle and ended his war flying Lysanders on spy-drop missions behind enemy lines in Northern France.

In fact the log-books of many of these formally-trained museum guides read like a plane-spotter’s dream; from ‘Black Widows’ to the amazing F82 ‘double-mustang’ from the B25 Mitchell bomber to the P39 Aircobra and all these animated, former fighter pilots are eager & willing to share their amazing war-time experiences with the visitors.

I must admit that in chatting to one of these, now elderly, gentlemen, I finally found out where the phrase ‘the whole 9 yards’ actually comes from: apparently early machine-gun belts in the wings of Allied fighter aircraft were 27 feet long and when returning pilots were greeted by the armourers, if the pilot had expended all of his ammunition, the ground-crew opening up the gun-ports would exclaim: ’well he certainly shot the whole 9 yards..!’

Many similar nuggets of information were forthcoming and such is the importance placed on learning that the Zoo has appointed an education director, Gerard ‘Jerry’ Pahl, who showed me their Restoration operation at the centre of which was an amazing project: the rebuild of one of the X-planes. In fact the XP-55 ‘Ascender’  which Jerry proudly pointed out is the last surviving example and, as an affiliate of the Washington Smithsonian Institute, the Air Zoo was tasked with its important renovation upon behalf of the American nation.

Maintaining another local connection is the on-going restoration project to restore a superb Douglas SBD Dauntless naval carrier-borne dive-bomber that was recovered from the bottom of the nearby Lake Michigan. During the war, local paddle steamers were pressed into military service and converted into training carriers upon which Dauntless naval aviators could practice the hazardous business of carrier landings & take-offs; however some 300 aircraft were lost into the lake during this training period and many still lie in the silt at the bottom to this day.

However a number of successful recoveries have since been made by aircraft recovery groups and the Air Zoo now has one of these rare aircraft in the main hall alongside its other exciting exhibits, which also includes a flying version of the Bell P39-Q Aircobra in the markings of the 67th US pursuit squadron… one of the world’s only 3 surviving airworthy examples of the 9,585 originally built.

World War Two aircraft buffs & students of US Naval carrier history passing through this lovely Great Lake State would be well rewarded with a stop-over at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo and its amazing collection of combat aircraft… I certainly was!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013