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Sat, Sep 27, 2003

Another Perspective: National Air Tour Barnstorms America!

ANN Correspondent Rob Milford Flies in Zebra

By ANN Correspondent Rob Milford

The National Air Tour, with more than two dozen vintage aircraft, was winding it’s way around the country, sure to be interrupted by Hurricane Isabel when they hit my home turf.

Sunday, September 14th, they arrived in my hometown, Fort Worth, landing at the city owned Meacham Field… now called “Meacham International” because someone actually had enough range to fly all the way to Juarez, Mexico one day. Doesn’t happen every day, and can’t, since there’s no scheduled service, no TSA and no Customs and Immigration on the field!

That made it perfect for the NAT to arrive under some cloudy skies on Sunday afternoon, with a crowd of more than 1,500 people waiting for hours to get a good look at American aviation history. 

This was the original home base of American Airlines, so the “real old-timers” got a kick out of a Super Stearman mail plane, and a Stinson Tri-Motor, both in the vintage blue and orange American paint of the 1920’s and 30’s. Those planes were moved in front of the hangar on Monday morning for a “family portrait” that will be the delight of classic lovers.

This tour is really akin to modern day barnstorming. The lead plane arrives, the concessions table and PA system are set up, and you get a play-by-play from announcer Roger Gomoll as the fleet arrives, in groups of 2-3-4 and 5. Depending on fuel and traffic, some will execute a nice pass…or to the satisfaction of the tower, a “missed approach” and delight us all with the growl of the engine and a wiggle of the wings.

Having said all that, you should check out the National Air Tour.Org website to get the latest update and schedule changes. Making the trip to the nearest field will be a real treat, and seeing the planes, getting your own pictures, meeting a great group of pilots and plane nuts, beats reading about it.

“So, you wanna go flying?”

That was the question posed Sunday night, while I was eating with the tour folks at Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth (ask ‘em about it!!). I was so surprised that I almost choked on my chalupa, but nodded and did a quick mental inventory of my bank account. Knowing that the schedule for Monday was clear, and the weather forecast excellent, I gulped, said “You bet!” and ordered more margaritas.

Monday came early, rush hour traffic through Fort Worth (not just cows and pickup trucks) but the dew was dripping off the wings as engine and cockpit covers were being pulled.

I was like a kid in a candy store, or an ANN editor in a strip joint.

The toughest decision was which historic aircraft to strap on. This is a flock of rara avis all deserving of a nice warm hangar, showing tender loving care, and in many cases are one or two-of-a-kind aircraft.

The zebra striped Sikorsky S-38B amphibian was the dream plane, and pilot Waldo Anderson (THE character of all the characters on this flight) said “Sure, get on it…we’re leaving!” I climbed in through the sliding roof panel, and within minutes, the Pratt & Whitney R985’s were warming up every one of their 450 horses. This is one of two aircraft of this type remaining, the other belonging to the S.C. Johnson family of Racine, Wisconsin…(think Johnson Wax), and is painted in the Zebra stripes after the explorers Martin and Osa Johnson, who explored Africa in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, filming the countryside, wildlife and the natives. They also had a single engine S-39, of which only one remains, and that is on the tour as well.

Making A Splash

In a couple of minutes, we took to the skies, for a short flight northwest of Fort Worth, to Eagle Mountain Lake. The winds were calm, the water very smooth, and Waldo wanted to make a “splash” and he did! A wonderfully smooth landing had all four passengers smiling… but a noted to one that within seconds, there would be a flock of fishermen headed our way, thinking we had made a water landing. We did, and they did… three boats coming our way, only to be waved off, when they realized that this aircraft was supposed to be in the water, on occasion.

After a few minutes puttering around, we headed off again, with huge sprays of water over the lower wings. The take-off run was surprisingly short, with a loud THUMP as we broke free of the surface, and the noise level in the cabin very quiet.

I’m sure that later in the day, those fishermen were telling a story about a zebra-striped airplane landing in the lake… and people will wonder exactly how much beer these guys had before lunch!
Setting up for a 95kt cruise, at around 2,100, we headed south, around Carswell Field, and then headed east along I-20, passing over Arlington Municipal, Grand Prairie and just south of Dallas Executive, before making a beeline to Tyler, where several hundred people had gathered, just to watch some of the planes do a fly-by.

On Sunday, one of the crowd at Meachem Field was wearing a t-shirt showing the skeleton of Pegasus, the flying horse, with it’s Latin scientific name, and “extinct 1999”. It was the long time symbol of Mobil Oil. Now, bought by Exxon, there is no Mobil, and no more flying red horse. But in this zebra striped twin engine bi-plane, I felt like I was flying in a true dinosaur. Everything happens slowly. There are wooden knobs for the props, throttles and mixture, and the huge wooden steering wheel, with it’s attached bicycle chain connection, and attention to detail in the rebuild and restoration is phenomenal.  

The Hughes Connection

The work was done by “Born Again Preservations”, and the plane first took to the air May 15th, 2001. Since then, they’ve racked up more than 220 hours, and the plane was scheduled to leave the tour and head west, to take part in the filming of the movie about Howard Hughes, called “The Aviator”. Don’t forget, before this Texas-rich oilman-playboy got real weird, he was one hell of a pilot, and Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing Mr. Hughes during his flying heyday.

We cruised eastward towards Shreveport, with Dr. Brent Blue in the right seat, getting some serious piloting in, with a huge smile on his face the entire time. He said it handled well… very smoothly, and through the sunshine of east Texas, we burned around 50 gallons per hours. Waldo Anderson kept answering my questions, on how the top wing was found in a garage, and the tail booms were in California, and were holding up the roof of some farmers shed.

And if there is any question about the price of these aircraft…in 1930, the S.C. Johnson family bought one of each, an S-38 and S-39, and paid the Sikorsky Company $20,000. That was in a time, during the depression, when the average annual wage was less than $3,000!

The one real concession to modern times is the Garman 430 in the center of the console, it’s bright color screen beaming as it pointed the way to Shreveport, where at least a thousand people were waiting for the National Air Tour to arrive.

The three-hour flight was one for the memory books, and truly a once in a lifetime experience. If the opportunity allows, take a flight back in time 70 years, and compare it to how we do things today. These planes might be slow, have small engines and small fuel tanks, but they have a soul, a real personality, and for a while on Monday, I was wondering why I hadn’t worn my leather “Snoopy” flying cap and a white scarf around my neck. What a thrill. It will remind you why we all love aviation, and the flying, and the great planes.



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