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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.