Unusual Attitudes: Warbirds

(April 2011) Coincidentally (maybe) I'm writing this on the anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. He was later declared a heretic by the Diet of Worms, a bunch of church guys who met in a German town with a really funny name. It's possible that posting this thesis will condemn me to a similar fate ... like being tarred and feathered with really black AeroShell 120W or dragged down the runway tied to a tailhook and condemned as a heretic by the "Council of Warbirdia."

Everybody seems to accept the fact that it’s politically, socially and morally unacceptable to feel anything but passionate about old warplanes or anything less than worshipful about the guys who fly them. Having taken potshots at the FAA, Women in Aviation International, the Civil Air Patrol, the Ninety-Nines, balloonists, sky divers, people who fly airplanes with ballistic parachutes and even Quiet Birdmen, you know I’m fearless, but all that pales in comparison to this iconoclasm. Here’s a shot over the bow at those self-canonized, steely-eyed, sweaty, flight-suited (with just enough chest hair visible) warbirdians, those swashbuckling, swaggering knights of the air who preen in the adoration and awe of spectators and second-class aviators: guys who fly Cessnas. And, yeah, I’ll even swipe at the nonflying worker-bee wannabes, members of warbird organizations who officiously guard “their” airplanes at airshows and fly-ins with a holy sense of purpose and a pain-in-the-ass air of righteousness.

Sure enough, here comes a 50-gallon drum of AeroShell. Stop! Before you call your congressman, the Waffen CAP, the EAA warbird police or my editor ... just wait a minute! You’ve heard me go on (and on and on) about my love affair with Lockheed 18s and C-47s enough to know how much I love “big iron.” Heck, probably half the time on my 180 is flying between Cincinnati and Piqua, Ohio, to tear up the countryside in Jim Brown’s SNJ. Awesome is an overused word, but flying an airplane like that is flat-out awesome. Every time I put 36 inches to that big, gloriously noisy old thing, two thoughts run through my mind: “Sweet Jesus, can I really handle this?” and “Hey, Martha, they soloed kids in these things and then sent them off to fight a war.”

As much as I love the “J” and all big, old oily airplanes, I am most definitely not a warbirdian. Maybe it’s because I lack the requisite chest hair, but I refuse to wear a flight suit or gloves or a helmet, eliciting stern frowns from “Nomex’d” warbirdians who predict dire consequences when I crash and burn. For me, flying the “J” isn’t about wars and fighting; it’s about fun. Not long after Bill Leff checked me out I could feel that old trainer just begging me to do something, so I home-schooled on aileron and barrel rolls. At first they weren’t pretty, but I knew I’d come apart before the “J” would. So I kept at it, careful to reset the G-meter after every flight, and eventually got it right. Rather recently, I matriculated to “Loops 101” and walked around for about a week with a grin on my face. At some point I sobered up and asked myself if there might be something wrong with a lady of a certain age (north of 65) teaching herself loops in an SNJ.

A gaggle of rare warbirds took cover at the aerodrome a few years ago, weathered in on their way home after some airshows on the East Coast. And they ended up staying at Lunken Airport for most of that summer. Well, there they were, safe and snug in Hangar One, and here I was, 10 minutes away at home with the combination to the padlock on the hangar door. Very late one July night I slipped inside and ... talk about a kid in a candy shop! With a Mini Maglite clenched firmly between my teeth, I climbed into and “flew” a Corsair, a P-51, an AT-6 that looked like a Zero and a P-38 — that last took a stepladder when I couldn’t figure out how to get in. Then there was a P-40 and, oh, that P-40 was perfect heaven. I sat in it for a long, long time that night, realizing I could fly it, reading the manual by flashlight and reciting a poem still fresh in my memory from a library book 50 years ago:

"Army dubbed me YP-40,
Kittyhawk and Warhawk, too.
Loving hands did shape my body,
make me sturdy through and through.
Naught could best my guns in combat while the right was in my grip.
And my soul was all my pilot and
his strength was me, his ship.
So it was that Grant Mahoney hitched his wagon to a star,
Then outran the whole Jap navy
over Java's Denpasar."
— Author unknown

I have a long-standing love affair with old military airplanes.

Veterans? Probably the most memorable, bittersweet flight I ever made was with a man from Greenfield, Ohio, who’d flown SNJs in the Navy during World War II. After the war he came home to this little central Ohio town and never flew himself again. On the eve of his 85th birthday his son, knowing there was a “J” at Hartzell Field in Piqua, asked if somebody might take his dad for a ride. He had cancer and only a few months to live. At first the old man was reluctant to take the controls, but then, with increasing confidence and no little skill, he flew that airplane as if 60 years were no more than a few weeks. He dusted off some Ohio countryside and asked for a few wingovers and rolls. I won’t forget the smile on his face when we landed, and I’ll always treasure the letter his son wrote when his dad passed, saying how much that flight had meant to him. Surely not so much as it meant to me!

Unpatriotic? When the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind opened with the flag waving and “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing, I stood, hand over heart, singing the words. What a great idea to start movies with the national anthem, but why was everybody else just sitting there? So, OK, I was a little embarrassed when I realized it was the opening scene — but not all that embarrassed. Heck, I get misty-eyed when baseball players stand to sing the anthem, and I’m mad when Olympic athletes don’t seem to know the words.

So I love my country, I’m crazy about old military airplanes, and I admire people who care enough to restore and preserve them. Veterans are my heroes, and I’m hugely proud to call Clair Potter and Bob Hoover, Joe Kittinger, Neil Armstrong and Dale Snodgrass friends, men who “made their bones” flying in war and in peacetime. So what has my panties all wadded up about the “warbirdians”?

I don’t know; something’s happened in the last decade. Maybe it’s a feeling that World War II was our last noble war and the veterans of that dreadful battle to save Western civilization are nearly gone. Remember when some guy at your airport would get his hands on a ragged out AT-6 or P-51 — maybe just parts or even just a data plate — and work for years to restore and fly it? It wasn’t about foundations or museums or warbird squadrons. It was about the fun of flying it. You could go to Hamilton Airport any night and find Bill Hogan at work on his P-51H, parts and service manuals open on the wing like recipe books and a trash can nearby iced down with beer. Or to Darke County Airport at Versailles, Ohio, to see Moon Spillers’ rare “A” model ’51, which he rescued (albeit in very small pieces). Lunken had its share of P-51s, AT-6s and AT-11s, all privately and joyously owned and flown.

Suddenly we’ve morphed into “Warbird World,” peopled by guys with military bearing who never wore a uniform any more “official” than a CAP suit. I guess I’m distressed — no, pissed off — about the artificial, paramilitary flavor of warbird chapters, museums and foundations where members exhibit an “on steroids” fervor about defending our country, preserving our freedom and reliving the good old days of World War II.

Sure, people love seeing iconic old warplanes at airshows or on tours, but being an owner or pilot doesn’t automatically confer superhero status or mean you deserve a hefty fee and free fuel whenever you turn a prop. It usually means you’re rich enough, “501 C.3-savvy” enough or lucky enough to have temporary custody of a national treasure. It also means you’d better have the skill and the humility not to make an ass out of yourself flying it.

I know my take on “warbirdia” won’t go over well with everybody, but, then, that’s one of the freedoms those old guys bought for us, isn’t it? So have your formation clinics and build your museums even if they’re open to the public only on the third Thursday after every other vernal equinox. Just let me fly Jim’s “J” in peace, and don’t expect my support at your $500-a-plate dinners.

Maybe this is about seeing some kid and his dad pay $5 to walk through a B-24 or -17 and get pushed around by an officious ground-crew volunteer in a jumpsuit. Or maybe it’s about being a 15-year-old CAP cadet (yeah, me!) who loved Wednesday night aviation ground school. But when CAP abandoned airplane classes in favor of marching around a cold parking lot, I announced that having people dress up in uniforms and playing soldiers was just silly. I was outta there. As I recall, they — like the FAA many years later — were not sorry to see me go.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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