There is a book penned by Lt. Col. Thomas R. Waldron, USAF retired, called “I Flew with Heroes,” a true account of the rescue and recovery of downed airmen during the Vietnam War. On June 1, I, too “flew with heroes,” but not in deadly aerial combat. Rather, as a front seat observer flying in an airshow with the Stearman Squadron.
Rockdale resident John Laughter is one of the pilots. His wingmen are Jim Ratliff, Larry Taylor, Cal Tax, Pete Smart and Vic Syracuse. Marine veteran and pilot Charlie Brown flies with the squadron on occasion in his vintage Fairchild PT-19.
Untold numbers of American and British pilots earned their wings flying the Boeing Stearman biplane, also known as the Kaydet. Resilient and reliable, roughly 9,000 Stearmans survived the war to be auctioned off as crop dusters, sports planes, and aerobatic airshow performers.
My auspicious invitation into the wild blue yonder came via email from John Laughter, a Navy F-8 Crusader fighter pilot in Vietnam and retired commercial airline pilot. Flying with Laughter for the airshow this year were Tax, Syracuse, and Brown, four proficient aviators with 170 years of combined experience.
The event was “Vintage Day,” the brainchild of Ron Alexander, founder and owner of the Candler Field Museum and the Peachstate Aerodrome in Williamson. Ron, too, is a Vietnam veteran, former Air Force pilot, retired Delta pilot, and a member of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
Laughter and I, with Charlie Brown as our wingman, took off from the grass airstrip at Seven Lakes in Butts County. Our first destination was Mallard’s Landing, another grass airstrip, to rendezvous with Tax and Syracuse, and then we took off for the Peachstate Aerodrome.
“Vintage Day” presented a trip back in time. A gentleman in a World War II era MP uniform turned out to be a retired Air Force officer. An antiquated US Mail biplane was parked next to a Ford biplane. Yes, a Ford! And from the looks of it, I’m glad the Ford Company stuck to cars.
Two young girls were dressed up as “Donut Dollies,” the dauntless lady volunteers who furnished coffee and donuts to our GIs overseas. A Curtiss Jenny was parked near a C-47. The Jenny trained many a doughboy as derring-do flyboys of The Great War (World War I).
Pilots sported garb from the roaring 1920s, knickers, knee socks, one and two-tone Oxford shoes, colorful suspenders, a lovable bow tie, and the legendary Fedora or newsboy cap.
Michelle Kim, editor of the Rockdale News, drove down to the airshow. When I informed Michelle she had a front seat reserved in one of the Stearmans, she asked, “Do they have parachutes?”
The grass airstrip was lined with families, especially children, waving at the Stearmans and their occupants as we taxied and took off for our show. I waved or gave a thumbs-up’— they were almost as excited as yours truly.
We maneuvered into formation, circled the field, then dove to a lower altitude for our first pass. Flying in a low triangle formation over the airstrip, we released a smoke column over the grass runway. We regrouped into a wingtip formation for our final pass. Halfway down the runway our lead Stearman, piloted by Vic Syracuse, peeled off in a tight 45 degree turn, followed by Cal Tax in the second Stearman. I overheard Laughter in the rear seat timing his turn: ‘one thousand one, one thousand two’ – at one thousand five, he peeled off hard right. Thrilling doesn’t describe the feeling.
After a quick bite to eat, it was time to wing home. Airborne and cruising serenely at 2,500 feet, Laughter said, “OK, Pete, the stick is yours,” — meaning, take over the controls and fly. I had not piloted an aircraft in more than 45 years. My anxiety lasted less than a second.
Pilots experience a sensation ground-dwellers cannot understand. You are behind the controls of a nuts and bolts airborne machine. Reckless behavior can end your life. I did a few lackluster maneuvers, listened to Laughter’s knowledgeable guidance, yet more than anything else I felt at peace. Be it the rumble of a piston engine or whine of a jet, the sound retreats in your mind as you scan a funny-shaped cloud, admire the indigo backdrop, listen to the air whistling by, or take a quick glance at God’s green earth beneath your wings.
My many thanks to the Stearman Squadron for letting this amateur aviator once again “touch the face of God.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. His website is aveteransstory.us. For more photographs, go to rockdalenews.com.