Thursday, June 4, 2009
A gathering of warbirds
Years ago there was one place to go if you wanted to see a legend. In an out of the way airstrip nestled in the sun-baked farmlands of the Central Valley of California pilots from all over brought their vintage fighters, trainers and bombers to fly. Legends of a war fought before some in the crowd were even born. The airshow was called the Gathering of Warbirds and Madera California was host to this premier event that had visitors flock for a glimpse of these vintage aircraft.
I attended one of these show about 26 years ago while I was still in college. I was a fledgling photographer shooting with a Nikon FM2 film camera with a 200mm telephoto lens. I have no idea where the pictures of that day are, probably tucked away in some dusty photo album in the corner of a closet at my parents home. I remember some of the airplanes that flew that day and the thing I remember the most was a large formation of AT-6 trainers that passed by the crowd in staggered waves. But that was years ago and since then I have had only had the occasional chance to view those vintage propeller driven warriors perform. The Gathering of Warbirds airshow seems to have faded in popularity and was replaced with the dazzling, high adrenalin pumping aerobatics of military jets and civilian pilots pushing high tech composite aircraft to the ragged edge of the flight envelope.
But somewhere there was the always the longing to watch one of the old soldiers once again. One of the Merlin engine powered fighters screaming through the air. One of the radial engine powered fighters belching smoke and fire as it roared to life. To see the pilots who relied on stick and rudder over the computerized fly-by-wire systems of today. To relive the days of different century and drift back in time when the skies were filled with the glint of sunlight off polished aluminum wings and the roar of the pistons churning an engine to war.
I don’t know why we find the old fighters so fascinating. The raw power of a F-18 fighter jet screaming across the sky doesn’t seem to hold same allure of a P-51 Mustang fighter as it races downhill for a high speed pass above the runway. Made it is the mystery of an age that has passed us or it reminds us of time when war seemed noble and honorable. With little fanfare and just blind luck I recently stumbled across a notice for the return of the airshow to Madera. The new show was dubbed Legends Over Madera and addition to the listing of aerobatic and jet team performances it listed a number of vintage fighters that would be taking to the sky.
It wasn’t the number of warbirds I remembered from years ago but that didn’t matter. Walking along the tarmac the airplanes were lined up on display before their flights. Four Mustangs shared space on the ramp with a Sea Fury while an F-4U Corsair waited nearby. A Russian Yak 11 sat near the Mustangs while a P-40 Warhawk sat in the sun near a Travel Air biplane. While all the airplanes looked fantastic the pair that intrigued me the most were an F6F Hellcat and A6M3 Japanese Zero fighter. The two waged mortal combat against each other in the bloody skies of the Pacific Theater during World War II. I had only seen a Hellcat once in person and never a Zero so I was eager to see these planes fly.
The warbirds were grouped into different groups and would have a series of flights staggered throughout the day. To start things off the Sea Fury was joined by an AT-6, a T-28 Trojan and the Hellcat and Zero pair. A warbird flight is not an aerobatic demonstration for the most part. The pilots like to keep things low and close as they show off the airplanes speed and handling. The pilots made high-speed passes in formation and solo trading altitude for airspeed on the runs in front of the crowd. It is hard to describe but there is something almost mystical about the sound of those engines humming along, propellers slapping the air as they climb for altitude. Some airplanes are equipped with smoke generators to leave a trail as they cross the sky. The Sea Fury has smoke on the wingtips and his trail is swept up by the vortexes he creates at high speed.
If most of the flights are high-speed passes and formation flights there was one exception. Pilot John Collver put his AT-6 trainer named ‘War Dog” through a low level aerobatic routine. Smoke bellowed from his plane as the big radial engine rumbled through the series of loops and rolls. To show off the stability of the At-6 he flew some of his routine with the landing gear in the extended down position. He also flew a routine along side the P-51 Mustang named “Six Shooter” to show off his formation skills.
The afternoon sun had the heat shimmering off the runway. Fighters sweeping across the crowd line took on a surreal appearance in the distance as they approached through the heat. The last warbird flight was a mock dogfight between the Zero and the Hellcat. Launching into the hazy skies they skidded behind each other jockeying for position in a reenactment of a deadly game played many times in Pacific Ocean skies. The Zero would release smoke to signify a hit as it swung by overhead.
With a last squeak of rubber on asphalt their show ended and the Legends show was over. It took 26 years to see these fighters take to the Central Valley skies but the wait was worth it. Legends in the air, these warbirds showed their mettle from an era gone by.