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How’d You Get That Shot? Learning to Compromise

1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237 and 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel

It was our first shoot of the week for the Mid America Flight Museum. Departing Mt. Pleasant Airport almost one year to the day, the sun could not rise soon enough to cut through the chill of the Texas air.

1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237

Scott Glover flies the 1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237

Matt Bongers was at the control of the O-1 Bird Dog we were using as a photo ship when Scott Glover and Kelly Mahon joined up on our wing in the 1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin and a 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 respectively. We did a few solo shoots first before having them join up together. The biggest challenge being the incredible amount of snot one can produce in the freezing air. Pretty sure no one will ever buy my camera now.

But I digress; Scott, Kelly and Matt quickly acclimated to the formation positioning, changes and lingo putting me at ease knowing the rest of the week will go smoothly. Once the sun began to peek over the light fog, steam also began to rise over Lake Bob Sandlin. Through the camera, it looked great, but my focus was on the two aircraft and how to get them to line up.

1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 C/N 416

Kelly Mahon flies the Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 C/N 416 just after completing delivery of the aircraft from the state of Washington to Mt. Pleasant, TX.

You see, my Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) seems to be getting worse as I age. Two different aircraft types typically result in two different angles of attack (AOA). An angle of attack refers to the perceived pitch of the aircraft. Some aircraft types have a perceived higher or lower AOA due to the placement of the wing, fuselage design, center of balance, etc. When formating two completely different aircraft, it’s not uncommon for the AOA to be different between the two. And that’s where my OCD comes in.

When it came to editing the resulting images, the solo shots were great! Everyone did a spectacular job. But when it came to selecting two-ship images to edit, nothing was calling to me. My OCD was kicking in big time due to the difference in AOA and what appeared to be an awkward formation.

1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin C/N 237 and 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel

Kelly Mahon in the Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 and Scott Glover in the Curtiss-Wright Robin join Matt Bongers and me in the O-1 Bird Dog photo ship over Mt. Pleasant, TX.

Kelly Mahon wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to see formation shots so I compromised. I found an image that seemed surreal and majestic even though to me it was imperfect. The wings didn’t line up, it looks as though the aircraft are headed in slightly different directions, it just didn’t speak to me. Regardless, my issues shouldn’t get in the way of pilots and aircraft owners taking joy in their accomplishments. And let’s face it, flying these 80+ year-old aircraft in formation on a freezing morning is no easy task. They deserve every ounce of recognition for what they do!

So, I put my OCD aside and tried to approach it from another perspective. As someone who loves history and even going so far as to recreate historic moments, that was what I saw. The more I finessed the image, the more respect I had for our early aviators. This became a brief glimpse into the early days of aviation when pilots arose before dawn and began their cross-country journeys low over the countryside. They didn’t always fly in perfect formation, as a matter of fact, they hardly ever flew perfect formation. It was about getting from point A to point B and enjoying the smaller points in between.

To me, this image became more about drawing an end to the birth of aviation and ushering in the 1930’s with air racing, endurance and speed, improving commercial travel and making this world a little smaller. I didn’t feel it at first, but this has become my tribute to the pioneers of aviation; a good compromise!

Thank you to Scott Glover, Kelly Mahon and Matt Bongers from the Mid America Flight Museum for allowing me to document their collection. And thank you to Aviation Week Space Technology for awarding me 2016 Best of Show for this image.


When a Photoshoot isn’t a Photoshoot

Connie Header


The first Air Force One which flew Dwight D. Eisenhower, returned to flight on March 19, 2016, taking off from Marana airport in Marana, Arizona. On March 22nd, Columbine II began the cross-country journey to Bridgewater, Virginia to undergo a complete restoration.

About thirty feet away, a freshly restored P-51 Mustang was coming to life after a four-year restoration by Airmotive Specialties in Salinas, CA. The Mustang, a former air racer once owned by Lefty Gardner, was having her legs stretched by Eliot Cross as an historic resemblance to WWII Ace, Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Weaver’s aircraft. Knowing both Lefty’s and Weaver’s history, standing alongside this aircraft was simply magical.

It was about that time my phone rang; how I heard it over the roar of the Mustang’s Rolls Royce engine, I’ll never know. On the other end was good friend, Scott Glover of the Mid America Flight Museum in Mt. Pleasant, TX.

Wanna Photograph Air Force One?” He asked.


Ironically, landing gear may have saved the Lockheed Constellation from becoming an agricultural sprayer. Gear from a L-1049 model was placed on this earlier version preventing the FAA from allowing it to continue operation.

Only a few weeks earlier I had heard about the purchase and intent to restore the first Air Force One, a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II that had become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal transport. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to have been asked to document such an historic moment.

The aircraft was purchased as part of a lot of five Lockheed Constellations which were to eventually be heavily modified for low-level, high-acrage crop spraying. Three of the acquired Constellations were converted, one was used for parts and the fifth aircraft was denied certification by the FAA due to incorrect landing gear. Apparently the military chose to replace Columbine II’s stock landing gear with that of the more robust L-1049 variant and the FAA didn’t like that. Due to the cost of replacing the landing gear, the aircraft sat in the Arizona desert.

TVR16_lockheed_constellation_columbine_9314Fast-forward to March 18, 2016, nearly a year after that initial phone call, when the diligent work of Dynamic Aviation, with the assistance of the Mid America Flight Museum, came to fruition and Columbine II took to the skies once more.

For the rest of us, that was our cue to head to Marana, AZ, and begin the next phase. She was to embark on a cross-country trip to Bridgewater, VA, where she would undergo a thorough restoration and become a flying museum piece.


Flight Engineer station onboard the Columbine II

When I arrived in Marana, I was able to see first-hand the amount of work the two teams had put into getting the nearly 70-year old aircraft flying. Structurally, the aircraft is like new, but the years still took its toll on the aging aircraft and like most things her age, everything needed to proceed slowly and with extra caution.

The crew moved all of the aircraft closer to the runway the night before departure. On the apron sat Karl Stoltzfus’ King Air chase aircraft as well as his new pride and joy, Columbine II, in addition to Mid America Flight Museum’s immaculate B-25 ‘God and Country’, which would become the platform from which the flight would be documented.


The former location of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s desk onboard the Lockheed Constellation ‘Columbine II’, better known as the first Air Force One.

The key word used throughout our briefing process and conversation was, ‘document’. Sure, I had high hopes of in-your-face dramatic formation positioning, precise lighting, stunning prop blur and every other image a photographer strives for when going on a photo mission. But, this was not that…it was not a photoshoot.

Typically, when flying with another aircraft being photographed, I’ll position them by asking for minute movements in relation to the photo platform; 5 feet forward…10 feet down…10 feet back, etc. The challenge lies with the subject aircraft’s pilot making fine adjustments to the throttle and yoke in order to accomplish those positions. Doing these types of maneuvers in a partially restored aircraft which still needs the input of a flight engineer in addition to the pilot and co-pilot, would put unnecessary strain on the already aging mechanics of this special aircraft.

TVR16_lockheed_constellation_columbine_4854Get to Virginia in one piece…that was our goal. However, photos would be nice, but far from the primary mission.

Sitting in the back of the B-25, the Connie approached slowly and cautiously over the course of nearly an hour. As pilot, Lockie Christler; co-pilot, Scott McDonald and Flight Engineers, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons inched the aircraft closer to the B-25, I was able to provide some basic suggestions like, more to left, more to the right, stack high, stack low and scissor. Precise positioning was out of the question as was a change in our heading. Basically, what you see is what you get, and I was perfectly happy with that!

One of the biggest technical challenges was the focal length of the lens vs. the shutter speed required to get motion in the propellors. Most of the air-to-air work was shot with a Nikon D810 and 70-200 f/2.8, mainly used at the long end. Rule of thumb, (prop-blur aside) is that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length being used, so at 200mm my shutter speed should have been no slower than 1/200 sec. to insure sharp images.

That simply wasn’t going to happen. The RPM of Columbine II’s radial engines were significantly slower than that of a P-51 or aerobatic Extra 300. In order to get full rotation of the three-bladed assembly, a shutter speed of 1/40 was needed. In the freezing cold tail of windy B-25, the Kenyon Labs gyro saved the day. Had it not been for the improved stabilization of the gyro, many of the images would have been unusable.

TVR16_lockheed_constellation_columbine_8617Over the course of the 4.5hr flight to Mt. Pleasant, TX, I was able to get in some Yoga courtesy of crawling over the bomb bay and under the flight deck to get to the nose. Although it had probably been some ten years since I’ve had to do that, it was a stunning reminder of what these 20-something year olds were faced with on a daily basis flying B-25’s into combat zones during WWII. The big difference, we didn’t have anyone shooting at us and the temperature at 9500ft was far more bearable than their high-altitude missions.


With Scott Glover at the controls of the B-25 and Matt Bongers sitting right seat, they managed to position the twin-engine bomber to reveal the Constellation’s beautiful lines from the rear-quarter view. Add the sprawling American countryside to the equation and you have your photoshoot-esque images of an American icon coming back to life.

The complete restoration is estimated to take 3-4 years and will take place in Bridgeport, VA. Once finished, Columbine II will be the only civilian-owned Air Force One and will travel across the country educating people on the history of presidential aircraft as well as how Columbine II changed the course of history regarding all aircraft that would eventually transport the President of the United States.


Special thanks to Karl Stoltzfus and his incredible crew at Dynamic Aviation for making the impossible possible along with his aircrew, Lockie Christler, Scott McDonald, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons. Without the incredible friendship and enthusiasm of Scott Glover and his crew at Mid America Flight Museum; Matt Bongers, Gregg Williams, Erik Johnston, Frank Glover, Jr., Linda Cortelyou and many others, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. Thank you for this incredible opportunity!

How’d You Get That Shot? – Silver Stealth

Without the usual armed guards and miles of redundant security stanchions typically present with the F-117, photographers could exercise their creativity in documenting the aircraft and the event.

“Ok guys, here’s what I want; let’s get five Night Hawks…no wait, fifteen…aw heck, twenty-five F-117’s in formation on a heading of 162 degrees so they align perfectly with the flag pole at the base’s static museum. Sound doable?”

So, that discussion didn’t actually happen, but the results couldn’t have been planned any better.

On October 27, 2006, Holloman Air Force Base helped celebrate the F-117 Night Hawk’s 25th Anniversary of active duty service. For many it seemed like the F-117 was still a relatively new aircraft, but for those who knew America’s best kept secret, the aircraft had already served combat in other countries.

Having first flown on June 18, 1981, the F-117 was the world’s first real stealth fighter. Designed with faceted surfaces, radar waves would bounce off the surface of the aircraft at angles preventing the waves from returning to the point of origin. In addition, the aircraft could also absorb radar waves by use of a special radar absorbent material (RAM). In all, 64 F-117’s were built including five experimental airframes.

Following a pre-flight of the aircraft, Lt. Col. Chris 'Hans' Knehans fires up the F-117 in preparation for the mass flyover.

The 25th Anniversary of the F-117, or Silver Stealth, as it came to be known, was a not a highly publicized media event. With such few individuals present, the Public Affairs Office could be a bit more accommodating with unusual requests.

First on the shot list was a pair of Night Hawks set at a 45-degree angle facing toward one another on a vacant ramp. Since the F-117 possessed features that were still top secret, aircraft on public display were always accompanied by armed guards and two rows of stanchions. But on this day, things were different. No ropes, no military police, no snipers, just two of the most guarded aircraft at our disposal – unguarded.

As the sun set over the New Mexico desert we continued making the most of the light. So relaxed and trusting were the escorts, I had the opportunity to refine a relatively new technique for photographing an aircraft at night with very little gear. This required me to crawl around and under the aircraft placing lights in strategic areas necessary to illuminate a black aircraft against a night sky. With an exposure of about two minutes, strobes assisting for back-lighting and the night sky glowing with the faint remnants of the earlier day’s light, those escorting us allowed for continued photography based on the immediate results from my Canon 10D.

In an incredible show of power, 25 stealth aircraft taxi toward the runway at Holloman AFB in New Mexico.

The following morning Rich Cooper and Kevin Jackson of Combat Aircraft Magazine finally made it in from the UK. Tommy Fuller from Public Affairs met us at the gate and brought us to Brig. Gen. David Goldfein’s office, the base commander. Following a warm and generous greeting, we were off to check out some sheltered Night Hawks.

The maintainers from the F-117 Demo Team had already been hard at work preparing the aircraft when pilot, Lt. Col. Chris ‘Hans’ Knehans arrived to inspect his plane. Once more we were allowed unfettered access to the stealth bomber as well as the routine each pilot goes through prior to flight. Following his pre-flight, he patiently posed as we snapped a few portraits.

In an adjacent hangar, Captain Christina Szasz, one of the few female pilots to fly the F-117 was also completing her pre-flight. To top off the hangar tour would be one final aircraft hidden away.

For the mass flyover, the plan was to have five aircraft in ‘Vic’ formation with a total of five groups in-trail totaling 25 aircraft. An additional five aircraft would be airborne as mechanical in-air replacements with yet another 5 aircraft ready for launch as redundant backup. The discussion amongst photographers was where to be for the launch and flyover.

Five groups of five represent the 25 years the F-117 Night Hawk stealth fighter has served the USAF.

With limited support, photographers couldn’t be randomly dispersed across the base so the choices were limited to the tarmac for taxi shots, the point of rotation along the runway or the ceremonial grounds where the base commander and special guests would be conducting speeches. Following a discussion amongst photographers, most chose the congested grouping along the taxiway.

As the aircraft all lined up, it was apparent the tarmac wouldn’t be long enough for all 25 aircraft to be positioned side-by-side, but the sight was still staggering. One by one they taxied forward and headed toward our position in two long rows. Upon reaching the runway, the aircraft were put on hold as they were a few minutes early. This gave us time to convince public affairs to rush to a new position, the ceremonial grounds.

Once on the grounds, the photographers spread out to cover the various speakers, attendees and static aircraft as we all awaited the mass-flyover. Of the speakers, base commander, Brig. Gen Goldfein became the last ‘Bandit’ trained to fly the F-117 and spoke alongside Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton, the first F-117 Wing Commander of the 49th Fighter Wing. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to find a suitable foreground for the impending flyover. Though the formation itself will no doubt be impressive, aircraft laid against a solid blue sky tends to be somewhat less impressive than an image with depth.

While still a beautiful and precise formation, seen from the rear a gaggle of F-117's make their way past Holloman AFB following their historic flyover.

With a pause in the presentations, everyone began looking around for the black cloud of aircraft soon to approach. With no hope of a decent foreground, I spotted the triple mast flagpole valiantly waving our country’s pride along with the state flag of New Mexico. Right on time from the North, 25 arrow-tipped stealth fighters approached. The last minute choice of a foreground ended up representing a location, emotion and precision as the pilots threaded the proverbial needle in perfect formation.

As quickly as they approached, they disappeared, a massive clump of flying metal. The formation definitely looked better coming from the other direction.

Another last minute decision offered by Mr. Fuller was to catch the remaining F-117’s as they touched down. We jumped into the van and raced across base to the far end of the runway. We caught the last formation of five making the overhead break and the eventual touchdown.

A few months prior to the mass formation of F-117's was this mass formation of F-14 Tomcats returning from deployment, and leading to eventual retirement at NAS Oceana.

It was a remarkable couple of days, one that could not have been recorded without the assistance of all those aforementioned in this piece. Of note, 2006 was certainly the year of mass formations. A few months earlier, the final deployment of the F-14 came to an end with an incredible formation of 22 Tomcats over NAS Oceana.

To view more images from the Silver Stealth celebration, click here.

Careful What You Wish For…

There’s no denying that those with a remote fascination of aviation would donate any given body part to fly in a state of the art US Navy fighter. What they don’t tell you is the metamorphosis one needs to embrace in order to enjoy the thrill.

Perhaps you’ve read articles or listened to comedians describe their nauseating experience of an incentive ride in a military jet followed by weeks of therapy. Apparently they seemed to have skipped the part where they had to squeeze into an outfit purposefully designed to be four sizes too small and become a human origami project in order to slip on everything else. But I digress…

Peter Kline gets spun around in the 'Puke Chair' by Physiologist Lt. Schwerdtfeger during flight training.

While working with VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” during the historic “Tailhook Legacy Flight” training program, I along with the attending warbird pilots, had the great honor of being allowed to fly in an F/A-18F Super Hornet.

It all began with our mock physiology training. Instead of being shot out of a canon or subjected to the swirling t-cup ride at Disneyland, we were taught the miracle of the “Hik Maneuver”. Not to be confused with the complexities of a “Red Neck” tractor pull, the “Hik Maneuver” involved the rapid and specifically timed process of exchanging air in the lungs combined with muscle tension to prevent loss of consciousness during high g-load. It used to be called the “Hook Maneuver”, but grunting “Hik” while popping a forehead vein sounded better.

Along with the brief training we were also shown what the various yellow handles, buttons and knobs with black stripes were for. This was of course not to be confused with the black handles, buttons and knobs with yellow stripes. You don’t want to touch those…I think. One was to arm the ejection seat, one was to eject, one was to make the pilot eject, one made expresso and another was for the windshield wipers. This was one cool seat!

An iPhone shot of the Centrifuge. So intricate is this machine that the foundation reaches deep into the ground and hundred's of feet in diameter.

Following our short introduction to the Rhino’s WSO Chair, Lt. Schwerdtfeger showed us around the Flight Physiology compound at NAS Lemoore. The tour included checking out the twirl-a-hurl centrifuge machine, the braincell-killing altitude chamber and every Aquaphobiac’s vacation destination, the dunk-tank.

My scheduled hop in the Super Hornet followed all the other warbird pilots’ opportunities. I had the joy of sharing their experiences and fears vicariously through them. What was once a dream soon to come true turned into a fear similar to being called next at a talent show.

When it was my turn to prepare for flight, I was sent to the paraloft where I would get sized up…in gear that is. This big dude who obviously works out gave me a quick look over and compared me in size to pilot similar in stature i.e., short. He then opened a locker belonging to a Commander of the unit and instructed me on how to look my best in olive drab.

Now, I had my own flight suit so I was certainly doing my best to look the part, but wearing blue jeans under that flight suit which were then covered by a blood-constricting G-Suit, might not have been the smartest thing. It took me nearly thirty-minutes to zip up those damn military leg warmers! Then came the harness. I was too exhausted to put on a harness, but alas, somehow I did it. And after that was the 216-pound survival vest consisting of the inflatable horse collar, oxygen mask and filter, flares, a Vietnam-era flashlight, a Jenny Craig meal for four including place settings, and a bunch of other stuff I was really hoping not to use. Oh yeah! I looked sexy…kinda like an Oompa-Loompa that was being cast as Rambo.

Lt. Alex "Stranger" Wright and I stand beside Rhino 143 from VFA-122 "Flying Eagles" following our flight.

By this time I was all suited up and ready to go. I hobbled down the stairs and toward the hangar door before one of the guys in the paraloft noticed my bright white tennis shoes peaking out from my all green garb. Apparently tenny’s aren’t the in-thing. Off came all the gear and on went some loaner boots. If getting the G-Suit on before was hard, strapping them around the added circumference of a boot-neck was impossible.

I’ll spare you with the excitement of flight-suit deja vu, but let it be known it involved sweat, blood (literally) and my pilot to help get the crap back on. I had a new found respect for pilots everywhere, and I hadn’t even climbed into the plane.

Speaking of my pilot, Lieutenant Alex “Stranger” Wright was awesome! He had the patience of a saint and was willing to carry me out to the plane. Well, maybe not that last part.

With all my gear on, sensation in my limbs was disappearing fast. Fortunately we were assigned an aircraft that was parked furthest away on the ramp. That was by no means comforting. Even better, I was told we were to do a “Hot-Swap”, a process where the aircraft would remain running as we swapped pilot and crew. I really should have listened…was it the yellow and black striped handle or the black and yellow striped handle?

Once strapped into the seat, by my pilot, because I had no strength to do it, I checked the oxygen flow. There was none. Inhaling simply caused the O2 mask to adhere to my face like a plastic bag. Nothing to worry about there. I asked “Stranger”, who was now comfortably strapped into his seat, how to adjust the O2. He made me aware of a knob by my left butt-cheek that needed to be rotated 90-degrees. I couldn’t see past my knees let alone over my shoulder and down by my side. Of course he chuckled, “Oh, you may need to feel your way around to find it.” Oh sure, I’m sitting on a friggin’ rocket and you want me to start feeling around? The last person who asked, “What does this button do?” didn’t fare so well. Nervousness aside, I found it. I could now breathe. That was a good thing.

We launched as a flight of four consisting of an F-6F Hellcat, Helldiver and another Super Hornet. I had brought with me a loaner D3x from Nikon and a 24-120mm to record this glorious moment. Though every time I raised the camera to my face, my O2 mask would leak slightly forcing a steady flow of oxygen directly into my right eye. I quickly learned how to hold the camera with my left hand, position my right hand on the shutter with my thumb awkwardly jamming my right eyelid shut. I’m sure I looked perfectly normal to everyone in the flight.

It wasn’t until the group of aircraft broke formation and the two Super Hornets were left to play that things got really interesting. “Stranger” pulled hard back on the stick enabling the G-meter to reach 7.5 and I decided to try out that “Hik Maneuver” thing. While holding a camera now weighing nearly 45-pounds up to my face, I nearly knocked myself out keeping too much blood in my head. Apparently I am G-tolerant far beyond the 7-G range. I resulted to giggling like a schoolgirl instead. Any remnants of masculinity were long gone. All the while my G-suit was painfully contracting forcing my spleen to tickle my tonsils.

While in the #2 position, Lt. Alex "Stranger" Wright pulled hard keeping up with Lt. Patrick "Hashbrown" O'Conner during the 'Banana Pass' over NAS Lemoore. A subtle amount of vapor on the lead Rhino only hints to the G-forces incurred resulting in the camera weighing nearly 45-pounds.

It had always been my dream to get that over-the-shoulder shot of the aircraft engulfed in vapor. As we pulled hard to the left for the “Banana-Pass” followed by an abrupt break to the right, all I could think about was how I got in the position of resting my head on my shoes. The last thought on my mind was how to raise this insanely heavy camera above my head. Nonetheless, I did my best to capture the moment and am proud to say I never incurred any sign of losing the G-war. I think I even managed to get a picture or two.

“Stranger” put the Hornet on the deck effortlessly and we taxied back to the same spot we started and were again to exercise a “Hot Swap”. Once pried from the rear seat of the Super Hornet, I made my way down the ladder and waited for “Stranger” to accompany me on the ramp. While waiting, Lt. Erik “Dookie” Kenny informed me that the back seat would be empty for this next hop and asked if I wanted to join him for a second flight. Amazed at the incredible offer bestowed upon me, I politely and quickly responded, “No.” The look on “Dookie’s” face was priceless.

Earlier in the morning I had briefed with Peter Kline, pilot of the T-2 “Buckeye” also participating in the Legacy Flight Program, regarding an aerial photoshoot. Time simply did not allow for another Hornet hop. But rest assured, this would be the only time I’d pass up an opportunity like this.

Capt. Mark "Mutha" Hubbard pilots the F-6F Hellcat with Lt. Matt "11" Lowe in the F/A-18E and Lt. Erik "Dookie" Kenny in the F/A-18F.

“Stranger” and I walked…or rather he walked, I waddled back to the paraloft and we removed our gear. I quickly rushed back to the T-2 and we immediately fired up and got into the air. The shoot was amazing for many reasons. Mostly due to the fact that Capt. Mark “Mutha” Hubbard, Commodore for the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific (SFWP) was at the controls of the F-6F Bearcat with two Rhino’s in trail. The other amazing fact was that holding the #3 position was “Dookie” flying “143”, the SuperHornet I had just crawled out of.

Although I mock my experience, the fact is I can’t thank the folks at VFA-122 enough for hosting the entire Legacy crew and enabling all of us to see first hand what our Naval Aviators endure. It goes without saying I have a new found respect for our military pilots. Additional thanks to Dr. Rich Sugden and Peter Kline for including me in the Legacy Program and enabling me to document such an incredible joining of the past and present. Putting commemorative aircraft in the air that were not scheduled to fly was due to the amazing efforts of Demo Coordinator, Lt. Erin “Eeyore” Flint. The passion of Capt. “Mutha” Hubbard is without a doubt a critical element to insuring the success of the Legacy Program. His unwavering desire to see the history of Naval Aviation celebrated in front of millions of aviation enthusiasts and air show spectators is an invaluable asset. The Legacy Program is truly honored to have such a great representative. And of course the program would not be what it is without all of the Legacy Pilots, warbird owners and Navy demo pilots who choose to participate and remain involved in such a historic program.

Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the DC-3

For many of us, the DC-3 is seen as a tired workhorse of the skies, a third world answer for passenger and cargo transport. A fuselage full of chickens and wooden boxes might be high on the list of stereotypical thoughts. The gathering of DC-3’s and C-47’s in Rock Falls, Illinois quickly grounded that mindset and illustrated to everyone that the DC-3 is strong, active and still filling a void within the aviation community.

Scott Glover's immaculately restored C-47 Dakota named 'Sky King', taxiis back to the ramp under the full moon after a nostalgic flight hosting local War Veterans.

On the weekend of July 23-25, a record number of airworthy DC-3’s and military C-47 variants came together at Whiteside Airport in Rock Falls, Illinois for what would be called ‘The Last Time’. Although the original goal was to have 40 DC-3’s on the tarmac, due to weather and other complications, 27 made it to Whiteside. Of the aircraft gathered, 8 were military C-47 variants, 15 were DC-3’s with 10 of them being former C-47’s. Additionally the world’s only C-41 and C-41A were present along with an AC-47 gunship and one of only two flying DC-2’s in the world.

My entry into the world of the ‘Dakota’ began earlier in the year with a call to a good friend. Brooks Pettit, one of the operators of the American Flight Museum in Topeka, Kansas and pilot of the AC-47 gunship, ‘Spooky’, was working with the organizer of the The Last Time, Dan Gryder.

The plan was to divert from going straight to Oshkosh for the annual Airventure Fly-In and head to Kansas City instead. From there I would join up with the AC-47 crew and fly the short trip from Topeka to Whiteside in the gunship. Sounded like a great plan!

Stepping into a DC-3, the first thing most people notice is the steep floor and the slight workout necessary to reach the cockpit. With the start of each engine, a puff of smoke and a world of vibrations, ‘Spooky’ quickly took to the skies. There’s no doubt this plane was built to fly as the floor would conveniently level off once airborne. Once over Whiteside, we could see we’d be number four on the ramp. The party was just starting.

A typical summer storm in the Mid-West rolls over Whiteside Airport providing photographers with a dramatic background. Unfortunately the same storm hampered arrivals for other DC-3 crews hoping to make it to Rock Falls.

Although the local weather at Whiteside was excellent, a storm band was closing in preventing many of the aircraft from arriving Thursday afternoon and through the following morning. The aircraft that had touched down quickly became the subject of many photographers as lightning strikes and rolling storm clouds made for impressive backgrounds.

The storm continued on through the night and into the morning enabling most aircraft to make it in by late Friday afternoon. By Saturday morning, whatever aircraft could make it were either parked on the tarmac or occupied giving rides.

It was decided the night before that Saturday morning would prove to be perfect for a three-ship DC-3 flight showcasing the various models. Dan Gryder would lead the pack in his DC-3, the 2nd oldest airframe flying today, followed by Brooks Pettit and Robert Rice in one of the few modified AC-47 gunships currently touring the country, and Scott Glover in a very historic C-47 having served in multiple WWII air operations including D-Day. Flying the Cessna 210 photoship was Tucker Nelson in addition to a second photoship with Greg Morehead in a T-6 ‘Texan’.

Dan Gryder flies lead in his 'Herpa' DC-3 with Brooks Pettit and Robert Rice in the number two position with their AC-47 'Spooky' gunship. Holding up the number three position is Scott Glover in his D-Day veteran C-47 Dakota named 'Sky King'.

Each evening, Dan Gryder and the band would rock out with the visiting DC-3 pilots and crew. Before long, the band moved to the tarmac playing under a wing amongst more than two dozen DC-3’s and continued to jam into the early morning hours.

During the day, the tarmac was filled with spectators who were given unique opportunities to tour the various airframes. This gave some of the museum aircraft a chance to raise the funds necessary to keep ‘em flying. The gathering was not only recognized by media and aviation enthusiasts from around the world, but was probably one of the largest events the local community had seen in some time.

While some spectators toured the aircraft, others meandered through the maze of food and souvenir vendors located near the parking lot. For those looking for more of an adventure, C-47’s ‘Tico Belle’, ‘Southern Cross’ and ‘Sky King’ were offering a limited number of rides.

Sunday night marked the the eve of “The Last Supper”. All members of the flight crew from each aircraft were treated to a wonderful dinner hosted by the local eatery, Long Shot. Throughout the weekend, locals from Rock Falls provided free transportation, discounted hotel rates and more.

DC-3's and C-47's blanket the tarmac at Whiteside Airport in Rock Falls, Illinois.

On Monday, July 26th, the dream of Dan Gryder was about to come true with a massive number of DC-3’s taking to the skies. Their destination was the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual Airventure Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Throughout the course of the weekend, only one aircraft had prior obligations at Oshkosh requiring an early departure from Rock Falls, so the number of participating DC-3’s fell to 26. Still an amazing number!

Also attending the gathering was one of only two DC-2's left flying in the world. Flown in by renown aviator, Clay Lacy, the DC-2 would remain on display at Aeroshell Square for the duration of Airventure 2010.

One issue that remained unresolved was the use of a photoship for the mass arrival at Oshkosh. Originally Dan Gryder had enlisted the assistance of a CJ-6 Nanchang, but due to mechanical difficulties the aircraft was not able to make it. Saving the day was Mike Filucci who got in touch with good friend, Jim ‘Pappy’ Goolsby who was on his way to Oshkosh in a similar aircraft. I had the fortune of flying with ‘Pappy’ during the 50th Anniversary of the CJ-6 Nanchang a couple years prior as well as during a special assignment at his home airport. I couldn’t have asked for a better stick!

Shortly before noon, engines began to turn. Sitting on the tarmac in the back of ‘Pappy’s’ CJ gave me a panoramic view of two dozen DC-3’s in motion. One by one, they began launching out of Whiteside airport. Unfortunately, not everything went perfectly. During run-up, ‘Tiger Lady‘ (C-47 N47060 / AF 42-100603) had issues and removed herself from the line-up and C-41A (N341A / AF 40-070) aborted take-off for mechanical reasons. A third DC-3 returned to Whiteside due to oil temperature problems.

The most elegant DC-3 to join the gathering was no doubt N3006 'Esther Mae'. The highly polished DC-3D is one of the youngest DC-3's flying today and boasts an immaculate exterior and interior.

Those that made it into the air gathered in groups of three with a fourth in a disjointed position. It was similar to a standard fingertip formation with the number four aircraft flying further on the outside than normal. During the course of the trip each group of four would slowly creep up on the group ahead of them until a single mass formation could be achieved.

Circling the gaggle of DC-3’s was a Bonanza, a B-25 photoship and our CJ-6 with Nelson Tucker taking up the lead in his Cessna 210.

About 30 miles from Oshkosh, the mass formation began to take shape. Twenty-three DC-3’s, or forty-six radials, approached from the West blanketing the skies in metal. Not since World War II had this many of this airframe type come together for such an impressive sight.

A total of twenty-three DC-3 airframes crowded the skies above Oshkosh at the start of Airventure 2010.

After flying over Wittman Field, the formation separated into individual aircraft. One by one they landed on RWY18 taking only sixteen minutes for all to touch down.

The experience was one that defied the name. For most, the hopes that there will be “Another Time” lingers on the horizon. But for now, “The Last Time” simply proved the determination and passion in keeping the workhorse of the skies alive, is a dream held by many and will be for some time to come.

For more information on "The Last Time" including additional imagery and details of each aircraft present, check out the book "The Last Time - Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the DC-3".