On the tarmac at Davis-Monthan AFB, iconic military warbirds cast shadows across the tarmac against the fearsome, sharp, raptor-like features of modern stealth fighters and air-superiority specialists, facing off against each other for a short time before they join together in seamless synchronization in the sky.
The roar of their engines, some of which are more than 70 years old, filled the skies of Tucson earlier this spring for the Air Force Heritage Flight Training Course, and the old warbirds learned new tricks in preparation for the coming season of air shows. They took part in formations which featured aircraft dating as far back as World War II flying alongside fighter jets which serve in today’s theaters of war.
“When you’re flying next to these contemporary aircraft it’s just a privilege to be a part of this program,” says Kevin Eldridge, one of the Heritage Flight Foundation pilots. His “been there” grey hair and rugged good looks hearken back to the cowboy-like men who flew planes such as these in countless combat hours over the battlefields of the 20th century.
Eldridge first started working with the old planes shortly after high school, when he began his journey as a mechanic at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, Cali. He has been flying piston-powered planes for over 20 years, and has flown everything from the P-51 Mustang, arguably the most iconic warbird from the second World War, to the B-25 Mitchell, many of which carried out the famous “Doolittle Raid” on Imperial Tokyo, Japan shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Capt. John Cummings, who pilots the F-22 Raptor which will accompany the old planes in formation, says it is a wondrous sight to see the history of air combat flying in front of his multi-million dollar plane.
“It’s the coolest part of what I do,” says Cummings, “I flew the F-15C before graduating to the Raptor, and I love going up with these classic warbirds.”
For the pilots whose planes are separated by anywhere from 40 to 70 years between their times of service, many of the experiences are shared, such as the feeling they remember most from when they first flew their respective planes.
“Nervous!” says Eldridge.
“Nervous!” says Cummings.
“Nervous!” says Anders.
Some of the nervous feeling of flying a 70-year-old plane may be mitigated since some of the avionics on the older planes have been replaced with more modern, automatic displays and instruments, but the feeling of toying with death can still creep up in the minds of these pilots. Stepping into the cockpit of a machine that looks like Flash Gordon’s ship sprouted twin engines and a handlebar for a tail fin can make anyone uneasy, even someone as experienced as Eldridge.
“There are a lot of automatic systems on board, but you’re never sure what’s going to work and what isn’t,” the pilot says, recalling his many hours spent in the P-38, which is one of the more alien-looking machines on the tarmac, and inspired the unique designs of the “finned cars” of the 1950’s.
Most of the Heritage pilots fly several different aircraft and rotate between which ones they will be performing in for each airshow season. Eldridge has flown the P-51 for several airshow seasons and recalls his first time flying it as a wondrous experience.
“It was towards the end of the day, I was making the jump from the trainer, which is a T-6, to the Mustang, and it was a big step,” says Eldridge, “When the guys were doing it in the military, you know, there were a million of these things lying around, and now there’s only about 150 of them in working order, so its pretty special to be able to fly them now. Flying it for the first time, you know, there were a lot of butterflies, but it’s a great plane to fly.”
Some of the planes are owned and operated by the aforementioned Planes of Fame Air Museum, but the majority of them belong to private collectors, whose donations make it possible for the Heritage planes to be operated without Department of Defense funds. Some of the men who fly the planes are retired military, such as Greg Anders, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. Anders flies the P-51 Mustang, but, like the other pilots, has logged many hours in the various fighters, bombers, and jets owned by the museum.
“I started flying in the Air Force, that was my introduction, then I started flying the older warbirds back in the 90’s, starting with the T-6 and enjoyed the heck out of it, then I got the chance to fly the P-51, which I found was pretty similar to fly to the F-15 Eagle, which I used to fly,” says Anders, standing on the flight deck as a P-40 begins warming up its engine, “Being here is an honor, and interacting with our young captains and lieutenants who are out fighting in the field right now, it is a real privilege.”
Flying a plane that is 70 years old next to a modern stealth fighter has its complications, as an eighth of an inch of movement on the throttle of an F-22 might “leave the old planes in the dust.” To avoid such problems, the old planes typically lead the formation, which serves both the functional purpose of letting them set the pace for the modern fighters, as well as serving as a sign of respect and homage to the historic significance of the older planes.
Mike Beckwith is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org