The Dawn Patrol

Get out the duct tape!

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Sharon and Dick Starks stand with their shredded trailer tire. When it destroyed itself, one of the shards of rubber punched a six-inch long tear in her Morane’s wing center section. Duct tape temporarily solved that problem.

An airshow pilot briefing usually starts out with the time hack. For me, this is always a high-stress endeavor. Not in over 20 years of airshow pilot briefings have I ever gotten it right. But this time, I was ready. I’d been practicing at home, and I could push the various buttons on my $29.00 Casio Illuminator, waterproof-to-200-meters-impact-resistant watch with carefree abandon. This time, by golly, I was going to get it right!

“OK pilots,” said Col. Bob Leeker, the air boss, “Time hack. I have it to be 08:09 hours in five…four…three…two…one…hack!” (Bob’s a retired USAF B-2 pilot.)

Every pilot in the room punched their watches and sat back with the satisfied look on their faces of a job well done.

Me too. Then I looked at my watch. Well…poop! My record was intact. I’d just changed the month on my watch from May to June. It had said 08:12 when we’d started the pilot’s briefing. It was still showing 08:12. I looked around to see if anyone had noticed what I’d done. No one was looking at me. I casually turned the Casio on my wrist so no one else could see what I’d done. Then I tried to get the same self-satisfied look on my face everyone else had. I heard a muffled giggle and snort from beside me. Sharon, my sweetie, had seen what I’d done. Since she hadn’t even tried to set her watch, I felt I was still ahead of the game. At least I’d tried!

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We were gathered in the meeting room in the terminal at the Columbia Missouri Regional Airport, just south of Columbia, Missouri. It was time for the annual Memorial Day Salute to Veterans that has been held here every year since 1989. This was The Dawn Patrol’s 23rd straight year attending. Why they keep asking us, I’ll never know. But the Salute to Veterans is the show of shows for us.

The briefing room was crowded with pilots and crews of the many airshow acts: the Canadian Snowbirds Demonstration Team, the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team, the TBM Avenger pilot and crew, the BT-13 pilot, the T-28 Trojan pilots, the AT-6 “Radial Velocity” pilot, the Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon crew, and…us…The Dawn Patrol…The bottom feeders in the airshow food chain.

Dick Starks taxies his Graham Lee Nieuport 11 to Runway 13 followed by his sweetie in her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane-Saulnier Type L.

We were the first act on the schedule, so as soon as the briefing was over we all hustled out to our planes and gave them one last, very careful preflight.

Yep…it was time for our first airshow of 2014. The Memorial Day Salute To Veterans is a unique show. It’s the largest free show in the country. All the acts (including us) are sponsored by private individuals or businesses. Only military-themed aircraft or, in our case, historic reproductions, are invited to attend. It’s totally geared and arranged to honor and remember our veterans, past and present.

Darryl Porter’s “Fat Fokker” Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-7 on the line. Very good workmanship.

The 2014 show was a very special year for us. It was the 100th anniversary of the start of WW-I. The airshow organizers had pulled out all the stops for us this time. We were given a big 10-foot by 30-foot tent to display some of our different WW-I memorabilia. We also had a new tarmac addition. John O’Connor, a WW-II Navy vet, and Dave Laur, our newest Dawn Patrol addition, had converted a golf cart to look like an exact scaled-down replica of a WW-I Model T ambulance. It is a real showstopper!

We had a good turnout, too. Fourteen planes and other tarmac additions made us look pretty impresssive.

The trip had started out for Sweetie and me very normal. Just like in past years, Sweetie blew a trailer tire on I-70. When the tire went, it threw shards of rubber all over the place, and one piece even punched a hole in the center section of her Morane-Saulnier L Parasol.

Tom Glaeser’s Graham Lee Nieuport 11 leads the pack heading to the ramp Saturday morning before the rain.

The 15 minutes spent changing the left trailer tire (figures…the right tire is never the one that blows) was the most exciting part of the trip. Most cars and trucks would pull to the left as they went by, but some couldn’t because of traffic. So Sweetie would watch and tell me to, “Stand up and squeeze!” when she could see they were not going to move over. Some of those big trucks going by would really buffet me with their slipstream.

We finally drove in the gates of Columbia Regional Airport and were soon joined by the rest of the guys and gals. As usual, the airshow organizers had provided us with an enormous empty hangar to put our planes together and store them overnight while we were there.

Marvin and Nancy Berk walk his SPAD S.XIII replica to the flight line.

There is always a Friday night hangar party where all the airshow participants get to meet and greet, eat a great buffet meal, and the various acts, reunion groups, and honored guests are introduced. The honored guests are veterans of the various armed forces that have walked the walk and talked the talk. Past Salute airshows have had Doolittle Raiders, WASPS, different Naval and Air Force groups, The Tuskegee Airmen, and others too numerous to mention. One year they even had a reunion of a WW-II B-24 bomber crew that didn’t know until they got there what was going on.

This year there was a special honored guest that meant a lot to me. Back in 1988 when I was teaching math to middle-school students, I had this 75-pound, five-foot-nothing, little slip of a girl as a student. Well…here she was 26 years later, a 6-foot-1-inch lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.

Lieutenant Colonel Maura George stands with Dick Starks in front of his Graham Lee Nieuport 11. Maura was an 8th grade math student of Dick’s in 1988. Straight A’s, too.

Lieutenant Colonel Maura George is a C-130 pilot and Chief of Wing Operations Plans, 302d Airlift Wing, Peterson AFB, CO. She spent over seven years serving as a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Army, including a combat tour as a MEDEVAC pilot in Iraq, flying wounded off the battlefield. In 2004 Lt. Col. George left the Army to fly C-130s in the Air Force Reserve, flying around the world in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Stateside she’s flown MEDEVAC missions, the Army’s Basic Airborne Course, and numerous joint-forces airdrop-training missions. Maura was a straight-A 8th-grade math student, too. Seeing one of my ex-students evolve into someone like Maura made my 30 years of teaching well worth it!

Mark Hymer’s incredible Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-7 heads to the flight line. It’s painted in the colors of the D-7 flown by German Ace, Ernst Udet. The words on the elevator can be loosely translated to “No You Don’t!”

The weather forecast for the first day of the show was not promising. But at the pilot’s briefing, the weather guru took a peek out of the blinds in the briefing room and said it was going to hold off till the show was over. (The next day at the briefing the first thing he said was, “It’s been a whole 24 hours since I lied to you.” That brought an appreciative laugh from the crowd.)

Mark Hymer shows the fabric damage from his “whifferdill” landing to Lt. Col. “Safety” Steve Schnell. Lt. Col. Schnell was the safety officer when the Dawn Patrol first met him at the Dawn Patrol Rendezvous held at Wright Patterson AFB in 1999.

The overcast was low and solid. But at least it wasn’t raining. So, we pushed our planes out to the flight line and got everything arranged. Flying aircraft were staged close to the taxiway. Static display was set up in a long line by the fence. Our brand new tent looked great with all the memorabilia on display. Parked just beside the tent, making its airshow debut was Robert Baslee’s brand-new, full-scale Airdrome Aeroplanes Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a. What an impressive aircraft it is, too. Also on display was Gary Knight’s Airdrome Aeroplanes full-scale Nieuport 28 project.

The S.E.5a, with Gary Knight’s full-scale Airdrome Aeroplanes Nieuport 28 project tied down during the storm. Beside Gary’s plane is Mark Pierce’s Nieuport 11.

We were scheduled to fly at 09:30 hours. Those of us who were supposed to fly got in our canvas falcons, fired them up, and waited for clearance from the tower to taxi to the active runway and stage. The wind was from 130 and light. We taxied to Runway 13 and waited for the tower to turn us loose.

Now, I’ve gotta stop here and talk about the two runways at Columbia Regional Airport. They are all wide. They are all paved. They are all long!

Wide, long, and paved is not our usual runway environment. We’re used to strips that are narrow, short, and grass.

The two runways at Columbia Regional are 20 and 13 (200 and 130 compass headings). We really like using Runway 13. Why? I’ll tell you: Runway 20 runs right in front of the crowd. We hate that. Landing a twitchy, short-coupled, narrow-wheeled WW-I taildragger replica is hard enough anytime. Add the pressure of a strange, wide, ultra-long, paved strip and it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

The Dawn Patrol’s tent during the deluge. You should have seen them scatter when the tent blew down.

Now lets add one more ingredient to this devil’s brew: There will be thousands of watching airshow attendees. A large percentage of them will be holding

cameras and video recorders just waiting for that special Kodak moment. They will all be hoping to video some real pucker-factor-upper-limits-parameter-modifier out-of-control landings. If we’re forced by the wind to land on 20, we usually give them some quality video and photo opportunities.

Now do you see why we like 13?

The tower cleared us to aviate, and for 30 minutes, we flew a pattern around the field showing the crowd what our WW-I aircraft could do-and not do. Going fast was one of the “not do’s.”

The air was smooth, and after our time was up, we all recovered on 13 with no problems. As we were taxiing back to the ramp, rain started to speckle on my windshield.

And that was it for the next six hours. It came down in buckets. The ramp cleared off all but the most die-hard airshow attendees. The remaining crowd was sheltering under wings, in hangars, and under tents. A sudden gust tore down the Dawn Patrol’s display tent, scattering the large crowd that was huddled under it like roaches running for cover in a cheap hotel room when you turn on the light.

The rains finally moved out in late afternoon, and the Canadian Snowbirds were able to do their “low” act, and it was spectacular.

Sunday dawned cool and clear with light southeasterly winds. It was going to be a great airshow day. Best of all, at least for us, the winds were forecast to once again favor runway 13. We were a happy band.

After the pilot briefing, where the poor weather guy took some friendly abuse, the air boss turned us loose to start getting our birds ready for our morning flight. We all preflighted, mounted up, started up, and headed out to Runway 13. After a short wait, the tower turned us loose. “Yee-haw!”

There were seven planes in the air: Me in my Graham Lee Nieuport 11, Sharon in her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane Parasol, Harvey (Hollywood Harve) Cleveland in his Curtiss Seagull (Mariner), Mark Hymer in his Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-7, Tom Glaeser in his Graham Lee Nieuport 11, Alex Trofimoff in his Boredom Fighter, and Marvin Berk in his SPAD S.XIII replica.

We thundered around the pattern for our allowed 30 minutes. The air was smooth and cool. It was just swell! Robert Baslee was on the announcer’s stand with the “Voice of the Airshow,” Ken Hines (who is building a full-scale Airdrome Nieuport 28), giving a commentary about each plane as it flew by. Then the tower called and told us to start to recover, because the Golden Knights were just about at jump altitude. We all started to recover on Runway 13. Sharon landed first with no problem. Then it was Mark Hymer’s turn. The “taildragger curse” struck quick and hard. Mark ended up using the entire width of the runway during his landing and spent quite a bit of time during this maneuver up on just one mainwheel (both I might add at different times) and his tailwheel. He scraped some fabric off the tip of his left lower wing and finally came to a shaky stop on the runway. After letting go of the seat, and as soon as he quit shaking, he taxied to the ramp. He was greeted by the cheering crowd who’d seen the whole thing from the parking lot which did run right beside Runway 13.

My landing wasn’t any better. I was too close behind Alex’s Boredom Fighter and got tangled up in his dirty air. I careened to the right on my right mainwheel almost to the edge of the runway. Then I frantically gave the rudder bar “the Nieuport Stomp.” That sent me to the other side of the runway on my left mainwheel. I didn’t drag a wingtip, but it was just a matter of an inch or two from copying Mark’s maneuver. I staggered to a stop in the middle of the runway and took a deep breath. Then I calmly-like I do landings like that all the time-waddled to the ramp.

A cheering crowd greeted me, too.

After we’d pushed our planes back to their parking spots, we got out the homebuilder’s personal choice for on-the-field fabric repair-duct tape.

Yessir, a quick trip to Lowe’s before we left for the show was made to purchase a good roll of high-quality duct tape. Only the best is good enough for the Dawn Patrol.

Mark Hymer, Lt. Col. Steve (Safety Steve) Schnell USAFR, and I spent a few quality minutes lying on the hot tarmac under Mark’s left lower wingtip carefully applying a series of strips of the stuff, just in case we were called to fly again.

We weren’t. So, when the Snowbirds started their act, we all started pushing our planes back to the hangar to start putting them on their trailers.

The 2014 Salute To Veterans Memorial Day airshow was over. But not for all of us-Mark Pierce in his Nieuport and Sharon in her Morane were going to be floats in the big parade down Broadway Street in Columbia the next day. But that’s another adventure. Stay tuned.


Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; You Want To Build And Fly A What? and Fokkers At Six Oclock!! He was the recipient of Flyings 2001 Bax Seat Award for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight. Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.

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