The Dawn Patrol

Triumphs and disastrophes.

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Marvin Story, Dave Laur and Sharon Starks show off their planes and WW-I ambulance in front of the tower.

The wind was howling in the power lines around The Dawn Patrol’s hangar. The hangar doors were rattling in the fierce gusts. And, to add insult to injury, it was pretty dang cold for early October. Then the rain started to drum on the roof like giants were beating on the tin with ball-peen hammers.

It was a lousy day for flying. It sure hadn’t started out that way. The forecast had been good. So after waiting all day long for the weather to break, Mark Pierce, Sharon Starks, Dick Lemons, Jerry Sharp, Dennis Brooks, Big Bad Bob Loyd, Harvey Cleveland, and I all decided to call it a day. You can only sit and sulk around the table in the hangar so long.

With Brenda Pierce on the wingtip, Mark Pierce and Dick Lemons attach the left wing of Dick’s Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker E.III replica.

During the long drive home Sweetie and I were silent, each lost in our own private thoughts. Sweetie had a small sly grin on her face as we motored along in our Stealth Van. I didn’t have a clue what she was thinking about. Actually, in most cases, I probably wouldn’t want to know. She was probably thinking of the many different ways she could murder me and get away with it. That might have explained the grin.

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Me, I was thinking back to the past 29 years I’ve been flying my nimble little Graham Lee Nieuport 11 fighter. Who could have imagined how building that little imitation warbird would have affected our lives in such a dramatic fashion?

We’ve done splendiferous things that other private pilots can only dream of. We’ve been to airshows all over the Midwest. We’ve even flown off the grounds of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio—several times in fact.

Marvin and Nancy Story stand with Marvin’s Siemens-Schuckert D.I replica. The plane was a copy of the Nieuport 11 the Germans made. The Nieuport was so superior to the Fokker E-III the German High Command ordered copies of the Nieuport produced until German designers could come up with something better. VW power with Valley Engineering PSRU swinging a big stick Culver prop.

For 24 straight years we’ve been the opening demonstration at the annual Memorial Day Salute to Veterans airshow held at Columbia, Missouri, Regional Airport. There’ve been a few memorable moments when the show was halted for a while so one or our birds could be retrieved from the rough beside the runways after groundloops or other minor disasters. One of our birds even ended up over by the tower one memorable morning following an out-of-control yee-haw whifferdill on its takeoff roll.

But they do keep asking us to come back for another year. Those are just a few of our many outstanding triumphs.

The Disastrophes

This is not to say we’ve been the golden boys of the airshow circuits we’ve attended with our little warbirds. At the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, we’ve landed in trouble every time we’ve been there. Somehow we’ve always stepped in something forbidden. We’ve been chewed out by a pretty good representation of the officer cadre of the U.S. Air Force: lieutenants, majors, captains, and in one memorable event, a full bird colonel even gnawed on us for a while. Generals usually send colonels to do their chewing out for them. But whew—that one chewing-out we got from a master sergeant…that one was the worst. He was scary. The officers were a lot more refined and courtly while politely chewing on our rear ends.

We tried to take a different way to display Marvin Story’s plane in front of the tower. It turned out the easiest way was the trip up and down the steep hill with a lot of help to keep the planes from getting away from us.

All these good memories are relished and talked about in our many sessions around the table in the back of the hangar at Liberty Landing International Airport. I’m not going to even try to remember the number of times we’ve been visited by an irate denizen of the FAA before, during, or after numerous other airshows.

But, we’ve never actually been violated—yet. We’ve been talked to, yelled at, threatened, lectured, and warned many times. However, they’ve never actually pulled out the paperwork to write us up. It’s been close a time or two. I think they look at what we’re flying and take pity on us.

Another way we tried to get Marvin Berk’s SPAD in front of the tower was by towing it behind the ambulance. The trip up the steep hill was still quicker and easier.

But, I’ve gotta admit, hearing the radio say, “Nieuport 124 Delta Sierra, do not depart the airport; taxi to the tower and shut down,” did kinda peak my pucker factor meter. (Tom Glaeser and I were on our way in 1986 to Oshkosh in our Nieuports. The controller had called his wife and told her to hurry out to the field with his camera, so he could get some photos of the Nieuports before we left.)

The closest to a violation we’ve ever come was when the air traffic controllers at an airshow asked us to make some close low passes for the professional photographers on the tower catwalk. Now how many pilots get asked, and get clearance, to buzz the tower? Needless to say it was an absolute ball.

A smiling Mark Pierce makes a photo pass for the tower in his Graham Lee Nieuport 16 replica.

Boy, when we landed, were we glad the tower had cleared us for those close passes. As we rolled back to our parking area on the tarmac, the FAA representative at the show already had his clipboard out and was chomping at the bit, ready to start writing us all up. He backed down after the air boss of the airshow reminded him we’d been asked to do it and cleared by the tower for the low-approach passes. He’d been monitoring the radio and heard the whole exchange.

Harvey Cleveland makes a pass by the tower in Dick Lemons’ incredible Airdrome Airplanes Fokker DR.1 replica.

Thwarted of his prey, Mr. Fed was not amused. He kept his beady eyes on us the rest of the weekend. We kept a very low profile and were squeaky-clean legal for the rest of that show.

We even shut down Runway 36 at Oshkosh in ’86 when one of us ripped the hub out of a Tuff Wheel on an out-of-control, almost-a-groundloop landing. Watching that P-51 suck up his gear with his Merlin engine bellowing in anger as he made a go-around was a high point of the week for us.

Once the word got out that we had actual flying WW-I aircraft (replicas or not), we got invitations to fly at airshows all over the country. There was no way we could go to even a small number of them. One: Because back then we were all working stiffs and had to get back for work. Two: We had to fly to them.

The view from the top of the tower: Sharon’s Morane, the ambulance, and Marvin’s Siemens-Schuckert D.I replica on display.

Now, flying cross-country in an open-cockpit plane that might cruise 60 mph in calm air is an unusual aerial adventure. First: There’s never a tailwind. Second: The weather is hardly ever good to either fly there or fly back home. One year, because of bad weather, we had to wait nine days to fly our planes back from a show only 108 miles from our home field.

So, the Trailer Weenies were born. If we wanted to get there and back, a trailer was the only way to go. They work great, too. We’ve been at many shows where the weather was so bad even the big-iron boys couldn’t fly in. In those cases, in spite of misgivings from the air boss at the show, we were the act. Usually, we underwhelmed them. One of our engine-out landings in a cornfield did make the nightly nationwide CNN news. But in spite of all this, we kept getting invited back. Having WW-I aircraft on the tarmac at an airshow is a crowd magnet. Besides that, we can fly under very low ceilings with no problem. 500 feet AGL is nosebleed altitude for us.

Lora Vogt, National WWI Museum Curator of Education, and Sharon Starks pause while sipping their favorite beverages.

The other thing that’s really advantageous about being Trailer Weenies is, we get invited to places where we’re not going to be asked to fly. Or better yet, where it’s impossible to fly there. I’m talking static display at some pretty awesome spots.

Weekend at the Museum

In 2014 Lora Vogt, the curator of education for the National World War I Museum and Memorial, right here in Kansas City, Missouri, contacted us. She wanted to know if we’d be interested in displaying our birds on the grounds of the museum for a weekend special event they were going to have on the grounds with a group of WW-I reenactors. Well…they wanted us there, too!

This was a no-brainer. Of course, we were interested. They were even going to supply security overnight with off-duty Kansas City policemen. The Trailer Weenies were on the job! In 2014 we didn’t screw up, so we were invited again in 2015.

For a bunch of Trailer Weenies, I’m proud to admit both years we put on a pretty good display. Attending were: Tom Glaeser, Nieuport 11; Mark Pierce, Nieuport 16; Dick Lemons, Fokker E.III; Marvin Story, Siemens-Schuckert D.I; Darryl Porter, Fokker D.VII; Marvin Berk, SPAD S.XIII; Sharon Starks, Morane Saulnier “L” Parasol; Dick Starks, Nieuport 11 and 1915 “Trench Cat” behind-the-lines liaison motorcycle with sidecar; and John O’Connor and Dave Laur’s replica 1915 Ford Model T ambulance.

Darryl Porter poses with his Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D.VII replica.

I’ve gotta admit, we looked pretty good all staked out beside the sidewalks. We had two tables with WW-I patriotic posters on display. We were also playing WW-I music on a CD player. It was just swell!

When we drove up to the memorial early Saturday morning, a smiling Lora was waiting for us with a big Thermos of hot coffee, doughnuts, and rolls. This was the kind of greeting we liked.

Looking down the mall behind Dick’s and Sharon’s planes. Yes, it’s long enough for our planes to fly outta there, but there are zero options if you lose an engine on takeoff.

After all the planes were assembled and staked down, it was time for a special treat. Another plus at an event where we weren’t going to fly is mimosas for breakfast. Brenda Pierce pulled out two bottles of chilled champagne and a gallon of orange juice. It was mimosa time! After that kind of breakfast, the rest of the day was downhill. Mimosas for breakfast is definitely going to become a Dawn Patrol tradition at the Liberty Memorial.

The National World War I Museum is a truly world-class place to visit. I’d rate it right up there with anything you’ll find on the mall in Washington, D.C. It’s located on a high hill overlooking Union Station in Kansas City. The beautiful landscaped grounds lead up to a tall monument that gives you a wonderful view of the city.

Because of its location, the Liberty Memorial is a popular venue for various photo shoots, particularly weddings. The Saturday we were there for our display in 2015, there were nine wedding parties that showed up for their special-day photos.

One of the wedding planners came by and asked if they could use our planes as part of the photo shoot. Well, this was a unique first for us…Shoot away!

When Sunday afternoon rolled around, the crowds dwindled down to a trickle. Lora dropped by and told us we could start breaking them down if we wanted to. We had a pretty good crowd watching us take them apart as we started putting them back on their trailers. As we were finishing up, Lora dropped by again. She gave us an advance invitation to come back next year. I plan on being there, if at all possible. This is an adventure I want to continue.

This was a first for us. The bride and groom are the way the photographer wants them for the big photo.

One more thing: The visitors to the National World War I Museum and Memorial are not your typical airshow patrons. Some of them are pretty serious history aficionados of the Great War. If they happen to be members of the Western Front Association, you’ve got to be really on your toes answering their questions. You can’t bamboozle these folks. If you don’t know the answer, saying “I don’t know” is a really safe answer with them. Most of them can give you the right answer. They even go visit the locations of the different battles in WW-I and trace the movements of the troops. These are serious folks.


Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 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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