The Dawn Patrol

You've got 30 minutes before it hits!


I was up in my beloved 25-year-old Graham Lee Nieuport 11 fighter, flying patterns at the 2010 Gathering of Eagles at the Gardner, Kansas Municipal Airport. My wife, Sharon, was up in her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane Parasol across the pattern from me. As it was meant to be, we were having a ball.

Having your own warbird to fly is a dream that many pilots cant make come true. Real warbirds often run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and are far out of reach for Joe Normal. Yet, there’s a romance about those old fabric-covered falcons that just wont go away. Movies like Wings, The Great Waldo Pepper, The Blue Max and Flyboys just bring the message home.

A portion of the flight line: Morane, Nieuport, Nieuport, Nieuport, Fokker D-7.

The late Graham Lee of Circa Reproductions along with Robert Baslee of Airdrome Aeroplanes have really leveled the playing field for wannabe warbird builders and pilots. They have made it possible for builders and pilots on a budget to build and fly their own replica fighters. And you can do it for less than the cost of a used car-Im talking a really used car, too. (Tom Glaeser and I built our Nieuports in 1986 for $2859 each. But we redefined the word scrounging.)

Gathering of Eagles

For pilots and potential builders of WW-I aircraft, the place to get information and have questions answered is the annual Gathering of Eagles.

In many ways, its a miniature Oshkosh devoted solely to WW-I aircraft. Builders and pilots come from all over the country to show off their planes, take photos, ask questions and generally go to school on the planes and trailers.

Of course, the weather has to cooperate. Kansas weather is the big June bug in the fly-in punch bowl. Its a throw of the dice, and as in gambling, the house (Kansas weather in the summer) always wins. Mind-numbing heat, howling winds, wire-twanging thermals and the unrelenting humidity can create density altitudes that feel like 20,000 feet.

The really big worry is you always know that somewhere, lurking in the distance over the horizon, are probably the dreaded Big Black Surly thunderstorms. They can pop up in just a matter of hours. One of those blue-black monsters looming on the horizon can turn any airport into a maelstrom of frantic pilots trying to get their planes into shelter or securely tied down.

The Eagles gathering always runs the Friday and Saturday of Fathers Day weekend. Some rare years, we get to actually fly both days. Usually we fly one day.

2010 was a banner year for weather frustration. Friday we had wind gusts of over 30 mph. The only guy who flew was Rick Bennett in his over-the-top Graham Lee Nieuport replica. He flew in the morning while the winds were still getting their act together, building up to the howling gusts of the afternoon.

Mark Hymers Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-7 replica stands in front of Butch Witlocks Fokker D-7.

With winds like that, the only arrivals on Friday were The Few, The Shameless, The Trailer Weenies. But, by golly, we were there.

Sharon and I rolled up early with our airplanes on their trailers. The Morane goes together in about 30 minutes. Baslee designed the plane with no assembly tools needed except for two 3⁄8-inch elevator control-horn bolts. Everything else is clevis pins and safety clips.

My Nieuport takes a little more effort, but we can have it from road-ready to flight-ready in about an hour and 15 minutes. With all the good help that was standing around, we were able to get them assembled quickly in spite of the wind. Stakes were twisted into the ground, and they were soon tied down snug and tight.

About then Tom Glaeser rolled in, towing his Nieuport 11, and we got started putting it together. With all of the help, the wings were soon assembled and mounted. While he was puttering around putting the tail feathers on, the rest of us pulled up our chairs and watched him sweat. The winds were howling by now and everyone knew there was going to be no flying this day.

We still had a ball. Sitting around the plane with a bunch of guys interested in all that was going on, asking questions, taking photos and generally crawling all over the aircraft is about as good as it gets. Farther down the field, Butch Witlocks incredible Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker D-7 was getting its own crowd of lookers and picture-takers, too. Right beside the D-7 was Mark Hymers almost-ready-to-cover D-7 framework.

After Sharon’s Morane went together, she was kept busy showing interested builders the neat little tricks that Baslee had thought up to make it a real trailer-friendly airshow airplane.

By late afternoon it was plain to all that the winds were not going to diminish. It was even too windy for the annual Circle of Honor, Last Man Standing Combat Plank competition. We called it a day and headed out.

Saturdays weather started off much better. Winds were light and right down the wonderful north-south 3000×90-foot grass runway. There was a lot of flying going on. If it could fly, it was in the air.

Marvin Berks beautiful SPAD XIII replica waits for the storm to hit. The leading edge of the super cell had passed overhead.

Trouble in Kansas

At about 1 oclock, I was up in my Nieu-port and noticed the sky to the northwest was becoming obscured and hazy. I didn’t think much of it, flew for a while longer, and landed.

When I was getting out of the airplane my cell phone rang. It was my across-the-street neighbor from where we live about 40 miles to the north. A bad storm had knocked out power. Straight-line wind gusts of more than 70 mph had toppled trees and torn roofs off of houses. Semi-tractor trailers had been blown off the road. What was worse, it was headed our way.

One of the pilots in the crowd had a high-dollar GPS in his truck that showed weather radar. There was a line of solid reds, blacks and blues aimed right toward Gardner. The pilot with the GPS looked at the movement and said, ominously, I think you’ve got 30 minutes before it hits here.

Ever pop a firecracker in an anthill when you were a kid? Well, this was an instant replay of that kind of event. The airfield became a hive of activity as planes that could be broken down quickly and put on trailers were torn apart and tucked away. Planes that couldn’t be taken down that fast were nestled up in the lee of hangars. Other planes staked down on the field were double- and triple-tied. Gust locks were installed and tightened.

Rick Bennetts over-the-top Graham Lee Nieuport 23 replica. It is painted in the livery of Edmond Thieffry, a Belgian ace in WW-I with 10 victories.

The sky to the northwest turned blue-black in about 20 minutes. It got so dark that the street lights came on. The leading edge of the enormous super cell passed over us. There was a suspense-filled calm as the winds dropped to nothing. Then we heard the wind roaring in the trees north of the airport. Everyone got ready for the hammer of Thor to fall. A few of us ran to our planes to hang onto the wings and keep them from blowing away.

The first strong gust was probably about 40 mph, and that was it! Wed caught just the tail end of the line and lucked out big time. The rain started to hammer us and for about an hour it just flat poured.

We all took shelter in Marvin Storys hangar. While the rain ran off the hangar roof like water over a waterfall, the hangar talk couldn’t have been better.

Then, like someone hitting a switch, the rain stopped as the storm marched to the southeast. That was a good thing. What was bad was that the wind kicked up to a 10- to 20-mph direct crosswind to the north-south grass runway. That left the east-west paved runway with tall, ready-to-harvest grain on the south and a line of parked aircraft to the north. This was not a good choice for a twitchy little WW-I plane.

There was also a diagonal runway, 03/21 that was angled about 45 off the wind. It had problems, too. The heavy rain had left big puddles lining both sides of the runway. Getting just a little bit off-center would land you in a heap of hurt.

A shot of Phil Arbies Airdrome Airplanes Nieuport 23 replica.

Where There’s Wind,There’s a Way

For reasons I cannot as yet explain, I decided to fly one more time just to say I did. I do stupid things like this a lot. With more than 30 years of flying experience, Ill suddenly decide to do something so totally asinine that, after the fact, no one, including me, can understand why I did it.

I decided to take a pass on Runway 08. I also didn’t want to taxi 3000 feet down Runway 17 to the end of Runway 03. That left Runway 17. I lined up, pressed the stick as hard as I could to my left leg, and eased open the throttle. We went bounding and zigzagging down the runway on the left maingear with the lower left wing almost brushing the ground. It wasn’t pretty, but I got off the ground without digging in the wingtip or shedding any parts.

Just as soon as I was airborne, I kicked into a crab to maintain runway heading. When the crab angle passed what seemed to me to be about 45, I knew I had made a serious mistake. As the old aviation saying goes, Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory. Id painted myself into a corner again.

The next 20 minutes were taken up with trying different approaches on the three different runways. The big, beautiful north-south grass runway was out. There was no way I wanted to try the favored paved runway due to my past encounters with hard-surface landings. My only choice was the diagonal grass runway with the muddy puddles running down both sides.

The strong gusting winds made the field of wheat look like it was being stirred by the devils Mixmaster.

Whinnying in fear, I lined up on Runway 03 and prayed for the best. The pucker-factor instruments needle was way past the red line. Oh man, I thought to myself. This is really going to hurt. I sure hope it doesn’t leave a mark!

It was definitely a Don’t look, Ethel! landing. I kept mostly lined up with the centerline. Then I dropped in from what seemed like about 5 feet. But we didn’t bounce, stayed upright, and nothing fell off the plane. For me, that constitutes a good landing.

While slowly relaxing my grip on the seat cushion, I taxied back to the flight line and shut down. It was time to take the plane apart and head back to beautiful Liberty Landing International Airport.

There is one WW-I plane that can handle conditions like these. Thats Butch Witlocks D-7 replica. He asked Harvey Cleveland, Baslees head test pilot, to take the D-7 around. (As you can plainly see, Witlock is a lot smarter than I am.)

Cleveland put on a display that bugged out eyes all over the field. Then he made several beautiful wheel landings on the paved runway right in front of the crowd to demonstrate how well the D-7 could handle it. All of the Nieuport pilots were more than impressed. After he landed, his PIREP was short and sweet. Its the best plane Robert has ever designed. I want one bad.

It was getting late and the 2010 Gathering of Eagles wound down. By twilight, everyone was gone, and the field was settling down to a calm summer evening. The adventure continues.

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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