The Dawn Patrol

Sharon shames us all.


We were making passes down the flight line and keeping a very tight left-hand pattern in front of the crowd. Mark Pierce was leading in his Graham Lee-designed Nieuport 11. Harvey Cleveland was right behind him in Dick Lemons’ Airdrome Aeroplanes replica Fokker triplane. I was following close behind the triplane in my Nieuport 11. My wife, Sharon, in her Airdrome Aeroplanes Morane-Saulnier replica was performing fly-bys down the runway on the other side of the pattern.

The trailer weenies of The Dawn Patrol head east on I-70 en route to Columbia Airport in Columbia, Missouri.

Even though it was still early morning, the air was already rough. In fact, it was about as rough as I’ve flown in my little WW-I replica fighter since I built it in 1986. But we were at our favorite airshow, and the wind was kind of down the runway so it wasn’t really that bad. Besides, getting to show off in front of a crowd is what we live for. The only fly in the soup was that we could always count on one of us totally embarrassing ourselves in front of the same crowd while landing, taking off or taxiing in.

As I’ve mentioned, building our little WW-I replica aircraft opened a door for us that many fliers never see. Once the word got out about our planes, the floodgates opened and we received more offers to fly at airshows, fly-ins and historic gatherings than we could ever possibly attend.

A telephoto lens compresses the action in this photo. Mark Pierce in the Nieuport 11 is followed by the much smaller Fokker DR-1, which was being chased by the author in his Nieuport 11.

Salute to Veterans

We’ve been going to the annual Memorial Day weekend Salute to Veterans Airshow held at Columbia Regional Airport in Missouri for the past 19 years. It’s dedicated to honor and remember our servicemen and women, past and present. Just about every prestigious military airshow group has performed at this show. You can’t imagine how honored we are to rub shoulders with all the great people we’ve met there.

On the other hand, I think they invite us to be the lead-off comedy relief act of the two-day event, and we’ve never disappointed in that respect. As an air boss once told us, "You guys never fail to underwhelm." We can be counted on to ruin the air boss’s to-the-second airshow schedule. It’s usually while one of our planes is recovered, with a bent axle, from the tall grass beside the runway after a "Don’t look, Ethel!" ground loop.

Either that or they’re sending out the crash trucks to tow one of us back to the ramp after an engine quits while taxiing in. It’s always a throw of the dice when The Dawn Patrol is involved, but they keep asking us back and paying our expenses for the show. Why, we don’t know.

The 2011 Salute To Veterans was, for us, a special one. We were bringing several aircraft that had never been seen before. Dick Lemons’ incredibly beautiful Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker DR-1 triplane replica was there. The "tripe" is not trailer friendly and had been flown to Columbia by our can-do guy, Harvey Cleveland. Lemons was under the weather and didn’t want to make the long cross-country flight. Cleveland flew the DR-1 in a few days ahead of the show. The rest of us trailer weenies towed our planes in on trailers that Friday.

Another airplane making its maiden appearance was Cleveland’s just-inspected Mariner amphibian painted to represent a 1918 U.S. Navy Curtiss Seagull Coastal Patrol amphibian. It was surprisingly trailer friendly.

Robert Baslee of Airdrome Aeroplanes showed up with the fuselage of his new full-scale, two-seat replica of a Sopwith Baby. Gary Knight came, too, with the fuselage of his work-in-progress, full-scale Airdrome Aeroplanes Nieuport 28. And Jeff Givens brought his brand-new Nieuport 11 replica. Unfortunately Tom Glaeser missed the show for the first time, because he was attending an out-of-town wedding. He was not a happy camper.

Starks makes a smoke pass by the tower catwalk in his Graham Lee Nieuport 11 replica.

The Party Starts

Friday night before the show opens is the famous hangar party where all the show participants meet and just hang out, making new friends and greeting old ones. I’d been running the Trench Cat around the field all day long, ferrying passengers from one end to the other. The Trench Cat had already proven its worth at other shows and is a popular mode of conveyance.

Earlier in the day I got in trouble for speeding on the ramp in the Trench Cat. I had just driven it into the hangar where we were assembling our planes, when an airport security police car pulled in about 30 seconds behind me. The officer got out and looked over the gathering crowd.

"Who was just driving this?" he asked, pointing to the Cat. Everyone looked at me. There was no way out, so I raised my hand and confessed. I was informed that the ramp speed limit was 15 mph, and I had been doing in excess of 25 mph when I rocketed by him. I was given a friendly warning to keep the speed down. This whole incident was going smoothly until one of the newer Dawn Patrol members in the back yelled, "Put the cuffs on him!" (I know who he was and where he lives. I will get even.)

Officer Andy Orth of the Columbia Regional Airport Police Department gives the author a going-over for speeding on his Trench Cat.

Later at the hangar party I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the members of the Canadian SkyHawks Parachute Team. "Sir," he asked, "Would you mind if I took a ride on the Trench Cat?"

Two members of the Canadian SkyHawks parachute demo team get ready to take a cruise on the Trench Cat.

I was thrilled that he wanted to and said, "Sure, go ahead." I gave him a 30-second demo on how to start it, where the brake was and how the throttle worked, and away he went.

Well, before the night was over, I think every member of the SkyHawks, the USA Screaming Eagles Demo Team, the CF-18 demo team, and the USAF C-17A Globemaster III crew and USAF A-10 Wart Hog team had taken the Cat for a trip around the field. Not one of them was pulled over by a ramp cop.

Even the members of the annual reunion group from the Tuskegee Airmen of America wanted their photos taken with the Trench Cat.

We Take to the Sky

One of the perks of taking part in the Salute to Veterans is being included in the morning pilots’ briefing. We’d be in the same room rubbing shoulders with all these macho men flying the Big Iron. Ankle deep testosterone tsunamis surged back and forth from wall to wall during the briefing. I always get a thrill being in the same room with them.

This year I happened to be sitting beside the father of the USAF captain who was flying the A-10 Wart Hog in the show. He was also the past FAA representative who had been in charge of us for several years. This year he was there as a civilian to see his son fly the A-10. The briefing ended and the air boss, Col. William Boston, USAF (ret.), told The Dawn Patrol to mount up. He wanted us to get the WW-I planes up in the air for our hour of flying to fire up the arriving crowds. As I walked out of the briefing room, the A-10 pilot’s father handed me a small roll of 500-mph repair tape.

"Here," he said, "You’ll probably need this. I’ve seen you guys fly before." That really hurt.

Mark Pierce and Harvey Cleveland make a formation pass by the tower.

We flew both days, but the Sunday morning flight was the more memorable. The active runway was two-zero; the alternate runway was one-three. The winds were from 165 at 8 to 10 knots. Basically, it was a toss-up crosswind for the favored runway to use for recovery. Saturday’s winds had been straight down runway one-three, flights had been just swell and nobody screwed up.

After a tense discussion in front of the planes, Pierce, Sharon, Cleveland and I decided to launch on two-zero but recover on one-three (mainly because we didn’t want to land where the crowd could see us). A takeoff in a twitchy, short-coupled WW-I plane is a lot easier than landing. Particularly difficult is a crosswind landing on pavement. Grass and gravel are fun; landing on pavement is terrifying.

Despite the rough air, we were having a ball. The tower requested we make a few close passes so the photographers on the catwalk could get some good photos. What pilot could pass up a request to buzz the tower? I made my usual radio call: "Columbia Tower, this buzz is for you." We all had fun doing the dirty deed.

Cleveland makes a close pass by the tower in Lemons’ incredible Fokker DR-1 replica.

As we made our circuits around the pattern, Pierce was in the lead in his Nieuport, Cleveland right behind him in Lemons’ triplane, and I brought up the rear. Pierce started his pass down the runway, weaving from side to side. Cleveland followed, duplicating Pierce’s weaving as though he were trying to shoot him down. This was too good to pass up. I got on Cleveland’s tail, and once I had him in my sights, I keyed my radio’s mic button and shouted, "TACCA TACCA TACCA TACCA." Then I flew right into the six swirling tornados coming off the six wingtips of the triplane. I first thought my wings had fallen off and almost got turned over. That ended that. We settled down and went back to tight left-hand patterns in front of the crowd.

Sharon and Dick Starks make a formation pass by the tower. Sharon is in her Morane-Saulnier “L” Parasol replica.

Dicey Landings

The tower operator gave us constant updates on the wind. It was building and starting to shift back and forth favoring runway one-three for a while and then going to runway two-zero. More worrisome was that the turbulence was picking up. When the tower announced that wind was at 150 at 16 knots, Pierce and I started thinking about calling it a day and landing on the favored one-three.

Then I was horrified to see Sharon landing on two-zero underneath us. She greased it in, too.

Well, what an evil, spiteful, inconsiderate, heartless, typically female thing for her to do.

Now Pierce and I had a real problem. We couldn’t let a mere girl land on a runway that we were scared to land on. We’d have to land on two-zero like she did or be forced to turn in our macho man club cards. Our landings weren’t pretty, but at least nothing fell off the planes.

After we had taxied in to the ramp, Pierce and I took Sharon to task for shaming us. She said she’d had enough of the rough air and just wanted to get down, choosing the closest runway. We weren’t satisfied with her answer at all. Wimmen…they’re always looking for one more way to twist the knife just a little bit more!

Several members of the Tuskegee Airmen of America attended the show for their annual reunion. They wanted to take rides on the Trench Cat, too.

From then on, it was a typical show. We spent the rest of the day talking to the crowds and better yet, getting veterans and other Big Iron pilots to sit in our planes for a taste of what flying was like in WW-I, another reason the Salute to Veterans is our favorite airshow.

As for my adventure with the speeding Trench Cat and the airport cop, I found out later that Randy Clark, the airport ramp boss had sicced him on me. He told me that if he’d been able to find his son, another airport cop, he’d have gone for a full body cavity search. (I know where he lives, too.)

Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to the 2012 Salute to Veterans, where the adventure will continue.

Pat Young, a WW-II WASP, sits in the front seat of Cleveland’s Curtiss Seagull replica. Young was a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for her efforts in the war.

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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Dick Starks
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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