The Dawn Patrol

The great American fry-in. It’s a Southern thing.


Dick Lemons takes off in his beautiful Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker DR-1 triplane replica. The plane is powered by an 1835cc VW using a Valley Engineering PSRU and Culver prop. It flies great too!

Ain’t modern technology wonderful? Twenty years ago, when Tom Glaeser’s and my Graham Lee Nieuports were about five years old, they were two of the first to mount the skies. We were getting letters from all over the world asking questions about how we did what on the planes. It would sometimes take weeks between the writer writing the letter, us receiving it, us responding to it, and finally the writer getting his answer.

How times have changed. Now, using instant messaging, email or Skype, I can discuss the landing-gear modifications we’ve made to our planes with a guy in Australia in real time. It’s amazing. I can even send him a photo or video as part of the explanation.

Yep, the Internet is a wonderful thing. Email has brought us all closer together.

Of course, email can be a real burning fuse too.

Tomato, T’mater

Take the Liberty Landing International Airport tradition of its Fried Green Tomatoes Orgy. We started this a few years ago as a variation of a regular airport picnic. My wife, Sharon, is a world-renowned fryer of the best, most mouth-watering fried green tomatoes you will ever throw a lip over. In my humble opinion, they are better than fried morel mushrooms. Add the fact that with green tomatoes, you don’t have to go find them in the deep woods with all the ticks, poison ivy, stickers and worst of all, snakes!

You just haven’t lived until you’ve stepped on a somnolent big black snake while looking for the elusive morel. That hissing black head with its wide-open mouth suddenly erupting out of a pile of leaves is a real wake-up notice that spring has sprung and it’s time to get out of the dang woods.

Green tomatoes are a lot easier to find. You can either grow them yourself or get friends to give them to you from their own garden patch.

In the case of The Dawn Patrol, when the word goes out that Sharon’s going to mix up some of her super-secret batter recipe and have a “fry-in” in the hangar at beautiful Liberty Landing, she gets offers of green tomatoes from far and wide. Her most prolific supplier of the elusive green “t’mater” is Bob Loyd, a special character at our airport and a classic airport bum. He’s gone to the “dark side” now and has a C-150, but for years he was a regular homebuilt aircraft pilot at the field. He’s our beloved curmudgeon and dispenses his opinions on everything under the sun, whether you want to hear them or not. Loyd is a fanatic when it comes to fried green tomatoes.

Sharon Starks (left) and Brenda Pierce ready to do battle. Sharon has the canola oil hot and ready to go. Brenda has the grill all set up at the other end of the hangar, which she ruled with an iron fist. It was time to start cooking. Let the games begin!

Anyway, like I said, Sharon’s fried green t’maters are a taste sensation that has garnered quite a following.

I just casually sent an innocent email to all the regulars at the airport that she was planning on a big green t’mater fry at the hangar on Sunday. There were going to be some new additions to the menu too: fried green and red pepper strips and fried dill pickles.

That’s when the hidden curse of email surfaced. It’s that danged “forward” key on the email toolbar that created havoc. Several of the recipients forwarded it on to friends, who did the same to their friends. And so on and so on. The snowball started rolling downhill; we just didn’t know it until it was too late.

The Fry-in Becomes a Flash Mob

The time for the event was set at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. The weather couldn’t have been better, with light winds and temps in the low 80s. It was perfect airport weather for flying and frying. Sweetie and I arrived there at noon. We were going to push all of The Dawn Patrol planes out of the hangar, sweep the floor, set up tables and chairs and arrange her frying station at the front of the hangar. (There is also a grill at the back of the hangar for any heathens who don’t like fried green t’maters to use.)

Bob Loyd assumes his position right by the platter the finished tomatoes, pickles and peppers are dumped on. He’s making sure he’s going to be the first to dig in. He had blistered fingers before the day was over, but he never gave up and never moved from that spot either.

When we arrived at the field at noon, there were three strange planes parked on the ramp down at the west end of the field, along with some cars parked up by The Dawn Patrol’s hangar. There were people waiting by the door to the big hangar as we drove up and parked.

We got out of our “stealth van,” and I went up and unlocked the hangar door. One of the guys waiting asked, “Are we too early for the fry-in?”

Right then we realized what had happened. That email had been widely distributed. Sharon looked at me and said, “I think we’re in trouble. Call Bob Loyd and get him to bring a lot of green tomatoes.“

We opened the hangar doors. With all the extra available help that was arriving in clouds of dust from cars and planes, we got the planes pushed out. Then we got the hangar swept, the tables and chairs set up and Sharon’s fry station assembled.

Carolyn Raasch slices peppers, getting them ready to go in the secret batter. Carolyn and her husband, Buddy, own the airport and fly a beautiful American Champion Citabria. Please note who’s in the background…Yep. Big Bad Bob has not moved from his spot.

Loyd showed up with a big bag of green t’maters. I got out my always ready, handy-dandy mandolin and started slicing green tomatoes like a wild man. (The mandolin has a hand guard so you don’t get too much blood mixed in with the sliced tomatoes—for some reason, that really turns some people off.)

By 2:30, Sharon was ready to go. But first she had to mix up her secret batter. We assembled her privacy curtains and stood guard as she stirred up her concoction. We could hear mutterings, mumblings and what sounded like a voodoo incantation coming from behind the curtain. I took a quick peek over it and saw Sweetie throwing stuff in a bowl and stirring it all together. She was doing some complicated dance during the mixing that looked like a boogie-shuffle combined with a step-ball-change and accompanied by some pretty graphic bumps and grinds. I was glad no one else could see what I was seeing. (It made my nostrils flare.)

Just part of the flash mob that descended on the field that day. These are the ones waiting like a circling flock of vultures for the next pan of goodies to get served. If I was allowed to escape their “ring of fire,” I sometimes had stuff left over for the people outside watching all the flying going on.

She finally said she was finished mixing the batter, and the frying started with a vengeance. As fast as she got a pan of fried green tomatoes out of the oil, I’d start the rounds in the hangar with a big platter of hot slices. I’d usually run out before I got 50 feet from the fry station. The group of unruly fried green tomato aficionados that was gathered around Sharon was big and hungry.

Sharon alternated green tomatoes with strips of fried green and red peppers. They went just as fast as the green tomatoes.

Then she brought out the big guns: fried dill pickles. Now, a lot of people had never heard of them and were kind of reluctant to give them a try. But after they sampled a few, the crowd of vultures around Sharon and the fry station grew much larger. I didn’t even have to walk around with the platter of hot stuff any more, I just had to turn around with it and the grasping claws of the crowd would clean it off in about 15 seconds. The old adage, “Fry anything and it’s good,” was proved once again.

Harvey Cleveland and WASP Pat Young with Cleveland’s Piel CP-750 Beryl after a flight. In 1988, while he was in high school, Cleveland built the plane with his dad. It’s got incredible performance.

Frying and Flying

While all this was going on, planes were arriving and departing. Cars were driving in all the time. Brenda Pierce took some of the pressure off Sharon and fired up the grill at the back of the hangar. She was cooking hot dogs and hamburgers as fast as people brought them in.

It was becoming a potluck of truly historic proportions. Wives were bringing in their special offerings, and soon we had to set up more tables just to hold all the pies, cakes, brownies and other hot and cold dishes. Carolyn Raasch’s big platter of barbecued brisket disappeared in seconds.

Harvey Cleveland and “Sabre” Ron Sharek lift off in Cleveland’s Curtiss Seagull replica. (Actually it’s a Mariner Amphibian that Sharon painted up to resemble a 1918 U.S. Navy Coastal Patrol submarine hunter.) Sharek flew 233 missions in Vietnam in the F-100 Super Sabre. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters and 14 air medals. He’s also Sharon’s cousin. We made him an honorary member of The Dawn Patrol.

WW-II WASP Pat Young in 1943, getting ready to head “upstairs.” Young hasn’t slowed down either. She went skydiving on her 85th birthday.

We ran out of parking places for cars, and they had to line up on the road between the hangars. Planes were having trouble finding places to park. “Sabre” Ron Sharek drove in from St. Louis wanting to try out the menu du jour. WW-II WASP Pat Young drove in from Baldwin City, Kansas. We were getting them from all over. It was truly a great success.

By 5 in the afternoon, things were finally slowing down. Trays of tomatoes, peppers and pickles were not picked clean in seconds. Dick Lemons fired up his beautiful Airdrome Aeroplanes Fokker DR-1 triplane and started making low passes down the runway for the appreciative crowd. Tom Glaeser and I were making formation smoke passes down the line in our Nieuports. Mark Pierce was giving rides in the Aeronca Champ to a large crowd of people wanting to go see the flooding on the other side of the levee. Harvey Cleveland was giving rides in his Curtiss Seagull replica and taking his passengers over to land on the river for a short cruise and then back to the field, where he’d pick up another passenger. It was just swell.

Tom Glaeser smokes the runway while making a low pass. His plane is a Graham Lee 7/8-scale replica of a Nieuport 11. It was built in ’86, totally destroyed in the flood of ’93 and rebuilt; it’s still going strong today. Power is supplied by a direct drive 1835cc VW with a Culver propeller.

The sun was going down and people started to leave. A rough count came to 17 planes showing up with more than 60 people on the field at one time or another. People are already asking when we are going to do it again. Judging from this turnout, it’s going to be soon. We all helped Sharon and Brenda clean up the mess and headed for home.

And so the adventure continues.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.