Bent Wing Dreams

A pilot with a long-time passion for the F-4U Corsair gets the flight she's dreamed of for years.

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Let’s start at the very beginning since that’s where tales of all good adventures originate. When you are raised by two pilots it is natural to have flying in the blood, but passion is not something inherited; it’s something discovered. For me, true passion came in the form of four hooves and a soft nicker that welcomed me every time I set foot in the barn…not in the form of a metal airplane that didn’t love you back. Airplanes were cool, a part of the family and I enjoyed flying a lot, but horses were my true passion.

As clich as it sounds, my world changed the moment I saw a Chance-Vought F4U Corsair during a trip with my family to EAA Oshkosh when I was 11. The attachment was instant and unwavering. When I looked at the Corsair I did not see an airplane I saw hope, power and strength all rolled into sheer beauty. I became obsessed. Over the years, I bought models of the Corsair, printed pictures to hang on my wall and read as many articles as I could find on anything about the airplane. I became determined to somehow fly a Corsair. In the meantime, I learned to fly and got a little experience in warbirds, which increased my determination to someday fly a Corsair.

The only, minor, problem with my dream was the fact that the Corsair is a single seat aircraft. So I broke my dream down into steps…look inside a Corsair, sit in a Corsair, be in a Corsair when it moves…and be around one whenever I could. The only time I was ever able to spend time fueling my passion was at Oshkosh, when multiple Corsairs came and parked next to each other in Warbird Alley or in AeroShell square. Every year I would dash to the warbird area and scout out the Corsairs, check to see if anyone was around that I could talk to and ask questions; but usually it was just other Oshkosh visitors.

More Than Just a Dream

Oshkosh 2014 was when my dream started to rocket forward. I was at the warbird area early one morning and heard the F4U-5 start up. I sprinted across the field and watched it idle then taxi out with a Mustang. Part of me began to panic. What if it did not come back? Was it going back home after only two days? Frantically I asked people around me who were with the ground crew. They simply said the Corsair and Mustang were going out for a while but they would be back.

The airplanes did indeed come back and I was there, bouncing on my toes, to greet them. When the pilot clambered out of the Corsair, he was met by some fellow enthusiasts so I tried to patiently wait for an opening. Finally I walked up and quickly introduced myself. I had so many questions and things to say that I felt like a bumbling idiot trying to form words. The pilot just smiled and spoke with me after I managed to get sentences formed. I mentioned that I was a Corsair nut and had always wanted to fly one but did not have the hours or rating to do so yet, and that I had heard from a family friend in the warbird community of one that had a backseat. The pilot, Frank Kimmel, grinned and said “this is the one with the backseat. It lives in Michigan in the summer and with me in Mississippi in the winter.”

I instantly asked if there was any possible way I could manage to snag a ride. Frank said it could be arranged, but probably not at Oshkosh because the skies were so busy.

I was elated! It looked like I’d finally have a chance to fly in the Corsair. My Dad and I talked with Frank throughout the rest of our time at Oshkosh and I kept in touch once Oshkosh ended. I was determined to make this dream happen.

In early September, Frank mentioned an airshow in October down in Mississippi where he would have the Corsair. I was welcome to come. I began planning, but sadly things just wouldn’t line up right. When I told Frank, he countered with a show in Elkhart, Indiana on a Saturday in the current month. I checked the driving distance, agreed, booked a hotel room and began counting down the days.

I could hardly stand it when the day came to head out to Indiana. The airshow was not a usual show, it was to be warbird weekend, where pilots would get together to compete in various events, such as formation flying and generally have fun. The demonstrations and contests were to be open to the public to watch and some general aviation planes would fly in for the occasion.

A Mustang Ride

Saturday rolled around and I found Frank and the man everyone called Lumpy, the Mustang pilot from Oshkosh, at the airport. It was foggy, so I listened in as the warbird pilots briefed on the day’s festivities and schedules. After the fog cleared to VFR conditions, Lumpy surprised me by telling me to get in the back of the Mustang-since it had a long canopy, I could see easily see out to the side and take pictures of the Corsair. We were going up for formation practice.

The reality of getting to fly next to a Corsair hit me when its Pratt and Whitney engine burst to life in a cloud of smoke. Slowly, we taxied to the runway and set up for a formation takeoff. The Corsair led. As the throttles slid forward to full power, overwhelming excitement and awe consumed me. The Corsair was stunning and fearless. Her tailwheel lifted off first, then she slowly floated into the air next to us. Tears were filling my eyes as we climbed, on the Corsair’s wing and began minor turns and climbing maneuvers.

Once we reached the altitude desired, Lumpy and Frank began talking over the radio, reviewing what they needed to practice and how to go about things. I was hardly listening to them because I was lapping up the sight of the Corsair next to us. She was beyond beautiful. Every move she made seemed effortless. “Breathtaking” is the closest description, but even it lacks the power of the actual view.

Lumpy moved the Mustang under and around the Corsair and then “boxed the wake” as we switched sides a few times. My glider training was coming in handy; as I knew what was going on and why the maneuver was so tricky. Eventually the Corsair moved back to fly on our wing. She looked out of place. To me, the girl seemed better suited to leading, not following. Lumpy and Frank talked a little more and were pleased with their practice, so we flew back to the airport and landed, still in formation.

People were beginning to arrive and everyone was grinning at the sight of these two marvelous fighters. I may have only been along for the ride and the view, but I felt that I was at least a small part of these historic airplanes for the time being.

When we reached the ramp, I jumped out of the Mustang and waved to some kids who were grinning and waving at Frank, Lumpy and me. As I looked at the Corsari, Frank flipped the hydraulics and the Corsair’s wings began to fold. When the crowd realized what was going on, they loudly oohhed and awwed. Frank hopped out, walked over and debriefed with Lumpy and then we watched other planes arrive until the festivities began.

Into the Corsair

The formation competition was first and Frank told me to climb into the Corsair. I was grinning like a fool in love as I nodded then dashed to its side of the and started to get in. Two boys were staring at me with disbelief in their eyes. “Are you going to fly that airplane?” they inquired. I smiled back and said, “Just going for a ride.” For a moment I looked at their faces and saw myself so often in their shoes…staring, awestruck at the person inside the Corsair. This was my dream coming true and I could hardly stand the anticipation.

Frank got in and helped me get situated in the back; the only downside was there were no windows behind the canopy so I had no way of seeing out to the side, just forward.

We strapped in, were cleared on the radio and Frank started the Corsair. With the canopy open, I inhaled Pratt and Whitney smoke. I was so excited that I was bouncing in the seat. This was happening. We were going. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! As we taxied, I closed my eyes and just felt the airplane all around me. She was purring with excitement just like I was. At that moment I wondered if planes could sense emotions as horses can.

When we reached the runway, Frank spun his right fist in quick circles and I stuck my head forward as far as I could to see. The P-51 was on our right and the Wildcat was on our left. This was thrilling! Three throttles went forward; the noise with the canopy open pounded through my headset. The Corsair raced down the runway and without any effort we were airborne! I WAS FLYING IN A CORSAIR! For the second time today, tears brimmed on my eyes. I kept shaking my head in disbelief. The Corsair felt amazing. She was so smooth and graceful and seemed to not be putting any effort into her movements. It was unbelievable.

Our trio of fighters flew over the airport three times, each time in a different formation. Frank and I were the lead so we never changed position. I could see the Mustang alter her position enough to guess which pattern was coming next. After the third pass, we broke according to formation regulations. I expected the break to be a powerful G force but it was surprisingly gentle. We didn’t land in formation this time, but one after another. We taxied in, waving to cheering people and the veterans who were being honored. Frank hit the hydraulics again and the wings folded as I pulled myself from the back. Even though I had not seen out much, the ride had been beyond words.

As soon as I hit the ramp, Frank grabbed my arm and we ran to his T-6 for another formation group-The Gaggle. I had taken some dual in a T-6 years ago, so I knew what to expect-and it was fun, even if we did an absolutely despicable job with the formations. Probably the hardest I laughed all day was when we landed and each pilot, at the same time, said “What the hell happened?”

I thought I was done for the day, so I left to spend time with my Mom. She had driven down from Michigan to witness the culmination of my dream. It was great to have her there; it would not have been the same if I had had to be there alone.

What? A Second Ride and Stick Time?

An hour or so later Frank called me to say that the events had come to a close so it was time for my “real” ride in the Corsair. Mom and I drove quickly back to the airport and I situated myself back into the teeny backseat. When we were airborne Frank took us on a howling couple of passes over a grass strip belonging to a friend. He then stunned me. He told me to unbuckle and climb forward a bit so I could reach the stick.

Everything stopped for me. I was going to fly this machine. I was going to fly a Corsair. No way. Quickly I shook myself back into reality and did as instructed. I gingerly placed my fingertips on the stick. Gently, I tested how the stick responded to inputs. Next, I pushed it forward into a dive and then recovered. Frank told me to crank it and do some turns; so I stopped being soft and wrapped the Corsair around. She was incredibly willing and responsive. Compared to the ultra-sensitive T-6 I’d flown called Catch-22, and the speedy Mustang in which I’d gotten some dual, the Corsair was the happy medium. She responded to pressure but not so suddenly that it caught you off guard, as could happen with the T-6. Each turn, push or pull caused a reaction that just seemed exactly right.

All too soon, Frank said we needed to head back to the airport. I nodded and squeezed the stick as a thank you to the Corsair for the wonderful honor. I nestled back in my seat then heard Frank ask if I was buckled back in yet. I replied that I was and all I heard him say was, hold on, and suddenly we were upside down in a roll. As silly as it sounds, I made the “whheee” sound and giggled like mad after we leveled out and loudly said “do it again!” Frank responded, with a smile in his voice “that’s what I like to hear.”

The Elkhart weekend was something out of a storybook for me. My dream since childhood came to pass and everyone there was encouraging and welcoming. Handling the Corsair was probably the highest honor I have ever been granted. I will never be able to thank Frank enough for letting me join the warbird crowd for a weekend and drool all over his airplane.

The weekend brought a dream to life for me. It also renewed my determination to keep reaching for my dreams and make them happen on my own.

Amelia Durden is a private pilot who soloed a glider on her 14th birthday, a Cessna 150 her 16th and is now a horse trainer.