The 2003 National Air Tour: A Travelog (Part 1)

As previously reported in AVweb, the National Air Tour is being re-created, 75 years after the first time. Dozens of antique airplanes are barnstorming the country, and getting warm welcomes everywhere they go. AVweb's Brent Blue is helping out and sends this first report.


When Greg Herrick asked me 18 months ago to be one of the pilots for his five aircraft on the National Air Tour he was re-creating, I reacted like most every one else: “Sure I would!” To be perfectly honest, I thought there was no way in hell he could pull this off, so I filed that commitment in the “great idea, never happen” part of my brain.Obviously, I underestimated Greg. As I write this, I am on Day 10 of the 2003 National Air Tour, working my ass off and having a great time doing it. In addition to being one of the rotating pilots — since I am low man on the totem pole, this means mostly right seat — I am also the fuel boss overseeing the fueling of approximately 52,000 gallons of fuel at 27 airports over the 17 days of the tour, including avgas for the antiques and Jet A for two support aircraft and a photo helicopter.


National Air Tour (54 Kb)
Six of 26 Aircraft in The National Air Tour (click photos for larger versions)

The tour is a re-creation of the 1927-31 Ford Reliability Air Tours organized by Edsel Ford to promote aviation as a safe method of travel. Those first tours had a scoring system that gave the aircraft a loose target to shoot for, but due to a complicated handicapping system it was difficult to follow. The scoring was based on how short a aircraft could land and take off, how fast it could fly with a specific load, and how close to predetermined target speeds it could maintain over the entire route.The original tours precipitated the development of the first paved runway and the first use of brakes on aircraft. It also stirred huge interest in aviation and airport development around the country.


On Saturday, September 6, I arrived in Dearborn for the start of the tour. I had already made two trips to Anoka, Minn., (near Minneapolis) to get checked out in a Stinson TriMotor “T.” We had a dry run on Sunday, the 7th, to shake out problems.As it turned out, I wound up in one of the problem aircraft. It was a Travel Air 6000 that developed an electrical problem, so our flight was scrubbed. We did not want to start out without a radio and it was too late to grab a handheld.Most of the tour aircraft did a flyover of several locations in the Detroit/Dearborn area and we learned what to expect when 26 antique aircraft fly together. For details about all the aircraft participating in the tour, including the current schedule and news updates, go to the official Web site.

Monday, September 8

(102 Kb)
Travel Air E4000 and Shadow

We were scheduled to fly over the Ford Proving Grounds — site of the original Dearborn airport and start of the original Air Tours — but ground fog scratched this fly-by and delayed our start by several hours. Just like his grandfather, Edsel Ford II waved off all the aircraft with a white flag signed by all pilots and crew. I flew right seat in a Pilatus PC-12 (the only day of the Tour that I have flown in a modern aircraft) because I wanted to get to our first two scheduled fuel stops on the day before the arrival of the antique aircraft, to make sure fueling went smoothly. The PC-12 was merely a support aircraft, but I must admit it isn’t a bad ride!Kalamazoo was our first stop of the day, and also our first big receiving crowd. In spite of our late start, people waited for our arrival and were excited to see us. The same thing occurred at our second stop, South Bend, when a good crowd stood waiting in the hot sun at the large controlled airport for a long time to see the aircraft, due to our late departure from Dearborn.Fueling 26 antique aircraft is no small task because each one has its own peculiarities and each must be fueled by its pilot. Keeping the pilots near the aircraft to be available when the truck(s) come by was a real chore at first, but soon went smoothly after the pilots learned the routine. I also have the responsibility of writing checks for fuel at any non-sponsored stops (i.e., most of them), so I also keep track of flowage. With all the confusion, we have had mistakes in the hundreds of gallons, both in our favor and otherwise!Our first overnight was at Lansing, Ill., and the community was very excited to have us. Lansing courted the tour and was delighted to take over after Demolition Dick destroyed Meigs, our originally planned tour stop. The mayor of Lansing and the airport board threw a great party for us at their local country club, and Kim Sailor — one of our female pilots who is based in Lansing — wore a special dress sent to her for the event by the 99s that was originally worn by Amelia Earhart. Some serious drinking occurred this night — very different than the original Tour, since Edsel was a teetotaler and no drinking was allowed.

Tuesday, September 9

(76 Kb)
Travel Air 6B 6000

I flew right seat in a Travel Air 6000 to Milwaukee Timmerman. Rose petals were dropped over the demolished Meigs Field by many aircraft, and it was truly sad to see the torn-up airfield. Since aircraft are sent in groups of two to five based on true airspeed, several groups had photos taken against the Chicago skyline from the photo helicopter piloted by Rich Sugden. It was a shame that Chicago had to miss the event due to its autocratic Lord Fauntleroy mayor.

Wednesday, September 10

I flew right seat in the Travel Air to Wausau, where we had a huge crowd. Wausau was one of the original stops on the tour, and the group that welcomed us had a great panoramic photo of the aircraft on the ground in Wausau during the original tour. The airport manager at Downtown Wausau was a great fan of the original Air Tour and pulled out all the stops for us. After fueling in Wausau, we pushed on to Anoka, where Tour organizer Greg Herrick’s Golden Wings Museum is based. A huge crowd greeted us there, and the evening was capped by a barbeque.

Thursday, September 11

(123 Kb)
Stearman 4E Speedmail

Weather was a problem: low ceilings toward Kansas City. After briefing by Ed Hoit (a retired Boeing pilot), we pushed on to a scheduled stop in Mason City, Iowa, for fuel, and then continued on to Des Moines, where a fuel stop turned into an overnight because KC was IMC.Brief terror arose in Des Moines when a local station reported a tour aircraft had crashed on the freeway and burned. The tour public-relations person, Suzanne Fedoruk, quickly got the story corrected. What actually happened was that a Ford Tri-Motor made a precautionary landing in a bean field due to hail. As Greg Herrick pointed out, since that aircraft had probably more bean-field landings that asphalt ones, it was a non-event. The aircraft easily flew out of the field the next morning with the help of the farm owner who mowed a takeoff path.Des Moines also found hangar space for all tour aircraft at the last minute during the storm. Since this requires about 50,000 square feet of space, there were several Lears and Citations out on the ramp overnight. Des Moines — like all our tour cities — was incredibly gracious and helpful.

Friday, September 12

Formation Over Wichita, Kansas (127 Kb)
Wichita, Kansas

We were now behind schedule, so we decided to push on to Wichita, stopping at Downtown Kansas City only for fuel instead of the planned overnighter. Weather was still low, and an additional fuel stop was added by several aircraft in St. Joseph due to low-ceiling diversions.I was still in the Travel Air when we left Kansas City for Wichita. The weather cleared and it was one of those glorious late afternoons of flying old aircraft.Wichita was a planned two-day stop for rest, oil changes, routine maintenance, and general relaxation. It was the first time since the tour began that I could sleep past 0530.

Monday, September 15

Since I was not tied to any specific aircraft, I flew in the turbine-converted Bell 47 helicopter to take photos between Col. Jabara Airport in Wichita to Tulsa. We got great shots of the Travel Air 4000. The leg from Tulsa to Ft. Worth’s Meacham Field, I flew in the Bird CK setting a new record for how low fuel can go in a tank before engine stoppage! The group had a dinner at Joe T. Garcia’s with beer and margaritas flowing in excess. All hell did not break loose until the Mariachi band showed up. So much for decorum!

Tuesday, September 16

I had the honor of flying the Sikorsky S-38 Flying Boat with Waldo Anderson. Waldo swung over the single yoke, so I truly got the takeoff from Meacham and then a water landing and takeoff for a helicopter shot at a lake just west of Ft. Worth. Waldo, who is quite a character even without an aircraft around, “neglected” to mention that on takeoff the aircraft goes IMC for about 10 seconds before it starts up on the step. Water totally covers the windshield and leaks in the cabin. It was quite the experience. I flew the Sikorsky in formation with a single-engine S-39 till we arrived at Shreveport, when Waldo took over for the landing. After he bounced it a few times on the runway, I offered to tell people I was still at the controls to save his reputation, but nothing bothers Waldo!

Wednesday, September 17

(76 Kb)
Travel Air E4000 and Oil Wells

I next flew with Forest Lovley in a 1932 Waco UEC beautifully restored by John Swander. In addition to getting to fly aircraft, the people of this tour are incredible resources of knowledge about aircraft and engines. Most of the trip from Shreveport to Little Rock, I got to pick Forest’s brain about the W-670 engine on my Flaglor HighTow. I learned an awful lot about my engine in the hour and a half!I flew the Fokker 1929 Super Universal CF-AAM with Clark Seaborn to Memphis and then to Bessemer in the Travel Air 6000 with Jim Obowa. Bessemer to Peach Tree City Falcon Field was in the Travel Air 4000 in formation with the Bird CK and the Stearman Cloudboy. We flew low barnstorming most of the way. A Canadian broadcast photographer asked me to carry a video camera so I was able to get some great shots including being mooned by the passenger in the Cloudboy!Misfortune struck that night when the Bellanca Sky Rocket ground-looped in a 15 knot crosswind, collapsing the left landing gear and causing left wingtip damage. Fortunately, no one was hurt but the ship will have to be trucked to Washington for repair.

Thursday, September 18

Today, we are holding in Peach Tree City hoping that we can follow Hurricane Isabel up the coast to Kitty Hawk. The plan is to shorten our stay at Kitty Hawk from two nights to one, in order to put us back on schedule.

Continue to Part 2 of Brent’s Travelog.