The 2003 National Air Tour: A Travelog (Part 2)

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

The National Air Tour ended in Dearborne, Mich., last Wednesday, after an amazingly successful trip. AVweb's Brent Blue finishes his travelog with more photos and more stories.


Read Part 1 of Brent's Travelog.

Friday, September 19

I was taxiing out to the runway in Peachtree City in the right seat of the Travel Air 6000 when we were called back to the terminal. The Travel Air needed to stay for another pilot who ferried a sick Stearman Cloudboy pilot to Richmond. I quickly jumped into the Stinson Tri-Motor, and to my delight I found the right seat unoccupied. It was a great trip up to Greenville in the big Stinson, flying formation with a Ford Tri-motor and doing some low-level flying over a large man-made lake. The folks at Greenville pulled out all the stops and served our first lunch of the trip with regular plates, silverware, and something besides barbecue -- specifically, lasagna. (I think there was a plot to poison me with pork on the Tour.) It was true southern hospitality.

We flew on to Winston-Salem. I had the opportunity to fly the front hole of a restored Ryan M-1, very similar to Lindbergh's aircraft. I sent a couple of e-mails from my phone just to be able to say I had done it from a true "mail plane"!

(43 Kb)
One of the missing items -- a signed sign

Winston-Salem won't win any awards for being prepared for our arrival. In spite of our usual advance notification and general guidance about our procedures for ramp control and fueling, there were serious local political and communication problems. Some of it may have been related to our being a day late, but some things that happened were just plain rude. Winston-Salem could use a lesson from Greenville.

The coordinated dinner menu was once again pork barbecue. (They were really making it hard for this Jewish kid.) Bobby Newhouse -- the Bird CK driver -- picked up a life-size cardboard cutout of a cover girl and kept the troops entertained at the restaurant. The cutout disappeared that night at the hotel -- one of two items on the trip that mysteriously vanished.

Saturday, September 20

I had two friends join me on the tour for the weekend, so I flew in the back of the Grand Canyon Airline Ford Tri-Motor with them. We flew in formation with the Stinson Tri-Motor and the Bushmaster (a Ford Tri-Motor look-alike). We also flew some low-level routes over another large series of lakes.

(164 Kb)
Kitty Hawk memorial seen from the Ford Tri-Motor

After arriving in Wilson, N.C., the group made decision to fly to Kitty Hawk. The FEMA-ordered TFR had been lifted but the airport was still closed due to the hurricane. Since landing was prohibited, we opted for a flyover and photo ops.

I gave away a chance to do the flight in a Travel Air 4000's front hole to one of my friends and flew in the back of the Ford with the other. It was an honor to fly over the monument in a vintage Tri-Motor 100 years from that first flight as part of a large group of one-of-a-kind aircraft. It truly brought tears to my eyes.

We spent the night in Wilson even though they were not expecting us. Wonderful people who helped us in every way right after a hurricane went through.

Sunday, September 21

(69 Kb)
Twin Otter support plane viewed from the FAA's DC-3

I caught a ride in the FAA's DC-3 (N34) to our next stop -- Richmond, Va. What a great aircraft. I still remember flying in a DC-3 as a passenger from Omaha to Norfolk, Neb., when I was a kid.

Richmond had a great welcome for us, and their on-airport museum is a great one. Louise Thaden's son and daughter were in Richmond to see the aircraft as well, and Bill Thaden continued with us to the end of the tour.

I was proceeding on from Richmond to Frederick in the DC-3 but it lost its right engine-driven fuel pump on the run-up. Fortunately, the Twin Otter support plane provided by Grand Canyon Airlines was still on the ground and we were able to catch a ride to Frederick. Not as nice as a vintage aircraft, but you really can't beat comfort after a couple of weeks of noise and oil.

Frederick, home of AOPA, had a large crowd to receive us, but it took a while to get the local ramp boss to release his control and let the folks come out to see the aircraft. Many of our pilots commented on the lack of AOPA presence since almost all of our pilots and crew are AOPA members. Must have been the Sunday arrival.

The arrival in Frederick was marred only by an excursion by the Stinson Tri-Motor off the runway and into a runway sign. Minor fabric damage to the belly was suffered but more damage was done to the ego of the pilots.

Monday, September 22

(146 Kb)
Frank Rezick with the "plastic-wrapped" Travel Air (waiting for opening day)
(168 Kb)
National Air Tour group poses with the Enola Gay

Rain and bad weather down the road put Pittsburgh on delay. Through some connections, I was able to arrange a visit to the yet to be opened National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles. This facility is not to be missed when it opens on December 15. Frank Rezick (a.k.a., "Mr. Travel Air") -- who is with the Tour -- built the wings on the Travel Air that is hung in the new museum. We suggested to Frank that once he passes on, we could stuff him and hang him next to the plane. Frank said he thought that was a good idea!

We then went to the downtown Washington Museum and toured the facility. It was then I realized how similar the M-1 Ryan I flew in a few days before was to the actual "Spirit of St. Louis." Lindbergh's North-by-Northwest aircraft is also in the facility -- another must-see for any pilot.

We plan on catching up to our schedule by stopping in Pittsburgh for lunch only, and then on to Dayton. Two nights to go.

Tuesday, September 23

It rained on the aircraft all night, because there was only room for a few planes in the hangars. Most of these antique aircraft leak like sieves, so everything from charts to carpets to brakes were soaking wet.

I flew in a different Travel Air 6000 to Pittsburgh. The aircraft just emerged from restoration by owner Hank Galpin and friend/co-pilot Ray Sanders from Montana. They spent more than 10 years restoring this bird to pristine condition. It flies straight and runs smooth. A minor shower required some deviation to the south but did not pose any problems. The flight over the mountains of the East reminded me of what "real" mountains are back home in the Rockies!

After the lunch stop in Pittsburgh, I went back to the Travel Air that was restored in the 70s. Pittsburgh to Dayton was uneventful except we started noticing oil on the windshield. All these round engines leak some oil (just marking their territory) but it seemed more than normal.

The local EAA chapter pulled out all the stops for us at Dayton and a great crowd was on hand. Ready to party when we got to the hotel, we took over the bar en masse. Since only one bartender/waitress was on duty, our ground boss Nick Pontecorvo, who was a bartender in a previous life, stepped behind the bar to help out. The crowd went wild!

(134 Kb)
Bellanca Sky Rocket after the groundloop

Our Great Lakes, which has the shortest range of any of our fleet, had decided to proceed direct from Frederick to Dayton making its own fuel stops. When they had not arrived at Dayton by the time we were leaving for the hotel, I started searching (another one of my "jobs") and reached Beverly and Ted Beckwith in Hagerstown, Md., just a few miles from Frederick.

The Great Lakes had run into the headwinds and the weather mentioned above and decided to turn back. Since they were from Tennessee, they decided to not finish the tour and headed home on Wednesday, much to everyone's disappointment. This made them the second crew not to finish the tour: The Bellanca Sky Rocket that ground looped was the other.

Wednesday, September 24

(94 Kb)
The Bird and the Fairchild

This was the last day of the tour and everyone was excited to get on the road. The only significant storm in the country was just northwest of Dayton and moving east. We launched, but only about half the aircraft made it around the tip of the storm to Dearborn. The rest, except for my group, either never left Dayton or returned. I was in the Travel Air 6000 with the Bird and the Fairchild and the group pressed on to Marion where we stopped. The local FBO was kind enough to produce hangar space for two of the aircraft to wait out the storm. After the storm passage, we launched, paying $50 for the hangar space for the two hours. It was only the second location we had to pay for hangars. (Frederick was the other.) I guess we were spoiled by Des Moines, where they found 50,000 square feet of hangar space for us at the last minute to protect these antiques from the weather and did not charge a cent.

The Travel Air now was spitting enough oil on the windshield to make forward visibility impossible. This certainly made formation flying interesting, as Ted Winters and I leaned out the side windows to wipe down the small part of the windshield we could reach. If you think this is easy at 100 mph, give it try. We have bruises to show off from our arm-reaching efforts! It was a true IFR landing at Willow Run but we made it peering out the side windows.

The crew stuck at Dayton arrived shortly after we did and the congratulations and celebration began.

Final Impressions

(147 Kb)
Greg Herrick displays the new name for the air tour

Some major milestones were achieved. No one was hurt during the Tour, and only one minor accident occurred -- and that flight was a training flight after arrival in Peachtree City. We had spread the word about the importance to the history and progress of aviation of the original Air Tours. We proved the reliability of 70-year-old aircraft over a 4000-plus-mile course in 17 days. We arrived on time and safely.

Greg Herrick deserves tremendous thanks for his passion in preserving these aircraft and their place in history. He gave an impassioned speech at the final banquet thanking everyone for their participation, mentioning not only the importance of the aircraft but all of the National Air Tour participants' knowledge and support of these vintage aircraft.

The National Air Tour is over for now. Videos, photos, and other materials will be out shortly documenting the event.

The most asked question on the Tour was, "When is the next one?" I doubt there will ever be a Tour again with the caliber of aircraft on the 2003 event. Two of the aircraft are headed to museums, probably never to fly again. Many of the pilots and crew cannot take three-plus weeks of time to fly their birds around like this on a regular basis. They also may not be able to afford paying their fuel and hotels for the entire trip as they did this year.

(64 Kb)
Misty morning flight preparations

Does Greg or someone like him have the energy to set one up again on a volunteer basis and take a huge financial risk and a guaranteed loss in the process? Are there sponsors out there who will step up to the plate willing to foot the bill? All unanswered questions.

What is answered is that the National Air Tour 2003 was successful for one reason -- the passion of the participants regardless of their job title or other status. There was no political or financial agenda. Unlike corporate America or alphabet organizations, each individual paid a significant amount of money for expenses and gave their time without any profit potential or marketing benefit.

The upside was for aviation, vintage aircraft, and spreading the word of flight. Anyone who has or dreamed of getting up early in the morning, climbing into an open-cockpit biplane, and flying with the sunrise knows what I mean.