Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lightning Storm

Contributed by Tyson V. Rininger

Over the past few years, gatherings of like aircraft seem to be all the rage. Whether it’s the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends at Rickenbacker Air Field in 2007, the 50th Anniversary of the CJ-6 Nanchang at Airventure in 2008, the T-28’s 60th anniversary in 2009, or the impressive gathering of DC-3 aircraft at Rock Falls, Illinois in 2010, the coming together of groups of similar aircraft never disappoint. The weekend of September 11th, 2010 would prove to be another milestone towards insuring history not be forgotten.

Their airborne presence was made known across California’s Central Valley as they headed from Chino to Mather Field near Sacramento. Although it started as a flight of five, mechanical issues meant the highly anticipated arrival would only number four. Calls were coming in to the California Capital Airshow Director, Darcy Brewer as the aircraft would pass various points across the State causing the excitement on the air field to climb. Only after seeing the four dots representing the P-38’s and a fifth being a P-51D chase plane, did reality sink in. History was being made.

The endeavor to host six flying P-38 “Lightning’s” at one venue began nearly a year prior to Sacramento’s 5th anniversary show. Around the world, only seven examples remain airworthy. Of those, six are located in the United States with the seventh being owned by Red Bull based in Austria. With the help of Bob Alvis and the National P-38 Association, the “Lightning” aircraft owners and pilots along with Director, Darcy Brewer and air show volunteer, Scott Wolff, the coming together of these historic aircraft was anything but uneventful. Despite the hardships and monetary hurdles, however, four of the world’s finest examples touched down at Mather Field at approximately 6:45pm on Thursday, September 9th.
The aircraft taking part in the gathering included “Glacier Girl” flown by Steve Hinton, “Thoughts of Midnight” flown by Kevin Eldridge, “Ruff Stuff” flown by Rob Ator and “Honey Bunny” flown by Jeff Harris. Setting down in Fresno on the way to Mather was “23 Skidoo” flown by Chris Fahey.
What few know is that this event almost didn’t happen. While the coming together of six P-38’s had always been the goal, the ultimate mission was to showcase the aircraft at two separate venues. Both the California Capital Airshow and the Reno Air Races, which were to be held the following weekend, would host all six P-38’s. After the loss of a sponsor, Reno was forced to drop out of the program leaving the Sacramento Airshow footing an even larger bill.

Three P-38’s, “Glacier Girl”, “23 Skidoo” and “Honey Bunny”, were already in the process of attending Sacramento and were being staged at Southern California’s Chino Airport. With such a dramatic change in plans and only a week before the show, serious work needed to be made to raise additional funds as the remaining P-38’s had much further to travel. “Ruff Stuff” was coming from Minneapolis, “Thoughts of Midnight” from Texas and “Tangerine” from Oregon. With the last minute assistance of Dan Friedkin and Rod Lewis, two of the three were able to make the trip and ultimately, history. It would be the largest assembly of P-38’s since World War II.

During the weekend of the air show, the P-38’s would be put through their paces. All four would demonstrate their agility in front of the audience, but more importantly, show the attending WWII veterans that they are not forgotten. The four-ship of P-38’s would first fly the honorable “Missing-Man” formation to the tune of a solo trumpet and utter silence. With 70,000+ spectators looking on, a dropped needle could be heard amongst the silenced crowd as the aircraft’s eight Allison engines flowed harmoniously with somber tune of “Taps”. Once Rob Ator in “Ruff Stuff” pulled out of the number three spot, it became the most emotional memorial flight in recent memory. “It was so poignant and meant so much,” said Bob Alvis.

Upon the conclusion of the “Missing-Man” tribute, the P-38’s joined up in a very loose in-trail plane-chase as each aircraft would swoop in front of the crowd, their unique engine sounds paying homage to those who cared for them and worked on them tirelessly during the War.
Following the showcase, Steve Hinton and Kevin Eldridge would remain aloft. Hinton would spend the next few minutes flying an elegant solo routine looping and rolling “Glacier Girl” in the skies above California’s capital. Although the gracefulness of the “Fork-Tail Devil” would be briefly interrupted by the state of the art F-22 Raptor demonstration, both Hinton and Eldridge would re-enter the airspace taking on the number two and three position for the USAF Heritage Flight. More than 60 years of aviation history pass in front of the crowd, a sight none of the veterans of the P-38 program could have ever envisioned.

The air show weekend wasn’t without incident however, as “Glacier Girl” suffered a relatively minor mechanical issue on Sunday forcing her back to the hot pit. In the meantime, Jeff Harris had the misfortune of dealing with medical issues and was also grounded. With an inoperable P-38, Steve Hinton taxied “Glacier Girl” back to the line and hopped in Jeff Harris’ “Honey Bunny” to insure the show went on.

Throughout the weekend the P-38’s were on display for everyone to get a closer look at, especially the WWII veterans who worked so hard on keeping them airworthy when it mattered most. The entrance to the P-38 paddock played host to various vendors including the National P-38 Association, Lockheed Martin and others including a special area where spectators could reminisce with veterans.
One of those veterans was Capt. Bill Behrns (Ret.) who flew 104 combat and six weather missions during World War II, mostly stationed in Chittagong, Burma, now the country of Myanmar. During his involvement with the 459th Fighter Squadron, Behrns scored 4.5 enemy kills in his P-38 “San Joaquin Siren”. Behrns was the last of the 32 original pilots assigned to that special squadron of which only four survived.

Entrance to the paddock by voluntary donation enabled spectators the ability to pose with the aircraft and get a closer look. While most would expect these warbirds to be roped off, the pilots and crew instead remained with the aircraft answering questions and giving personal tours. In some cases, they even enabled a lucky few to sit in the cockpit.

When it came time to fly, the paddock was the perfect place to hear all eight Allison engines roar to life.
The weekend provided reflection for those too young to have known the P-38 as a front-line fighter. It provided a sense of peace for those who put their lives in harm’s way for the freedoms we take for granted today. It was a chance to touch a panel they had removed so many times before in a time of war. And it was a chance to recognize those who sacrifice so much to keep them flying today.
There will no doubt be another gathering of P-38’s sometime in the future, but this will probably be the last time they will ever gather for those who’s lives depended on them.

P-38’s Present:
Honey Bunny, a P-38L Lightning, NL7723C, was delivered to the Army Air Force as photoreconnaissance F-5G Serial# 44-26981. Its construction number is 7985. Aero Exploration Company Incorporated of Tulsa, Oklahoma acquired it from the War Assets Administration at Kingman, Arizona for $1,250 on March 22, 1946.
Originally registered as NX53752 on May 10, 1946 and then as N53752 in 1948, it was withdrawn from service in Tulsa, Oklahoma in July 1949. Despite changing hands many times, #981 remained relatively active compared to most acquired warbirds. Today she is owned by Jack Croul and operated by Allied Fighters in Chino, California.
Not only was #981 the only non-camo P-38 present, the airframe also boasts having the only functional turbo-chargers of any airworthy P-38 gracing the skies today.
Ruff Stuff, P-38L, N79123, entered civilian hands in July 1956 where she was originally registered as NX79123. Like most warbirds, the P-38 changed hands numerous times finally ending up with David Tallichet in Chino, CA.
Restoration of 44-27231 began in 1984 in Tulsa, OK before being moved to Chino in 1987. During the restoration process, the F-5G ‘recon’ nose was removed and replaced with the traditional fighter nose seen today. In November 1995, the airframe was once again airworthy and wore the name “Marge” along with a silver paint scheme. For three years beginning in 1998, “Marge” was on display at the USAFM at March AFB.
In 2004, the aircraft was purchased by Ronald Fagen and by 2007, the P-38 had a new paint job and the current nose art, “Ruff Stuff” which got it’s name from WWII pilot, First Lieutenant Norbert C. Ruff.
Thoughts of Midnight, P-38L, 44-53095, is one of the few existing P-38′s not formerly converted from an F-5G reconnaissance variant. Removed from service in 1946, #8350 was originally assigned registration number NL67745, but was soon to see service in Honduras as FAH503 and later, FAH506. The airframe was later brought back the States in 1960 registered as N9005R and stored in Blythe, CA.
In 1969, #8350 was given a new name, “Der Gabelshwanz Teufel” and remained so until 1986. The aircraft changed hands eventually ending up with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, TX. Following an accident, she was repaired and renamed “Putt Putt Maru” until undergoing restoration in 2006. Now owned by Tom Friedkin and Comanche Fighters, the freshly restored and repainted aircraft flies with the registration NL38TF and the name, “Thoughts of Midnight”.
Glacier Girl is a Lockheed P-38F-1-LO Lightning World War II fighter plane, 41-7630, c/n 222-5757, that was recently restored to operable condition after being buried beneath ice on the remote Greenland Ice Sheet for nearly fifty years.
On 15 July 1942, its squadron was forced to make an emergency landing en route to the British Isles during Operation Bolero and subsequently rescued. Glacier Girl, along with five other P-38 fighters and two B-17 bombers, was eventually buried beneath 270 feet of ice. Fifty years later, in 1992, the plane was brought to the surface after years of excavation and transported to Middlesboro, Kentucky, where it was restored to flying condition. So challenging was the excavation of Glacier Girl was documented in an episode of The History Channel’s “Mega Movers” series, titled “Extreme Aircraft Recovery”. Currently this airframe is equipped with the only genuine nose guns of any airworthy P-38.
To view additional images of the P-38 gathering, click here.

For more information on the Gathering of P-38's at the 2010 California Capital Airshow, including additional imagery and details of each performer, check out the "California Capital Airshow" book by clicking on the above image.

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