Why I Volunteered
By Dave Stevens, EAA 834748, Warbirds 553607
I think I found EAA Warbirds Squadron 4 (Aurora, Illinois) the same way many people do. I just looked up. I was photographing my youngest daughter playing soccer, sitting back in my folding chair. I was waiting for some action on the field when I heard a fantastic, non-civilian engine sound overhead.
I looked up and saw a big blue and white TBM Avenger flying low and slow. I swung the camera up and held the shutter button down, firing off about 20 shots. That sound! That big, thumping round motor sound! I forgot all about soccer.
It didn’t take me long to find a number on the plane and track down Tom Buck, commanding officer of EAA Warbirds Squadron 4, and the Squadron 4 website. I sent Tom one of the photos, and he invited me to the annual Squadron 4 picnic. There were warbirds everywhere, and people were walking around casually among them like they have a Stearman in their living room or something. L-Birds! Texans! T-28s! T-34s! Stearman PT-17s! TBM Avengers! And near the hangars were World War II jeeps and other armored vehicles and World War II motorcycles! Everyone was friendly, and I met so many people that I couldn’t remember them all. I immediately volunteered to help out at the Aluminum Overcast tour stop. I was hooked.
That was three years ago. Now I am sitting behind Rick Siegfried in his North American T-6, at about 1,800 feet. On our right wing sits Tom’s massive TBM Avenger, and just off his right wing is the blue-nosed P-51 of Vlado Lenoch. I originally thought that we would be around 40 feet apart flying with just the TBM. Negative. We are so close I can count the rivets on the Avenger. I was glad I switched to the shorter lens. Then as we passed over the runway, the B-17 taxiing below us, we saw Vlado take off and go vertical. As we turned away together the P-51 started to come around. I looked out our six and saw Vlado coming around standing on his right wingtip in a beautiful arc. So this is what an ME-109 pilot saw just before his life became very complicated. I’ll tell you, it is scary. Now three of us are in tight formation and making low passes down on the deck for the crowd that is waiting to ride on Aluminum Overcast. We climb out again and make long, gentle turns. I try to make the most of this opportunity and take some good shots, but I have never done any “air-to-air” photography before. Heck, this is my second warbird ride—EVER! I have come to know that these are three very good pilots and also some very active warbird guys.
Since Thursday I have experienced a six-ship formation fly overhead, mostly P-51s and one T-Bolt, I think. It was a continuous fly-by featuring all sorts of warbirds. Most landed and spent time on the ramp with us, to the delight of the bomber fans waiting to ride on Aluminum Overcast. Vlados’ Moonbeam McSwine and John O’Connors’ American Beauty Mustangs were on the ramp or doing formation fly-bys all weekend. Rick’s Texan was on the ramp every day. Tom’s TBM was busy with fly-bys, and he took some of us up for formation rides. I thought Vlado got close! John stuck to us like glue for a couple of circuits. I realized that in order to take a decent photo in that situation I had to suppress the 8-year-old boy in me and try to be cool. Maybe take a breath once in a while. It didn’t work, but I think the shots came out pretty well anyway—for my first attempt.
From the beginning with Squadron 4, I offered to help with graphics and signs for various activities. I knew I could contribute with my advertising and graphics background, and I made banners, signs, and graphics for the B-17 tour stops. I have been the promotions chairman for our Aluminum Overcast tour stop for two years, and I discovered that it takes the help of an active squadron, with a bunch of hardworking volunteers, to make the B-17 tour stop successful. The reward for me was hearing the World War II B-17 veterans talk about their experiences. Families that bring an 85-year-old vet out to fly on the bomber can’t believe how he opens up and talks about his experiences after a flight. They say, “He never talks about this stuff.”
There was a man standing to the side with his arms wrapped around a tri-folded commemorative flag in a case, and Stacy Kolls, our squadron quartermaster said, “Okay, there must be a story here.” He said his dad worked on B-17s in England and never flew on one—always wanted to. He said, “Today, he’s going to fly on one.” It was a very emotional moment.
The rest of the riders show up to fly on the bomber. Many of them have a similar connection to history. When their B-17 ride is over, they climb out and some try to look like it was no big deal. They’re holding back, but they can’t hide the smile. We know that they want to jump around and shout because they just flew on a World War II bomber! It’s okay—we’ll keep the secret.
I join them all [Squadron 4] in knowing that we have done just a little to help ensure that Aluminum Overcast will be flying next year, and another group of warbird fans will fly the Fortress for reasons too numerous and varied to count. Maybe this is your year to volunteer at your local tour stop, or maybe it’s your year to fly formation with some generous, hardworking pilots.
Maybe you’ll make some kid’s day by just walking through the B-17 or watching it take off with him. But be careful. You could get hooked. I’ll see you out there.