Elkhart Warbird Weekend
Observations of a rookie
By Bill Foraker, WOA 554279, for Briefing
Bill Foraker and Matt Throckmorton flew to the Elkhart Warbird Event weekend in Elkhart, Indiana, last month in their recently acquired AT-6D. It was a full weekend of formation flying, local excursions to a football game flyover, and the ever popular flour drop. For these two “newbie” AT-6D owners, it was a memorable time.
The Elkhart Warbird Event in early October was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. Matt Throckmorton and I flew our “new” AT-6D Texas Twister, N817TX, to the Warbird gathering, not really knowing what to expect. What we got was a weekend of education and fun that I’m still trying to process.
We arrived at Elkhart, Indiana, on a beautiful fall Friday morning and were marshaled to the T-6 line. We were met by Bill Gius and Rhonda Tesch of AirVenture Warbirds fame. They ran a great ramp all weekend, with the capable assistance of the local EAA Chapter 132. After looking at the first handful of beautiful T-6s on the ramp, we wandered inside the main ops building and met our host and organizer, Chuck Marshall. He conducted a finely tuned operation all weekend, except for the occasions when some, or most, of the rowdy pilots hijacked his meetings, briefings, and presentations. Chuck covered the weekend logistics to the early arrivals (some arrived and started flying on Thursday), and then the fun started.
The “Major FU’s” flight was about to go out for a formation practice sortie, and they invited us along for the ride. I rode with Todd Winemiller, and Matt rode with Chuck. Boy, did we get a treat! These guys are really tight! Matt and I both have ambitions to take the ground school and attend a formation clinic in order to get a Formation and Safety Team (FAST) card and fly formation in the future. After seeing the real deal, I’m not sure I’m up to ever flying as close as these guys. I guess there are pros and cons to taking a first real formation flight with the guys that “can do.”
After our formation sortie, we discovered that plans were underway for the Edwardsburg, Michigan, football flyover for that evening. Matt and I attended the brief, and again we were graciously offered backseats for the mission. This time I rode with Jim Keller in the number two position; Matt rode with Todd in number three. Chuck flew lead, and after the departure and join-up, we headed for Edwardsburg. The join-up after departure was nothing short of spectacular in the low October sun.
The closure rate to position as well as the speed and skill of getting into position are impressive—and intense! This flight of six did impressive formation work while loitering and waiting for the “head inbound” radio call from the ground. On the 6-minute heads-up, Chuck headed the formation for the Initial Point and inbound turn. We were right on target and right on time! Smoke on! Ground observers told us later that we got a bigger ovation than the first home team touchdown during the game. The view of the stadium lights through the smoke trailing from within the formation is something I’ll never forget!
Saturday morning was another glorious October day, warm and sunny without a cloud in the sky and very calm winds. We attended the briefing for the Formation Competition, which was held under waivered airspace. Now we’re getting serious. All the guys were still joking around, but you could tell that this was going to be a real competition. When the flying started, we saw from the ground just how good these guys are!
We saw many different four-ship formations, most made up of T-6s, but also Stearmans and Yaks with an experimental or two thrown in for fun. Of course they performed the mandatory diamonds and fingertips, but then for the optional final formation we saw echelons, line abreast, close trail, and several creative break maneuvers. After riding in a couple of formation flights the day before, I realized how much concentration, skill, and practice this kind of flying takes and how good these guys and gals really are. It was most impressive.
Following that, we were treated to aerobatic demonstrations by Mike Gillian in a Grumman Wildcat, Vlado Lenoch in his T-6, and Mike Schiffer in a Corsair. We really got to see the capability of these aircraft in the hands of the masters. Their routines were briefly interrupted by the Goodyear blimp departing for the Notre Dame game. The Goodyear guys did two passes for us—which took about 20 minutes.
After a rolling lunchtime, the “message drop” competition began, still under the waiver. Apparently, this was the time in the day when all competition rules became optional. We watched several of the pros make their passes, and they didn’t look terribly difficult. Matt and I formulated a great plan. Matt would turn our “rear gunner” seat around and bomb facing backwards. I would count down the time to toggle our bombs and he could then see our results.
As Rick Siegfried likes to say, it sounded like a great idea at the time. When we were airborne, Matt realized there was no way he could keep his untethered sunglasses on his head while facing backwards. This was the first time we’d ever flown our AT-6D with both canopies fully open, and it was going to be the first time Matt was going to reverse the seat. We hadn’t fully anticipated the vast amount of wind whistling through the cockpit trying to suck everything out.
We did the best we could, and I even flung three of the 1-pound flour “messages” straight up and out the top of the front canopy. I have no idea where any of the messages landed, but no planes, pilots or civilians were harmed during the event. It was a lot of good clean (if not powdery) fun. And contrary to Scorpion flight’s opinion, our “straggler flight” made four passes (as we were briefed) of our flight of two—not eight passes. Heh.
Later that evening Chuck presented a severe indictment of everyone’s flour bombing expertise, followed by the awards. The closest message landed about 15 feet from the very large target off to the side of a taxiway. The farthest bomb was hundreds of feet away. The winner of the contest was Rick Siegfried who flew his stripe-tailed T-6.
For the formation awards, the really good news was that the RedStar guys weren’t disqualified this year. As the tension mounted, Chuck finally announced that first place went to the Boyz From Illinoiz, Rick Siegfried, lead, with Tim Gillian, Gary Applebaum, and Vlado Lenoch. Vlado was especially proud of his first-place trophy and displayed it at the hotel during breakfast. Then on his cowling.
After a quick brief and discussion of a formation arrival plan for Watervliet, Michigan, Matt and I headed to Texas Twister. We departed as a solo ship and arrived first out of all the planes coming from Elkhart. Matt wanted to fly single ship for his first landing into a rather short grass runway. The landing was uneventful, and we rolled up to a very warm welcome from lots of spectators. We were followed very shortly by the Corsair, a flight of five T-6s, a flight of three Stearmans, and then another flight of three T-6s. There was already a nice collection of vintage and GA aircraft on the ground including a BT-13 and several Stearmans, so the crowd had lots of aircraft to inspect. Our hosts at Watervliet couldn’t have been nicer and treated us to a great lunch.
While I was standing by our aircraft, I noticed a gentleman wearing a WWII veteran hat. I asked him what he did in the war, and he replied, “I flew P-47s, but I trained in these.” So we got him up on the wing, and I tried to get some pointers from him about flying the plane. He described some of the missions he flew in Europe and told us about his brother-in-law who was also a P-47 pilot, killed in action. Meeting and sharing our aircraft with him was one of those extra special moments we all hope to have flying these historic airplanes.
I asked our fellow participants if there was anything special about flying out of such a short grass field completely carved out of dense forest. I believe the response was “Use it all.” By that, we took it to mean use all 36 inches of manifold pressure, maximum throttle, which we did. The takeoff with two largish pilots and the plane fully loaded was easy. Following our departure and one missed approach to say goodbye to the great folks at Watervliet, Matt and I had an uneventful, albeit delightful, flight back to Terre Haute, Indiana.
We had a great, fun, and memorable experience, thanks to Chuck, Todd, Vlado, Rick, and John and Erin Shuttleworth; Scott Duck, our air boss; and all the other pilots and friends who welcomed us into their Warbird flying community. We learned more about flying our aircraft and had a great time getting indoctrinated into the world of formation flying.
I mentioned at the outset of this article that I was a rookie. Let me explain that a bit further. When I left Terre Haute for Elkhart, I had a total of 18 T-6 hours and 37 tailwheel hours. My firsts on this adventure included: first cross-country T-6 flight, first T-6 landing away from my home area, first message dropping, first time flying with the cockpits full open, and first true formation sorties. And although Matt has landed many taildraggers on shorter grass strips, his firsts included: first T-6 landing on grass and his first T-6 landing on a runway shorter than 4,000 feet. Some of the guys participating in this Warbird gathering have probably been flying their T-6s well over 30 some years.
It was delightful to find that we weren’t treated as “newbs” by the veteran flyers. We were thankful to get tips and encouragement and were pleasantly surprised that the event accommodated our rookie flying experience. It was a blast to come into this event as a rather raw T-6 flyer and still be able to actively participate in some of the flying.
Both Matt and I appreciate the time shared with us and are already looking forward to another Elkhart gathering next year. In the meantime, we’ll be honing our T-6 skills and preparing for formation clinics!