Profile - The CAF Red Tail Project

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South St. Paul, MN, United States
The mission of the Commemorative Air Force's (CAF) Red Tail Squadron is to preserve and share the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military pilots. The Airmen served with distinction during WWII (and beyond). They overcame racism on the ground to fight fascism in the air, fighting for a country that turned a blind eye to policies and a large population that discriminated against these men and their families because of the color of their skin. The CAF Red Tail Squadron restored and flies a red-tailed P-51C Mustang such as the Airmen flew during WWII. The airplane appears at air shows in North America and at each stop her crew tells the story of the Airmen and how through persistence and courage they overcame huge obstacles in order to serve in the military. In 2011, the CAF Red Tail Squadron developed a traveling exhibit called "RISE ABOVE" to educate people - especially young people - about the Airmen and how they demonstrated the importance of setting goals and overcoming obstacles in order to succeed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Of Snoopy And Things That Go Bump On The Runway

     Because I'll never outgrow (I hope) my enjoyment of the Peanuts franchise, I watched "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" on CBS last night.  In it, Snoopy has a lengthy segment flying his doghouse as the brave French WWI pilot chasing the cursed Red Baron into the wild blue yonder. 

     While Snoopy is in the air, Linus is in the garden waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear.  Listening to him expound on the virtues of that unseen entity made me wonder - what would be scarier to see:  a ghost or a mobile pumpkin?  My vote would be for the pumpkin.  Polls show that about a third of Americans believe in ghosts, but the shock value of a living, breathing, self-propelled pumpkin would be pretty high.
     Speaking of shock value, the latest version of the online Air&Space Smithsonian magazine has a fun article about ghosts and ghostly happenings at airfields around the country.  Some I had heard before, but most were new to me.  Instead of relaying them to you, here's a link to the actual story.  If ghost stories aren't your thing, you'll probably still enjoy the photographs.  The tornado over the Sacramento airport is pretty cool.
     On that note, I'll wish you a happy Halloween (in just three days).  My son turned 40 earlier this month but since he has a somewhat unusual work schedule, his "milestone birthday" party will take place tomorrow night.  Because he will never outgrow (I hope) his sense of fun, he asked that it be a costume party.  I will go as his mother as I have no desire to scare my grandkids by getting all girlish or ghoulish.
     If you go to a party this weekend to mark the holiday, I hope you have a great time.  If you have children who will go trick-or-treating on Monday night, I hope they bring back enough candy to share with you.  If you hand out candy on Monday night, I hope you remember the parents who are looking to share their kids' candy and put in a few extras for them.  If Snoopy gave out candy, that's what he would do.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, October 21, 2011

Glenn Curtiss - Competitor On The Ground and In The Air

     The last two blogs were based on America's barnstorming era, the precursor to today's popular air shows. As mentioned, the first American air show was evidently held in Texas in 1910. That was a year AFTER the first "aerial fair" in Europe which took place in Rheims, France in August, 1909! It was called "Rheims Aviation Week" (at least that's the translated name...) and word is that more than 1 million people attended including the President of France and Britain's David Lloyd-George who would be that country's Prime Minister during the upcoming Great War years.
      Interestingly, although many existing aviation records were broken during the event - 111.8 (!) miles took the distance record - the lone American pilot in attendance was named "Champion Aviator of the World."  New Yorker Glenn Hammond Curtiss won the title and $10,000 back in the day when the average auto worker made less than $800 a year working six nine-hour shifts each week. He did this by flying 12.5 miles in 15 minutes, 50.6 seconds which was a near-record speed of more than 46 mph.  With this win, he now held the distance/air speed record AND the land speed record of 136 mph  The land record - a record that stood until 1930 - was set on his motorcycle in 1907 at Ormond Beach, Florida where I happen to be sitting and typing this.  [As a side note, it's just about impossible to go into any sort of public building here without seeing at least one photograph of old motorcycles or cars racing in the early 1900s.  Even the car wash has a great series of pictures in a hallway!]
     At that time, there was a constant flow of aviation "contests" with big prize money and Curtiss was right in the middle of the competition.  Early in 1911, he won $10,000 for the longest American flight - 152 miles from Albany to New York City with just two stops.   In June of that year, one of his employees, Charlie Hamilton, won another $10,000 by flying a 172-mile round trip from New York City to Philadelphia.
     Curtiss got involved in a patent "war" initiated by the Wright brothers when he continued to build and test more advanced airplanes.  Even though the Wright brothers technically won their patent lawsuit covering ailerons and wing warping twice - in 1910 and again in 1914 - Curtiss kept building airplanes using his findings and the aviation concepts that the Wright brothers developed.  A big goal was to build an airplane that could fly across the Atlantic in less than 72 hours with no land stops.  
     World War I brought the end of that type of contest and attention turned to using airplanes in warfare.  Curtiss was again ahead of the curve.  Well before the outbreak of war, he'd developed the first seaplane and built a system that allowed airplanes to take off from a Navy cruiser.  Using his gift for innovation, he also developed the JN-4 biplane trainer - a.k.a. the "Jenny" - for the U.S. Army Air Corps and its counterpart the N-9 seaplane for the Navy.  By 1916, his company employed more than 21,000 people.
     After the war, the company reorganized and Curtiss cashed out his stock to the tune of $32 million.  This seemingly tireless inventor and forward-thinker retired as best he could (he is credited with inventing the first RV trailer), remaining a consultant for his former company.  On July 5, 1929, Wright Aeronautical Corporation merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company.  Curtiss was only able to enjoy what must have been a very gratifying event in his business career for a short time; he died in 1930at the age of 52 from complications of an appendectomy.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, October 14, 2011

Barnstorming - The First Air Shows (Part 2)

     Last week's blog introduced some of the basics of the barnstorming era - its short history, the airplanes used, the cow windsocks. This week, we'll talk about the guys (and girls) who flew the airplanes and gave the crowds a great show every time.  Sometimes it was the accidents that made the shows memorable, but we'll (mostly) concentrate on the days when the landings equaled the take offs.
     Probably the most famous of the barnstormers was Charles Lindbergh  He was just 25 when he made his famous flight from the U.S. to France in 1927, but the years before that accomplishment had included time with a barnstorming troupe.  He was always known to be an excellent pilot, but soon after joining the troupe he added wingwalking and aerobatics to his list of accomplishments.
     Barnstormers as a group had a lot of tricks up their collective sleeves.  With what appeared to be minimal effort, their airplanes danced across the skies doing loops, rolls, lazy 8s, hammerheads and spins.  To add to the thrill, they often performed their tricks at low altitude.  The brave (or crazy) ones moved from plane to plane. One of the best at this type of trick was Gladys Ingle who was lucky to work with pilots who had very steady hands on the stick.  Click here to see her in action as she straps a spare landing gear wheel on her back before stepping onto a wing and being taken aloft to perform the fix.  No body wires, no leaning platforms and no safety straps - it was just Gladys heading up into the wind on a wing (and a prayer?).  Guess the goggles were her version of a safety device!
     Bessie Coleman - the subject of our very first actual blog story - was also a barnstormer.  She had gone to France to learn to fly since her black skin limited her options down to "slim and none" in the U.S. when it came to finding a flight instructor.  When she returned to the States as a fully licensed pilot, she gave instructions and put on acrobatic shows before she fell out of her airplane to her death while doing a stunt in 1926.
     The Tuskegee Airman who led the 332nd Fighter Group and later became the Air Force's first black general, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. got his first taste of flight from a barnstormer at the age of 14. He had fully intended to follow his father, Ben Davis, Sr., into the Army and become a line officer, but that first plane ride gave him the aviation bug and when the opportunity to train to fly for the U.S Army Air Corps at the new base in Tuskegee, Alabama opened up, he jumped at the chance to learn to fly and fight.  It was his leadership and discipline that helped the Tuskegee Airmen earn their reputation as bomber escorts.  Davis was adamant that the Tuskegee-trained pilots should always work as a team with the bombers they were assigned to protect.  Leaving the bombers to seek out enemy fighters was not an option.  As one Tuskegee Airmen in the "RISE ABOVE" movie says, "We stuck with those bombers because we were more afraid of 'B.O' than we were of the Germans!"
       Getting back to the barnstormers...  As the competition between the "flying circuses" grew, the tricks got crazier.  Crashing an airplane into or through a building was particularly popular. In an effort to limit the most dangerous stunts, controls were tightened up by the U.S. government starting in 1926.  The stunts didn't really stop, but the shows became more disciplined which placated the government for a while.  Wingwalkers now wore parachutes and the airplane "tricks" had to take place at certain altitudes instead of close to the ground. More restrictions were implemented a couple of years later and many troupes just closed their shows down rather then try to comply.  Finally, new restrictions imposed by the 1938 Civil Aeronautics Act forced the last of the flying circuses to close. 

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, October 7, 2011

Barnstorming - The First Air Shows (Part 1)

     The Commemorative Air Force is hosting their annual AIRSHO this weekend in Midland, Texas, home of the CAF's Headquarters.  Many of the Wings (local CAF chapters from around the country) fly their vintage aircraft to the Midland International Airport to display and participate in the daily performances. AIRSHO also features modern military aircraft so, for the aviation enthusiast, it's a biggie.
      Air shows have come a long way since the first one which was said to have been held in Texas in 1910.  Those were the days (I guess).  Aviation was in its infancy and the public's fascination with it really kicked in after World War I.  News stories about the exploits of military pilots like Germany's Manfred von Richthofen a.k.a. The Red Baron and America's Eddie Rickenbacker made the prospect of having other war-time pilots flying in their own neighborhoods practically irresistible.
      It didn't take the post-war (and unemployed) military pilots long to figure out that
a.) you could fairly cheaply pick up a surplus Jenny (Curtiss JN-4, used to train 95% of American and Canadian pilots for the Great War - see photo to the right), Fokker, Standard, DeHavilland or Sopwith Camel (which Snoopy the cartoon beagle would make famous again many decades later) for your very own and
b.) barnstorming gave you a rush similar to dogfighting with the additional benefit that no one was shooting at you..
     Of course, pilots couldn't just show up in a town and expect to start flying.  For one thing, there were often no airfields to speak of.  When that was the case, the pilots had to hire locals to clear and flatten a farm field before the big day so they could land and take off.  The pilots had to check out where the ditches and slopes (and livestock) were so they could avoid them.  They had to advertise.   They had to pay for gas and repairs.  One thing was free, though - a way to figure out the wind direction.  Barnstormers would simply note which way the local cows were standing and go from there.  Cows always stand with their rear ends facing the wind!
     To raise money, barnstormers would charge for the show and give rides, sometimes for "as low as" $1.00.  Seat belts were rudimentary and cockpits were open so the passenger was expected to hang on tight.
     Barnstormers' stunts - which became more and more extreme as the competition for audiences escalated - became part of aviation legend.  We'll talk about those and some barnstorming pilots who went on to actually create aviation history next week.   
In the meantime, here's a very funny video that has absolutely nothing to do with aviation but is a study on cow behavior.  They're smart enough to know to stand with their tails into the wind, but silly and curious enough to allow themselves to be herded by - well, take a look.  

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit