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, September 28, 2012

The Knickebein

     I love old movies and watched one a couple of weeks ago called “Tonight and Every Night” that incongruously (it would seem at first glance) combined singing and dancing with the London Blitz.  Turns out it was based on a true story about a London theater called the Windmill (the “Music Box” in the movie) that stayed open even as German bombs were falling all around it. Performers would be on stage until a warning siren went off and then they and the theater patrons would head for the reinforced lower level until the danger had passed. The mood of the movie swung freely from sprightly singing and dancing to a couple of deaths at the end as a result of the bombings. (Spoiler – Rita Hayworth’s character lives!)
    Anyway, that got me to thinking about what inventions the English military might have experimented with to protect citizens from those bombing attacks so I dug in and found one that was pretty cool. 
     Fairly early in the Blitz, the Germans used a radio signal-based bombing direction system called Knickebein to get its planes from Germany to its English targets.  The bombers followed a radio signal sent by a specially designed large antenna system to the point where they were supposed to drop their bombs.  A series of “dots” (a short tone) and “dashes” (a longer tone) would help the pilot keep the airplane at the center of the beam. When another radio beam crossed their “highway in the sky,” and they could hear its tones on a second receiver, the bombardier would drop their load.  This was a literal case of “X marks the spot.”
     The British confirmed that the Germans were using this landing beam system to drop bombs by eavesdropping on captured Luftwaffe pilots.  However, many scientists refused to believe this was possible because they felt the curvature of the earth would not allow radio beams to be sent accurately. Winston Churchill finally settled the controversy by sending British pilots up to find out if the beams were really there.  A crew found the beam and followed it.  They found the crossbeam, marked the coordinates and later found out that the beams crossed directly over the Rolls Royce plant where the Merlin airplane engines (yes, like the one in our P-51C Mustang) were manufactured.
     Since the British now knew what radio frequencies the German pilots were trained to listen for and follow, the Brits started their own system to confuse the Germans.  On the nights when raids were expected, they sent up Avro Ansons fitted with receivers to find the radio signals (the Germans turned on the signal early in the missions).  Once found, a low “dot” pattern was sent out by the British on the Germans’ frequency.  Understandably confused, the German navigator had no idea which “dot” pattern the pilot should use to stay centered.  Later, the British modified their tone pattern so that it was indistinguishable from the Germans’. That made the bomb line very wide and the navigator had no way to tell how far they were from the center of the bomb beam, which was what they were supposed to be following.
     Now that British could “bend” the beam could be away from the target, they could fool the Germans into dropping their bombs where they wanted them to – away from civilization.   Since the Germans were so highly trained to follow the radio beam, it was chaos in the skies for the Luftwaffe pilots.
     The Germans implemented other electronic beam navigation systems after the Knickebein, but the deviousness of discovering its existence from the captured German pilots, the struggle to get government scientists to accept that radio beams could effectively be sent in the required pattern, and the ingenious countermeasure the British came up with makes the story of the Knickebein a classic wartime tale of “us vs. them.”

McConnell AFB
The Mustang and the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit are at the Wings Over McConnell Open House and Air Show at McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kans. this weekend.   Admission to the show is free, as is admission to the Traveling Exhibit.

Countdown to the election: 40 days
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, September 21, 2012

Two B(26s) or not to B

     Those of you who have been reading this blog know that I came by my interest in aviation and airplanes by being my father’s daughter.  He was the airplane modeling teen of the late 1930s who grew up to fly a bomber over Europe in the 1940s.  To be specific, he flew a B-26 Martin Marauder in 1944/45 out of England and France over Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge.  Scary stuff, but his war experiences just cemented his love of airplanes, something he happily shared with me.
     I bring this up because I learned something surprising the other day.  While I was preparing to do a phone interview with Tuskegee Airman Robert “Bob” Ashby, I checked out his bio and it said he flew a B-26 during the Korean War.  During our conversation, thinking we’d have a little bit in common, I asked Bob about that.  Turns out he flew a Douglas B-26! He said that the Martin B-26 was strictly a WWII airplane.
The Douglas A-26 - later called the B-26
The Martin Marauder B-26
      Since I had no idea Douglas made a twin-engine light bomber called a B-26, I had to check it out.  Here’s what I learned:
-          It was unusual in that it was a single-pilot bomber.  However, the navigator also sat in the cockpit and often a jump seat was installed behind the navigator from which a gunner could operate some guns remotely.
-          It’s was originally called the A-26 Invader when its prototype flew in 1942. That designation remained until 1948 when it became known as the B-26.  (The B-26 Martin Marauder had been phased out in 1945.)
-          It had two configurations: the A-26B had a solid nose that could house firepower such as a cannon or multiple machine guns and the A-26C had a glass nose with a Norden bombsight in it.
-          It was the only combat aircraft to see military service in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

     Now Dad liked the other five crewmembers of their B-26 Martin Marauder, “Jolly Roger,” just fine – and he loved the airplane - but I’ve got a sneaking hunch he would have enjoyed the experience of flying that size bomber as the only pilot.  

Cool Duluth
(And I do mean cool – the low on Saturday night is predicted to be 32 degrees!)
The Mustang and the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit are at the Duluth Air Show this weekend.  The Mustang is scheduled to do a mini Heritage Flight both Saturday and Sunday with the CAF Minnesota Wing’s beautiful B-25 Miss Mitchell.  Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer is Honorary Board Member for the air show (we got his title wrong previously – apologies to all).

Countdown to the election: 47 days

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, September 14, 2012

Chanute Air Museum – Part 4: The Airplanes

    There are so many interesting exhibit areas at the Chanute Air Museum that it would be easy to run out of time before seeing the airplanes.   Try not to do that! This little museum has some great aircraft to look at and learn about. 
     The Museum is housed in the only remaining large hanger built at Chanute for training USAF aircraft technicians. 

      The exhibits that were introduced in last two blogs are on the street side of the hanger, in Grissom Hall.  The “airplane” part of the hanger is towards the back, past a room chock full of flight simulators.  The hangar has row upon row of vintage and modern airplanes in it plus four mock silos for training on the Minuteman missile in-ground silo system that was such an integral part of the Cold War era.  When you’re done inside, the outside tarmac awaits where you can see even more!
     Now I happen to think all airplanes are neat, but I have a particular affinity for those that were/are more dependent on pilot skill than electronics.  That includes WWI and II military aircraft and small private planes so that's what I scanned for first when I entered the hangar. 
    There are a lot of jets in the hangar, but some fun surprises for folks like me were tucked in as well.  A big one was the P-51H Mustang.  I didn't really realize that the Mustang letter series went all the way up to "H"!  It's a rare airplane - 555 were built and only 6 remain.  This one is #44-64265 which is recorded as having been built in March, 1945.  It started its journey at Pinecastle (FL) AAF, then was stationed at Chanute from 1946-48.  In 1949, it was dropped from USAF inventory.  The Massachusetts Air National Guard took it over in 1951 and had it for three years.  It ended up back at Chanute where it is in the very last stages of restoration by the museum staff and volunteers.
     Because aircraft technicians trained at Chanute, the museum exhibits a disassembled J-57 turbojet engine, which runs the entire length of a wall – talk about components!  There’s also a rocket motor and another complete jet engine. 
     Other “inside” airplanes include a B-25 (#44-30635) that they are raising money to restore.  A tape loop about that type of bomber plays on a screen inside the Plexiglas nose for added impact.  There are replicas of a Jenny, a Wright Flyer, and waaaaay up in the girders, a Chanute-Herring glider.  It was difficult to differentiate the glider profile from the mass of girders so I didn't attempt a picture.
The Jenny 

The Wright Flyer
     As mentioned, there are more airplanes to see outside. 

     It was fun for me to see two airplanes my Dad liked – or maybe he just liked their nicknames: the “Connie” and the “Gooney Bird.”   The museum’s Connie is an L1049 Super Constellation. 

The C-47 Skytrain – the Gooney Bird – was a workhorse military airplane that was used extensively in both theaters during WWII.  Post-war, it was notable as the type of aircraft that flew day and night during the first months of the Berlin Airlift (the C-54 took over later).
     My visit to the outside airplanes marked the end of my time at the Chanute Air Museum.  I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to small aviation museums, but the quality and depth of information and exhibits in this one made me anxious to check out others to see if they are equally as good.  I only had a couple of hours to spend there – because this was stop on my road trip from Minnesota to Florida – so when you go I’d recommend a.) allowing more time and b.) bringing a digital camera.  I’d have had a lot more pictures to share if I had picked my digital camera up off the hotel bed that morning!
     Next week, a change of pace.  See you then.
 For more info regarding the P-51H that the Chanute Air Museum is restoring, click here. 
 For more information about the complete stable of airplanes exhibited at the museum, click here.
Still in Minnesota...
   Today and tomorrow the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is still in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  Hours are noon until 7 p.m. each day.  It is located at St. Cloud City Hall, 400-2nd Street South, 56301.  

Next week, it moves on to the Duluth Air Show.

Countdown to the election: 53 days

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, September 7, 2012

Chanute Air Museum - Part III: The Other Non-Hangar Exhibits

     Two weeks ago, the blog introduced readers to aviation pioneer Octave Chanute.  His experiments and important discoveries prompted the U.S. government to name an airfield in Rantoul, Illinois after him within a decade of his death. Last week’s blog was about Rantoul’s Chanute Air Museum’s tribute to the men of the 99th Fighter Squadron, Tuskegee Airmen who trained as ground support crewmembers for the first black military pilots.   Today’s blog is about some of the Museum’s other interesting and creative exhibits. 
     To help visitors understand the progression of changes at Chanute Air Base, which later became the Chanute Air Force Base, a main hall has a comprehensive timeline on its walls.  Each segment contains photos and other samples of media, such as newspaper articles, from that era.  It's a great way to get your bearings before you start to explore the rest of the museum.
     The museum has numerous rooms with specific themes.  The room with exhibits urging remembrance of the POW/MIA experience is very moving.  Another room features oil paintings of various base COs and other luminaries, including Tuskegee Airman Col. George “Spanky” Roberts, who was one of the five cadets to graduate in the first aviation training class at Tuskegee in 1942 and went on to command the 99th Fighter Squadron.  After the military was desegregated in 1948, he was the first black officer to command a racially mixed unit.
     Another room shows what a WWII Chanute mess hall looked like as well as a medical services set-up - including a dentist chair - and the Commander’s office.  Yet another recalls the experiences of soldiers in Korea and plays an informative video loop about the war.
     The hallways contain dioramas of the Chanute base at various times in its history, exhibits of various military unit badges and an amazing number of airplane models, built and contributed by various modelers.  One unusual model that caught my eye was a fairly large (about 3 feet long) airframe built by a farmer in the 1920s out of scrap metal.  This was obviously a man who had his feet in the soil, but his eye on the heavens!
The book on the lectern contains the models' histories.
       A large room called “Barnstormers, Wing-walkers, and Entrepreneurs: 150 Years of Aviation in Illinois” is dedicated to Illinois aviation pioneers, including Bessie Coleman, Cornelius Coffey and Marcellus “Celly” Foose.  Coleman was the first black woman to get a pilot’s license, Coffey was the first black man to establish an aeronautical school (more on him in a future blog – so interesting!) and Foose was a friend of Coffey’s for decades and owned the first sky-writing/advertising business in the country. Foose was an avid airplane builder and restorer and a number of his airplanes – including this 1941 Aeronica Chief - have pride of place in the room.  

      Foose designed the “Tiger Cat” and there is a large recreation of people working on the airplane in a barn.  It is extremely detailed, down to the cat on the floor looking up at the partially completed airplane. Outside the “barn door,” other airplanes are lined up in the sunlight.  The mural of the airplanes is beautifully painted and very realistic.

   The history of the Chanute airfield has its ups and downs.  No pun intended but one story that caught my eye was of Private Harold Osborn who was taking his parachute jump “final” in June, 1931 after weeks of training.  Understandably anxious, he momentarily lost focus and pulled his ripcord before he was fully out of the airplane.  His parachute got caught up in the tail section of the plane and he was left dangling below it. 
Private Osborn's predicament
      Using considerable skill, the pilot kept the airplane steady with the extra weight swaying in the breeze while folks on the ground worked to figure out how to rescue poor Harold.  Their solution: send another airplane up and lower a knife down to him via a rope.  Harold could then cut through the parachute's cords and continue his jump, using his reserve chute to reach the ground softly.  That scenario played out perfectly and the original jump plane also landed safely.  After his adventure, Private Osborn opted to return to being an airplane mechanic, keeping his feet firmly on the ground in the future.  Evidently the Army did not try and change his mind.
     Next week's blog will be the fourth and final segment of our tour of the Chanute Air Museum.  No more models - we're into the big airplanes now!

Back In Minnesota 
    Tomorrow, September 8th, the free RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be in Minneapolis for a one-day event.  Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.   It will be set up behind the Shiloh Temple International Ministries, 1201 W. Broadway, Minneapolis 55411.  The Mustang is on hiatus until the Duluth Air Show on September 22-23.
   Next Tuesday, the 11th, the Traveling Exhibit will be "up the road a piece" in St. Cloud, Minnesota where guests will be welcomed from noon until 7 p.m. daily thru Saturday, the 15th.  It will be set up outside St. Cloud City Hall, 400-2nd Street South, 56301.  Groups are invited to attend but to ensure a timely entry to the movie, it would be better if they were scheduled to arrive at a set time.  To do that, contact Mamie Singleton by phone at 651-270-7266 or email at

Special event:
Tuskegee Airman James Cooper Event
      On September 11 - the first day that the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be open to the public in St. Cloud - Tuskegee Airman (and Buffalo Soldier) James Cooper will speak about his wartime experiences via a live stream from his home.  The speech will start at 6:30 p.m. CDT and will be streamed to the St. Cloud City Hall and St. Cloud State College. For more information, please contact Mamie Singleton by phone at 651-270-7266 or email at

Countdown to the election: 60 days

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