by Ed Simila
Standing on the side of a grass airstrip. Heart pounding. I can’t believe I’m seeing this. Here he comes. A small dot right now. He’s in a turn toward the approach end of the field. He’s dropping altitude. He’s going to pass by nice and low. Blossoming now, getting bigger. I can hear the engine now. Before I can think another thought, he’s flying past us, humming and screeching at low altitude down the strip. I can smell the exhaust. I hear the whine, rumble and whirr of the engine passing by at nearly 300 knots.
I feel its vibration in the air. I am involuntarily jumping up and down with both fists raised and pumping, and I’m screaming “AWESOME!” I feel like a child and I don’t care. I can’t wipe the smile off my face. Am I crying or laughing? I think maybe both. I glance at the closest person I see. I don’t know them, and they don’t know me. We share a friendly nod and beaming smiles, and in that instant, we become old acquaintances. We’re feeling and sharing the same exact thing.
It’s been a week since that experience at the Warbirds Over the Beach Airshow in Virginia Beach, and I’ve been trying to come up with the best way to describe what exactly that “thing” is that I shared with a complete stranger that made us instantaneously old chums. THE HANGARDECK PODCAST had the privilege of setting up our mobile studio at the Military Aviation Museum for their annual airshow. We had access to its gracious founder Mr. Gerald Yagen and his remarkable staff and volunteers. The aircraft that found me in such a child-like state as portrayed above was a Messerschmitt BF-109G, conducting its first ever flight in North America—an event characterized by Mr. Yagen’s staff and volunteers as “our Kitty Hawk.” A truly amazing event indeed. But I want to talk about that “thing.” That feeling. That feeling and connection that I’ve felt before on rare occasions. Yes, the aircraft of the Military Aviation Museum are absolutely incredible, with their wonderful restorations and true-to-life livery. Pure gems and aesthetic marvels, machines to be gawked over by all of us aviation and military history geeks. But there is something grander here, something that can be felt and experienced even by someone who doesn’t know a Messerschmitt from a mallard.
“No, they’re the rock stars. The men and women flying and maintaining and supporting our current military, doing what they do every day. They’re the rock stars.” -Pappy
So what is it, this “thing,” this “feeling?” Several years ago, during my twilight tour as a Naval Reservist, I served as a Naval Historian for the Navy History and Heritage Command at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Helping out the Archives Branch one day, a mate and I were going through a collection of papers belonging to Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations during WW II. A colorful character was King, a man described by President Roosevelt as someone who “shaves with a blow torch every morning.” This was a collection of about 20 boxes of documents that had never been catalogued or viewed before and was in need of proper preservation. Out of one box we pulled a handwritten letter from late 1942, addressed to “Ern” and signed simply “Doug.” The letter still had sharp edges and crisp folds, apparently unmolested and handled sparingly over the many years. It contained information about upcoming meetings with Roosevelt and Churchill, and moved on to small talk of family and mutual friends. “Doug,” it soon became apparent to us, was General Douglas MacArthur.
We shared knowing smiles as acknowledgment that we felt the same thing, the same “electricity,” what I can only describe as an electrical current, the source of which is the energy of a person poured into something long ago, but living on. A life-force. The fame of General MacArthur had little to do with the feeling. It was a connection not with a distant and unreachable famous general, a two dimensional black and white image from my sixth grade history text. Rather a true connection to the real man. A man, a father, a husband, a brother, just like me. One who poured his soul into an undertaking with such passion that you can feel that energy across time by simply handling a letter he wrote. The same type of current can connect one with the anonymous fallen, who bled and sweat with all their might on the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, or Antietam.
That is precisely the “thing” I felt alongside the runway in Virginia Beach during the historic flight of the BF-109G. It is this living current from the past that Jerry Yagen and the Military Aviation Museum have so beautifully captured with their collection of aircraft. They have bottled it and preserved it as a gift for all of us. Visit the museum. You can touch the aircraft if you’d like, and when you do, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel the current and energy from the riveter who helped assemble the machine long ago, the maintenance crew that stroked it with TLC to keep it airborne despite its many ailments and beckoned it to bring the crew back home safely, the crew that coaxed it and flew it and gave it the name of a sweetheart from back home, the friendly soldier on the ground that praised its presence above, and the enemy on the ground that loathed and feared it. You’ll hear their voices, all of them collectively. You’ll know their dreams, love, fear, passion. Their energy. Everything they did and the energy they expended long ago that made us who we are today.
During the course of the Warbirds Over the Beach Airshow weekend, we had the pleasure of conducting an entertaining interview with one of the museum’s warbird pilots, John “Pappy” Mazza. After Pappy regaled the audience with stories of the grace of the Spitfire and the power of the P-40 Warhawk, we commented to him and his son John Jr. (“Hollywood,” also a warbird pilot), “You know, you guys are rock stars!”
Pappy quickly corrected us, and with a nod in the direction of the Oceana Naval Air Station and the sound of a few F/A-18 Hornets flying in the distance, he remarked, “No, they’re the rock stars. The men and women flying and maintaining and supporting our current military, doing what they do every day. They’re the rock stars.” Perfect. There it is, full circle. “Everything they did and the energy they expended long ago that made us who we are today”-- it lives on. It lives in the warbirds of the Military Aviation Museum, and it lives in the cockpits of the brave men and women flying and fighting for our freedom this very day.
“Everything they did and the energy they expended long ago that made us who we are today” - Fast Eddie