Air show season is here, and from now until around October, there are flying events of one sort or another practically every weekend somewhere in the country…often several each weekend. The North American Trainers Association (NATA) is holding its first formation flying clinic of the year over the first weekend of April at Punta Gorda (PGD). It is located and timed to coincide with Sun ‘n Fun, held at Lakeland (LAL), a mere 74 miles to the northeast, the following week.
I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, so I was ready to rock and roll Thursday morning. There are two primary aircraft types assembling here; the T-6 and the T-28. For a couple of reasons, I am probably not flying in the T-6s here, but that still leaves me the T-28s…and a little help from PGD resident Walt Fricke. Walt is a highly-decorated former Army helicopter pilot who was severely wounded in Vietnam. His experience of being medivaced out of Vietnam, followed by six months of hospitalization, inspired him to form the Veterans Airlift Command, an organization of which he is the Chairman and CEO. Knowing that I was not going to climb into the back seat of a T-6 this week, he made it his personal mission today to make sure that THIS veteran had an opportunity to take some photographs.
Walt owns a couple of planes that he keeps hangered at PGD. One is a T-34, and the other is an AirCam on pontoons. The AirCam was developed to be a camera platform. Both were in his hangar, which he opens up to the NATA clinic to use as its “home base” at the airport. That meant that he needed to move both airplanes across the ramp for the duration of the clinic. He told me, “The easiest way for me to get the AirCam over is to taxi it over. Since I’m going to start her up anyway, I might as well take it up for a spin. Want to take a quick flight?” He did not have to ask me twice.
Sometimes you just get lucky. We taxied away from the ramp at the same time as a visiting Stearman was leaving, flown by one of Walt’s buddies. As quickly as you can say, ”Fly my wing”, the two pilots agreed to take off in formation. This gave me a chance to start off my visit here with some air-to-air photos of the Stearman, as it climbed out from Punta Gorda.
Once the Stearman departed the area, Walt did, in fact, take me for a quick spin. We did a quick “splash and go” in a nearby lake. (big pond is more like it!), and then headed back to PGD. We entered the pattern in a long downwind for Runway 4. What REALLY surprised me is when Walt told the tower that he planned to exit Runway 4 onto Runway 33, just a few hundred feed from the approach end of Runway 4.
But sure enough, he did it, with no strain at all. It was a great start to the weekend.
In the above photo, you can see Runway 4 running left to right at the top of the photo. Runway 33 goes from upper right to lower left. There is NOT a lot of distance on 4 before it intersects 33. But Walt made it look easy in the AirCam.
Thursday was pretty quiet, and there was NO action among the T-28s. Finally, Walt came up to me and suggested, “Let’s go up in the T-34 and fly top cover for a 4-ship of T-6s. We’ll have the flexibility to photograph the formation without actually being part of it.” Truth be known, that is usually the best way to photograph a formation. When I’m flying in the back seat of a plane as part of a formation, I am usually nothing more than a passenger with a camera. However, flying as a “stinger” gives my pilot the flexibility to position us in order to get the best angles for photos.
The formation consisted of:
Chuck Marshall, Lead, in the yellow T-6,
David Robinson, was flying in the #2 position in the silver and red T-6,
Corey Franks, #3, flying the other yellow T-6 with a green patch,
and #4, Don Stamp, in the T-6 in Gitmo colors (with the big “DS” on the tail!).
These guys flew a good formation, which gave me plenty of opportunities for good formation shots
Chuck Marshall begins a pitchout from an echelon left formation:
Marshall put the formation in a diamond as we prepared to enter Punta Gorda’s airspace.
NATA aircraft have filled up the entire ramp.
We had a terrific flight, and ended the day looking forward to what Friday would bring.
More photos from the day can be seen at: