Why We Are REALLY Here – A Random Act of Kindness
Since I became involved with the warbird community as a photojournalist, I have had the opportunity to attend a good number of flying events, most of which have given me the chance to fly as a “PhotoGIB (Guy In Back) with many different pilots, in many different planes. To be honest, I’ve been having a blast! I’ve been taking photos that, a couple of years ago, I could not have dreamed of. I’ve been able to attend major aviation events, such as Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh, not simply as a spectator, but as a participant. And, through my writing and photography, I’ve been able to give back, in some small way, to the community that has warmly welcomed me. Yep, it’s been a blast!
Me sitting in Barry Ford’s American Ranger gyroplane in Waycross GA
I have also been able to share the story of my adventures, primarily through the magic of Facebook. I receive a lot of positive feedback, both online and in person, confirming that there are a lot of people who really enjoy my photos and my stories. After some urging from a couple of special friends, I have decided to expand coverage of my adventures by inaugurating a blog.
I have plotted out an ambitious schedule of events for 2018 that will include the two biggest air shows in the United States, and, if all goes well, a trip that will not only take me around the world, but will take me to the Southern Hemisphere, then back north nearly to the Land of the Midnight Sun.
I’ve given a lot of thought to how to begin this blog. I wanted my first blog entry to be something compelling, challenging, and thought-provoking. And I wanted it to be something meaningful and something that would make you, the reader, feel good. I wanted my first blog entry to be something that not only came from my heart, but would make you want to visit it again on a regular basis.
In January, I got my wish. One random act of kindness led to a series of events that opened my eyes to a whole new world within the warbird community. Before I realized it, not only was I witnessing something special, I was blessed to be a part of it! Even better, maybe through this blog I will have a chance to make a difference to someone. Time will tell.
I always knew that the warbirds had a much more important mission than giving a bunch of lucky aviators a chance to play with some really neat toys. I saw a manifestation of that understanding in December when I flew to Manteo NC (MQI) with the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s C-54. At Manteo, I watched as BAHF President Tim Chopp demonstrated the fulfillment of his dream. He has successfully transformed his C-54 into a living, flying museum dedicated to the brave men and women who participated in the greatest airborne humanitarian event in history. Nearly 400 school children from North Carolina’s Outer Banks visited the “Spirit of Freedom” that weekend and had a chance to touch and feel a piece of history. It made a great impression on me.
BAHF C-54 (N500EJ) dropping candy over Manteo, NC on 17 December 2017 (C) Jaybird Aviation Photos.com
Then, at the Meeting of Mentors at Palm Springs CA (PSP) in January, I had the privilege of flying with T-34 pilot and owner Ron Alldredge as his PhotoGIB. Ron certainly made me feel welcome as a valuable crewmember, and we ended up having two excellent formation flights as “Mentor Alpha Two” in a four-ship formation. While the flights were good, and I was able to take some terrific photos of the other planes in my flight, Ron’s actions on the ground left me with a lasting impression of what it should mean to be a warbird pilot and a mentor. In some ways, I am still an “FNG” (Fun New Guy) in the warbird community, but I’ve been around enough to form some impressions.
Photos taken at Meeting of Mentors – Palm Springs
During the morning preflight briefing with the PSP ATC tower personnel, we were introduced to Lauren, a trainee who, we were told, would probably be handling us during the day. And that she did, quite well. My first clue that Ron was made of something special was when we pulled off the runway after our second flight. he called, “Tower, Mentor Alpha Two, thank you for a great job today.” That was probably the first time I had heard a warbird pilot make a radio call thanking the tower personnel for their help or complimenting them on a good job. (To be fair, most of my flying thus far has been from uncontrolled airports, so this sort of call might happen more often than I realize. Still, I thought it was a nice gesture.)
Once we all parked back at the museum, the ground crew opened the ramp to spectators. It didn’t take long for Ron to find himself with two gentlemen, Bruce and his buddy Dave. Bruce mentioned he had last flown a T-34 in 1957 as a cadet at Marana AFB in Arizona. That was all Ron needed to hear. In a show of compassion and understanding, he invited Bruce to have a look in the cockpit. These days, Bruce doesn’t get around very well, so Ron patiently helped the older gentleman up onto the wing so that he could gaze into the cockpit. Having done that, Ron suggested, “Go ahead. Climb in. Make yourself at home.” Now THAT brought the world’s biggest smile to the old aviator’s face!
Bruce recalls, “When I mentioned I had 40 flight hours in the T-34, Ron very thoughtfully invited me to sit in the cockpit’s front seat, and that is when my trip down memory lane really began. He could see that I was enjoying sitting in the cockpit and asked if I would like to take a flight. I answered enthusiastically in the affirmative, but immediately indicated that I’d like to compensate him for the fuel we burned. Ron replied that it was a joy for him to see someone so taken with the plane and that he wanted to donate the flight. I found that quite remarkable, as I was a complete stranger. Ron went on to say that doing something for a stranger with no strings attached was pure joy to him.”
As Ron went over the cockpit instrumentation with Bruce, I had the presence of mind to snap a couple of pictures. The two aviators probably spent a good 10 minutes in the “front office,” no doubt reliving memories from 60-plus years ago. Once Bruce climbed back down, he, Dave, and Ron posed for a couple more photos in front of the T-34. Clearly, this brief encounter had touched all of us.
L-R: Dave Cortelyou, Ron Alldredge, Bruce Walker
Afterward, Ron talked about what we’d experienced, and the compassion he’d shown to Bruce. He replied, “You know, Bruce and Dave are the real reasons we come to these air shows. Sure, it’s fun to bore holes in the sky with warbirds, but we’re really here for the folks who come out here and pay anywhere from $5 to $25 to see us. They’re not just interested in the planes…they’re interested in the pilots also. They WANT to talk to us. Sometimes, it might be someone who wants to relive a memory, as Bruce did. Sometimes, it might be an impressionable youngster who, because of our encounter, might decide to pursue a career in aviation. Sometimes, it is someone who just wants to be in an aviation environment for a few minutes. You never know how your actions may touch the next person waiting to talk to you.”
As Bruce and Dave walked away, I thought back to my own childhood, in the days long before fears of terrorism turned airports into sterile fortresses. Back in those days, airplanes and pilots were easily accessible to mere mortals like myself. That accessibility played a major role in feeding my passion for aviation. Today, only a fraction of those opportunities are available to someone bitten with the aviation bug. An air show such as the Meeting of Mentors is one of a dwindling number of such opportunities.
Ron and I knew we’d had an extraordinary and meaningful encounter with these two gentlemen. Ron noted, “Sometimes I watch a pilot get out of his or her plane, walk right past the crowd, and disappear somewhere. You never know what opportunities might be lost. Maybe they missed a chance to give an old aviator like Bruce one more chance to relive a moment in their lives from 60 or more years ago. Maybe they missed a chance to encourage a youngster to pursue a career in aviation. Maybe they missed a chance to make a difference in somebody’s life. I know that after a debrief, having a cold one sounds much more appealing than standing out in the hot sun, talking with someone who may or may not be interesting to you. But remember—WE are interesting to THEM. What a terrific chance to be a mentor!”
That evening, as promised, I sent an e-mail off to Dave, which included a couple of the photos I’d taken. His response warmed my heart. Dave and Ron both gave me permission to share the e-mail.
“Jay and Ron,
I can’t thank you both enough for the special day you provided Bruce and me at the Air Museum yesterday… Because Bruce doesn’t drive anymore due to hearing and eyesight problems, I pick him up every Saturday morning and we come to the museum for the 1:00 PM program. Yesterday was special because Bruce learned to fly in the Air Force (1957) in a T-34 trainer and he was really looking forward to seeing them fly… Ron, when you were so open and responsive to our questions and then asked Bruce if he would like to sit in the cockpit, it just made our day. Then Jay was kind enough to pick up on this special experience for Bruce and captured the photos to preserve the moment… .I just can’t thank you both enough… Hopefully you had a great experience at the fly-in, but I also want you to know that you made a couple of older veterans very happy yesterday… We will be talking about it for months… Dave”
When I first wrote this story, it ended here. It was already a good story. But the best part was yet to come. On Wednesday, February 21, Ron sent me an e-mail, telling me that he was going to fly his T-34 from his home airport in Tehachapi CA (TSP) to Bermuda Dunes CA (UDD) to treat Bruce to a flight in the Mentor. This was planned for Saturday, February 24.
At this point, there was no way I was NOT going to be there! I called John Warwick in San Diego, thinking he might be free to fly me alongside Ron and Bruce to take some special pictures. John already had plans for the weekend, but he sent out an e-mail to the Southern California warbird community, explaining what we were doing and asking if anyone would be willing to help. Sure enough, another Mentor driver, Tyler Trickey, offered to fly down from March AFB to help. He said, “I planned to go flying anyway, so this gives me a chance to do something useful, different, and fun!”
Tyler Trickey arrives (L), followed shortly after by Ron Alldredge
On Friday, I flew out to Ontario CA (ONT), and drove to UDD the following morning. Before long, we were all there. I joined Bruce and his wife Judy, Ron and his wife Paula, and Tyler. When the FBO reps heard the story behind what we were doing, they took a great interest and gave a real priority to the needs of our flight. Kudos to the FBO staff at UBB!
Finally, the moment had arrived. Bruce says, “The day was perfect! There was a gentle breeze and plenty of sunshine. Prior to takeoff, the two pilots engaged in a detailed briefing covering every detail of the flight, as experienced pilots should. As we walked out to the plane, I think I heard the opening theme from ‘Top Gun’ in the back of my mind. Ron put me in the backseat of his T-34 while he took the front seat. This was a new experience for me as, in flight school, the instructor always took the rear seat with the student up front! I did tell Ron that if he REALLY wanted to conjure up some accurate memories, he needed to scream at me for the entire flight! Once in the air, we headed to the Great Salton Sea.”
Tyler started out in the lead, with me in the back seat. This gave me the better photo angles, and both pilots were aware of keeping the sun on Ron’s plane. We headed out over the Salton Sea, which gave me a variety of backgrounds throughout the flight. When we turned around to head back to Bermuda Dunes, Ron turned the controls over to Bruce, for his highlight of the flight. For about 20 minutes, Bruce was back in the Air Force, guiding his T-34 around the valley surrounding the Salton Sea…without the screaming!”
Ron Alldredge’s beautiful T-34, N134LM, with a very happy Bruce Walker in back.
All too soon (for Bruce!), we touched down back at Bermuda Dunes. Bruce and Judy invited us back to their home for lunch, and we all sat around the table trying to get a real understanding about how and why this all happened. The answer to “how” begins with Ron. He is easily approachable, and it was probably that “approachability” (and standing next to an eye-catching T-34!) that drew Bruce and Dave to that particular pilot and plane. Usually, you can just look at someone and know if they might be interested in talking, and Ron has that look. It was that same “je ne sais quoi” that made me realize that something special was happening between Ron and Bruce. When I’m around airplanes, I tend to get target fixation with my camera. I focus on the airplanes, and not the people involved with them. But something caught my attention as I focused on Bruce sitting in the front seat, and Ron hovering above him. Dave saw me taking those photos and asked me to send a few to him, which I’d already planned to do. We were all on the same page.
Bruce Walker (L) and Ron Alldredge
Ron talked about what it was about his encounter with Bruce that brought about such a big random act of kindness. He explains, “There are those folks you meet at an airshow who want to talk about the airplane because it looks neat and you happen to be standing in front of it. Others want to impress you with their knowledge of your airplane, or airplanes in general. Then there are those folks with a story to tell, and you learn to listen to those, because you will enjoy the encounter more and remember it much longer. “Bruce wasn’t the first person to walk up and say he had flown the T-34 before, and I have learned to be ready when someone does. When he said that the last time he had sat in a T-34 was 1957 in Marana, I seized on the opportunity to fix what I perceived to be a ‘problem.’ He needed to sit in a T-34 again, and I could help him do that.”
Ron reflects, “During the Capital Airshow in Sacramento in 2016, I had a young man stop by to talk, and in the course of the conversation he mentioned riding in the back seat of an Air Force Aero Club T-34 many years before while his dad flew from the front. I asked him if he had ever sat in the front cockpit and he said he never had. I invited him over the rope and into the cockpit. I won’t say he started crying but he had some trouble talking for a few minutes as he sat there. I’m pretty sure his dad, long since passed, was somewhere close by. I still keep in touch with him. He was motivated by that one visit to pursue his private license.”
Having been moved to help Bruce back into the cockpit of a T-34 for the first time in over 60 years, Ron was in for a little surprise. “Bruce hides his disabilities well. He was a whole lot less spry than I first thought and I was really concerned he would be unable to get all the way up to the cockpit and, if he did get in, I would have trouble getting him back out. Only after our flight did I find out he is completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. He is also mostly deaf. I did see the hearing aids and should have suggested he take them out before he put on the headsets. If he experienced any problems during the flight, he didn’t say anything to me. He was a real trouper. While I may think an 84-year-old man who is mostly blind and deaf might not get much from flying around with me for 40 minutes, I cannot argue that he really seemed to enjoy himself and, through him, Judy did, too. To me it was just a very simple gesture from one pilot to another, but It was honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my flying life.”
Every pilot remembers how to fly, no matter how long he’s been out of the cockpit, so Ron wasn’t too concerned when he turned the controls over to Bruce. He grins. “Remember that I did not know how bad his eyesight was. He had some trouble keeping the nose down, but I know now he just couldn’t see that well forward. With someone like Bruce, you just keep encouraging him and let him enjoy the ride and I believe he did.”
Ron says, “I appreciate the opportunity to put some of these thoughts in writing. For many years, scenarios such as my encounter with Bruce have rolled around in my head, so, funny as this might sound, I was actually prepared for someone like him, making the ‘random act of kindness’ much less random than you might think. Will I always respond to someone like him with an offer to go fly? Probably not, but if I can I will. Like I said, it is such a small gesture, but it can have a big impact. When I stop flying, those are the moments I will remember most.”
He continues, modestly, “Please don’t make me out as a life changer for you or anybody. There are people in this world that deserve that title, but I’m not one of them. I’m just a lucky pilot who happens to have an airplane other people like, and I don’t mind sharing it with them—at least, a little.”
Ron Alldredge has a greater impact on others than he gives himself credit for. I don’t believe in coincidences. One of my favorite sayings is, “It’s a lucky man who hears opportunity knock. It’s a wise man who opens the door.” That would certainly apply to my life as a warbird photojournalist in the past year and a half.
Here’s an amusing fact about that day at Palm Springs. There were two sorties that day. I flew with Ron on the morning flight and was actively looking for another pilot to fly with on the second flight. This was not because I didn’t want to fly with Ron again, but because I was hoping to photograph some different planes. But, at the last minute, I could not find anyone else, and Ron graciously offered me his back seat again. I am so glad it happened that way because I most likely would have missed out on one of the most meaningful events of my year. Coincidence? I really don’t think so. I was supposed to be where I was.
L-R; Ron Alldredge, Paula Alldredge, Judy Walker, Bruce Walker, Tyler Trickey, Jay Selman
Some time later, I was speaking about this encounter with the president of a major warbird association. He summed up his feelings on the subject in this way. He said, “I remind my pilots that we are all stewards of history. We bring the past to life, and the spectators who turn out to see us deserve to learn something from us. That is part of what we should all be doing.”
Clearly, Ron Alldredge understands this. And now, in some small way, so do I. If one warbird driver reads this and, as a result, makes a difference to someone else by virtue of a random act of kindness, no matter how small, then I will have achieved something useful here.
Thank you for visiting. I will endeavor to bring you photos—and articles of interest—updated on a regular, if not daily, basis. I welcome your feedback.