SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
August 12, 1963
Out of the sun-bleached skies above Texas' vast Rio Grande Valley comes the whine and snarl of aerial ghosts, a priceless handful of World War II fighter planes rescued from rusty oblivion by a group of drawling, nostalgic pilots
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August 12, 1963

The Confederate Air Force Flies At Last

Out of the sun-bleached skies above Texas' vast Rio Grande Valley comes the whine and snarl of aerial ghosts, a priceless handful of World War II fighter planes rescued from rusty oblivion by a group of drawling, nostalgic pilots

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The thing that made the scavenger hunt for the fighters extremely difficult was a U.S. Government policy that hampered their sale for private use—plus the fact that the planes are almost extinct. It has taken six years for the colonels to collect nine fighters, two AT-6 trainers and a useless B-25 Mitchell bomber, which sort of sits around looking like 30 Seconds over Mexico .

They obtained the P-40—one of only two flyable War-hawks left in the world, Nolen believes—-from a man in Chicago. They found the Corsair being led to a cremating pit by a junk dealer in Arizona. The P-38 came from an aerial survey company in Sacramento, Calif. They advertised for the Wildcat and Hellcat and purchased them from private owners in Florida and California. There are no Republic P-47 Thunderbolts left in the U.S., and the Rebels did not find one until this year. It came, fully armed, from the Nicaraguan Air Force. "They wouldn't let us get it until after a recent election," says Nolen. "They felt they might need it." The P-63E came from the Honduras Air Force.

Nor are the Rebels done. "What we want now," Nolen says, "is a British Spitfire, a Japanese Zero and a Messerschmitt Me-109. I don't believe there's a Zero left anywhere, but we have a line on a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt."

It is doubtful if the addition of any foreign antiques will make the Confederate Air Force more in demand than it already is. Performing for traveling expenses and fuel costs, the Rebels have suddenly found themselves wildly popular. One hundred thousand spectators turned out at Houston's Ellington Field earlier this year for a show in which the colonels participated. When they staged their first full-scale exhibition for the home folks in Mercedes in March, the excitement heaped automobiles along 15 miles of Highway 83, creating traffic jams in three towns. "We get requests all the time," Nolen says, "but all of us have to work. It's hard for us to get away together. Then, too, it's expensive. We don't take anything out of the admissions that the shows charge, although we raised a little maintenance money with our own show by getting $1 per car. The sponsors sometimes don't realize how much it costs for us to perform. Every time you roll out that Bearcat, you can mark up 90 gallons." One gallon of fuel costs 40�.

Not all of the requests Nolen receives are for the colonels to put their planes through what they cheerfully describe as Beauregard Flips, Whifferdills and Do-wa-ditties—Confederate Air Force terminology for barrel rolls, Immelmans, loops, Cuban 8s, spins and inverted passes. Nolen has a letter from the vigorously patriotic manager of a power plant in India who also heads the voluntary force for the country's home guard. "I am particularly keen to start your type of organization," he wrote. "You must read in the papers about Chinese aggression on India."

The Rebels begin their shows as if they might be heading for India. All nine fighters take off and orbit the field in close formation, which is more difficult than it sounds because of the lack of radios. "We read lips," Nolen says. Then, one by one, the fighters dip across the runway and are identified by the announcer. The opening number is followed by a strenuous exhibition of acrobatics featuring the Wildcat, which is usually piloted by Henry Gardner, a crop sprayer from Kenedy, Texas, and the P-40, with either Bob Kenny of Mercedes or Joe Jones of Rio Hondo in the cockpit. Kenny is an executive with the Magic Valley Electric Co-op. Jones, another crop duster, got the first Silver Magnolia Blossom for bringing down the Warhawk safely—or fairly safely—in a pasture full of brush. The citation explained the incident. "Col. Jones," it reads, "had just completed a Beauregard Flip, a set of Whifferdills and had entered into a Do-wa-dittie in an inverted position when the forebysider inadvertently disengaged the hemmingway creating a pressure between the thermoclaxon and the retro-clutch, severing the cotton pickin' franistan...and the engine quit." The P-40 took out a barbed-wire fence, broke the prop and frightened a few jackrabbits. But that is the nearest the colonels have come to losing one of the planes—or one of their colonels.

When the Warhawk and the Wildcat are finished, the script quite properly permits the famous Mustang to do a single. No one is more comfortable in the P-51 than husky Roscoe Norman, who is Nolen's chief pilot and also the head mechanic. Norman has been flying since he was 13. "I'd fly a kite if I could climb up there on it," he says. "I just like it. It's real fun, man."

It is sometimes even more fun for Roscoe's wife, Jean, and his children, who live near Rebel Field. His family is accustomed to having Roscoe do a separate show right over his own yard each time he goes up in either the Mustang or one of the bi-wing Stearman sprayers. In the Stearman he will drag the wheels through the crops, bounce over trees and glide beneath telephone wires. In the Mustang he will buzz the house at 200 miles per hour, upside down.

The P-51 has been converted into a two-seater so that any adventurer who loiters around Rebel Field long enough is likely to be talked into strapping on a frayed, khaki parachute and climbing foolishly into the jump seat. "We'll only bank once around the field and then come down," Roscoe will say. "But if anything goes wrong, don't worry. Just putchee hand in that ring on the chute, I'll lift-chee out over the right side, and then you jerk that dude open after you count three."

Almost before the passenger realizes it, and certainly before he has digested the deluxe Mexican lunch from Arturo's over in Nuevo Progreso, the Mustang is spiraling straight up over the valley. Roscoe is glancing back and smiling deceptively, the plane is rolling and the valley is a jumbled puzzle of green and black squares below. He dives toward the rows of cotton, pulls up heroically and makes the Mustang hop over fences like a motorboat crashing into waves. Roscoe then takes aim on the chimney of his house. But he banks away at the last precious instant and begins a heady routine of slow rolls. The runway is a distant, awkward speck. There is a sharp, twisting sensation; the passenger realizes the plane has now flipped over and Roscoe is making an upside-down pass over the field. Even a nonflyer understands that a parachute is not much good at an altitude of 50 feet. In one confusing blur the pass is ended, and the sky and the palms and the fields are no longer a violent escapade in modern art. Roscoe assumes a saner posture for landing and sets the plane down soft as a moth. The astonishing part for the passenger is that—once it is over—he is apt to become an applicant for a Rebel commission instead of a straitjacket. "Said you'd like it," says Roscoe Norman, more than a bit delighted with himself.

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