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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"Only thing you got to be cautious about is on them spins you got to have patience. I just wouldn't spin no plane at all unless I was up about 14,000. You just lay that stick over and let it go. It'll come out, all right. But when you get down to about 6,000, if it ain't come out yet, then you better climb out. I wonder, what is inside them old parachutes?"

At the shows, Roscoe flies the Mustang in the next phase of things—a pylon race, involving it and four other fighters, the Corsair, Hellcat, Lightning and Wildcat. "We got it worked out where the Wildcat is the comedian of the bunch," Nolen says. "He cuts across and stuff like that." The Corsair usually wins. "That's because old Clyde Elliott can turn that thing like he's landing on a carrier deck." Fresh from winning the race, the Corsair then participates in a dogfight with the Hellcat as the next part of the program. During these air frolics, there is a show-must-go-on tradition. In Dallas recently Clyde Elliott confided in Nolen, "I think my Corsair's got a hydraulic leak." "Aw, that's O.K.," Nolen said. "It'll go away."

The show closes, after more than three hours, with Lloyd Nolen himself putting the sturdy Bearcat through an exhaustive display of acrobatics—vertical rolls, excruciatingly low-level inverted passes and consecutive slow rolls. All of the colonels agree that this act matches the hottest plane with the best stunt pilot, and they are among the most absorbed spectators in the whole crowd.

Three of the fighters are difficult to work into the act. They are the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-63E and the P-38. "They simply aren't as maneuverable as the others," Nolen explains, "but they are among the ones people are always asking us to bring to shows." The P-47 is flown by an ex-Thunderbolt veteran, Ed Payne, a Dodge dealer in neighboring Weslaco who had 102 missions in Europe during the war. The P-63E normally is piloted by Ernie Young, who has a flying school in the valley. "Colonel Culpeper, by all rights," says Nolen, "should have given Ernie a Silver Magnolia Blossom for a ride in the P-63E from Mercedes to Randolph Field in San Antonio. The thing sprung a fuel leak, and Ernie's legs were soaked in the cockpit, but he brought her in. Just one tiny spark and...."

To keep the colonels from having too many unusual incidents, because of stunting or otherwise, they have a widely respected and enormously experienced pilot among them who admits, "I don't particularly like flying upside down." He is Dick Disney, the Federal Aviation Agency's examiner for the area. Oldest of the group at 48, Disney has 30 years' flying experience behind him. He was a C-47 transport pilot during the war, and for 11 years after that he was a captain for Northwest Air Lines. He is the Rebels' checkout man and the only pilot who flies all nine fighters.

Of the colonels, Disney says: "They are all very good pilots. There is no doubt in my mind that any of them could fly any of these planes, but a lot of them don't want to take the time to learn cockpit management. They have all the fun they want to in just one or two of them, the ones they piloted during the war. They take them home to show their friends and keep them for a week or two. Things like that."

The colonels rely on Disney for other valuable help. He plays the piano and the ukulele as easily as he flies the planes, and he is frequently called upon at the Officers' Club, a two-story building located about one Whifferdill from the hangars, to lead the colonels and their wives in a chorus of Yellow Rose of Texas or, later in the evening, in some of the airmen's more notable—and less printable—songs such as Save a Fighter Pilot and I Wanted Wings.

Things would be swell for the Confederate Air Force if all the colonels had to do was sing their songs on Saturday night and loop their loops on Sunday afternoon. But there is that money problem. The Rebel bank account often dips lower than Roscoe Norman in the Mustang. Says Nolen: "We can keep these planes up for 25 years, but it's going to take money. We may have to start charging for the shows. We need parts badly. And it looks like the only way we can get them is to buy up other old fighters—if we can find them. We also need a good place to store the planes. A real museum on the ground. Something nice where we can have plaques made up giving their history, where visitors can climb in them. This could be the best tourist attraction in the valley." Nolen, who is dangerously close to becoming the Flo Ziegfeld of the Rio Grande, has one other fling in mind. "When we get us a Spitfire and Messerschmitt," he says, "we'll dress them up in their old war paint and insignia. Then at shows we can chase the 109 and shoot him down. He can pull a stall-out and a spin, maybe release some smoke, and have a sky diver bail out. Wouldn't that be sensational?" Yes sir, Colonel, it sure would. A man ought to be awarded the Silver Magnolia Blossom just for thinking up such a thing.

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