The first weekend of May saw the annual Planes of Fame Airshow at Chino Airport, California, take place. Often described as one of the best airshows in the country, it was an event GAR Deputy Editor, Elliott Marsh, and GAR writer, Kieran Lear, couldn’t afford to miss. In part one of GAR’s coverage, Kieran reports from the days leading up to this illustrious airshow, with photographs as credited.
Seeds had been planted in my mind about volunteering at the Planes of Fame Airshow at the peak of last year’s airshow season, and come Spring 2014, Elliott and I were on our way to California for our first experience of working at an airshow. Flying into Los Angeles on the Saturday before the show, and immediately setting eyes on the Planes of Fame Air Museum on the Sunday during an initial, impromptu visit, I realised why I had made the effort to travel 5,000+ miles. Greeting us, somewhat surprisingly, were the Boeing P-26 Peashooter, Seversky AT-12, Northrop N9M “Flying Wing” and North American P-51B Mustang ‘Boise Bee’ amongst other seldom seen vintage machines, collectively stored lovingly in the same hangar. It was a dream for both Elliott and I, I just wish we had footage of our initial reaction in opening those doors, but alas memories and word of mouth will have to suffice.
Immediately from the get-go, the warmth and hospitality that greeted the both of us from the volunteers and workers at the Planes of Fame Air Museum was apparent – within moments of walking into one of the hangars, we had been greeted by a volunteer and given a three hour tour of the place. It’s a different world, almost, in California than it is in the most of Europe, the UK specifically. You almost feel obliged to keep yourself to yourself when wandering around Hangar 2 at IWM Duxford, for example, and you haven’t got the opportunity to mingle with – and speak to – pilots, crews or engineers as you do at Chino, where people seem to go the extra mile to make you feel at home and engage you. It’s a shame opportunities like that can’t be repeated with well-established organisations like the Aircraft Restoration Company and The Fighter Collection, but I am sure they, as well as us, are aware that in order to keep these fabulous machines in the air, the youth need to be inspired and trusted to be allowed to keep the memory of the aircraft and, most importantly, offer a living reminder of the brave men and women who went to war in them.
With both Elliott and I offering somewhat limited expertise in the knowledge of maintaining warbirds, we spent the majority of the week making ourselves acquainted with some of the machines Planes of Fame houses and integrating with the team we would be working alongside come the airshow weekend. Due to sandstorms curtailing any planned flying activity on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning before the show, it was a case of seeking refuge in the hangars and having to cope with the view of F-86s, P-51s and some truly unique warbirds, such as the aforementioned AT-12, F7F Tigercat, soon to be airworthy P-59 and P-51A ‘Mrs Virginia’. I know, it’s a tough life, but someone has to watch over them! It was either that or suffer having your eyes torn out by sand outside. Quite alarmingly, one of the shop workers was overheard saying that by day two of the sandstorms it wasn’t actually dust blowing across the airport, but cow faeces. You think about that now.
Thankfully the winds calmed by Thursday afternoon and after a lunch at Flo’s airport cafe (where your Deputy Editor was roundly defeated by a stack of pancakes) it was all hands-on-deck, as Operation “Remove Chino Beach” commenced, and some of the aircraft were washed down in preparation to move down to the Ramp. The state the dust had left some of the aircraft in, anyone would have thought they had been sharing a crypt with Tutankhamun! The Hinton family deserve some recognition here, I feel. Firstly, Planes of Fame President, Steve Hinton, was seen offering his expertise from anything to washing down aircraft, helping with the undercarriage on the P-47 and even asking two Brit volunteers if they needed help sweeping up the sand. John Hinton, Steve’s brother and another acclaimed warbird pilot, was seen towing aircraft to and fro, working from the crack of dawn to well past sunset. Karen Hinton went out of her way to supply all hard working volunteers with complimentary ice creams, and Steven Hinton was seen working on P-51D Mustang ‘Spam Can/Dolly’ but also refuelling, oiling and test-flying aircraft throughout the weekend. God bless the Hintons; I didn’t hear one bad word said about any of the family for the whole duration of our trip.
Throughout the afternoon, the pace quickened and we were treated to some aircraft arrivals, namely the USAF F-22 Raptor Demo Team, who went on to treat the volunteers to a nice 15 minute beat up of the airfield. Also seeing sunlight and towed across from the opposite side of the airport were Comanche Fighters’ trio of North American P-51 Mustangs: ‘Fragile But Agile’, ‘February’ and ‘Double Trouble Two’. These three would form one half of the Bremont Horsemen Flight Team stable for the weekend, with the three F-86s, one belonging to Planes of Fame and the other two Comanche Fighters, completing the line-up of Bremont Horsemen aircraft.
Also breaking cover was Curtiss P-47G Thunderbolt ‘SNAFU’, belonging to Comanche Fighters. ‘SNAFU’ was to be the centre-point of the weekend as the theme for the airshow was to be ‘A salute to the Mighty Eighth’. It was also unique in that Planes of Fame were honoured to have the only two airworthy “razorback” P-47s, in both ‘SNAFU’ and ‘Spirit of Atlantic City’, the latter of which gained new clothes for the airshow.
Friday was the official preview day for the photographers and it also allowed volunteers the first chance to see what the weekend’s antics would bring. For Elliott, myself and fellow Brit John Sanderson, himself a volunteer of The Fighter Collection and Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar back in the UK, we were working on the ‘hot ramp’. Yes, live, moving warbirds, some truly unique, would be placed into the care of a handful of volunteers. It was an opportunity both Elliott and I agreed was daunting, but we were hugely honoured to have been granted the opportunity. You know the scale of severity of your job when you see Elliott sprint to beat an F6F Hellcat back to its parking position so he could find out where to marshal the pilot; did I mention California gave us plenty of firsts?!
Chino is a small airport which sees plenty of GA and business activity, so for practice displays, the airspace was handed to Planes of Fame in two segments; the first between 1300 and 1430, and then 1500 to 1630. A number of performers practiced their exemplary routines, starting with Sean D. Tucker in his Oracle Challenger, whose routine has to be seen to believed. The Bremont Horsemen Flight Team also performed practice displays, firstly in F-86F Sabres, before shifting to their more usual mount in the P-51 Mustang, for the start of the second section later in the afternoon. For your author, seeing three F-86s performing aerobatics, ‘hooligan passes’ and expertly flown formation manoeuvres was the highlight of the trip and it had been no secret in the weeks leading up to the show, this was the sure to be the highlight of my excursion.
Following the awe of the Horsemen’s F-86 routine, Steve Hinton, Dan Friedkin and Ed Shipley performed a majestic, if somewhat disjointed, routine in the P-51s later in the proceedings. The bonafide highlight had to be Friedkin and Shipley caning, and I really mean caning, down the runway at mere feet above the deck. It was an incredible piece of flying. Dan Friedkin and Steve Hinton, in particular, also formed part of the Heritage Flight practice with the pilots flying P-51 ‘February’ and P-47G ‘SNAFU’ alongside Kevin Eldridge P-38 ‘23 Skidoo’ and Capt. John “Taboo” Cummings in the USAF F-22 Raptor.
One particular pass where the four aircraft flew over the crowd, before splitting at two intervals, certainly got the heart pumping and a sense of admiration lingered over this Brit. It’s no secret that our British attitude often berates the American patriotism, but you can’t fault our friends’ respect and pride for their servicemen and women. It begs the question; why can’t the RAF do something similar? A four ship routine of Spitfire, Hurricane, Hunter and Eurofighter Typhoon set to Lesley Garrett’s impeccable rendition of Jerusalem wouldn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
With flying ceasing at 1630, it was time to make the airport at Chino look like an airshow showground, and that meant setting crowdline barriers, pushing aircraft into the correct parking spaces and directing visiting aircraft to their correct places.
It was long past sunset when we could relax, have a beer and reflect on the past day’s activities. Even after dark, aircraft were being moved around and preparations for the following morning continued apace. Being a small part of the pre-show build-up, helping out in whatever way we could, gave us a valuable insight into what it takes to put together an event of this scale. The Planes of Fame team didn’t have an easy ride – the sandstorms having taken a good chunk out of the schedule, effectively squeezing three days’ preparation into one day – but everyone rallied around and drove forward as a team. To have been accepted into that Chino family is a great honour.
By close of business on Friday, an awesome selection of historic hardware had been assembled on the two ramps – Alpha, home to some 11 Mustangs, two Kittyhawks and three Sabres, amongst others, and Delta, the Naval pan which was also home to the Thunderbolts and Lightning for the weekend. Looking along the line, you couldn’t help but be blown away by the vista – almost a dozen P-51s, from the A model to the D, pairs of P-40s, Avengers and Corsairs, three Grumman Cats in the shape of the Wildcat, Hellcat and Tigercat, and single examples of the Dauntless, Zero, ‘Val’ replica and Spitfire Mk.XIV. Further away sat the heavies – two B-17s, three B-25s, three C-47s and a Privateer. On static, the Peashooter and a visiting Skyhawk. Quite the world-class line-up, I’m sure you’ll agree, and one which had us genuinely excited for the following day’s flying display.
The weekend soon dawned, with Elliott and I both working on the Alpha hot ramp on Saturday. Elliott then opted to watch the air display in its entirety from crowd-side on Sunday – his review of this excellent event will follow in the next few days.