Battle Of Midway Practice Session

by Mar 15, 2009Airshows, FAA, History, Second World War, War Aircraft



The week before the Battle of Midway practice session had been a hectic one. I had to prepare for a deposition in Alabama, fly to Alabama meet with the client and co-counsel, take the deposition and then return home. Arriving back in Atlanta late on a Friday evening with the Midway practice session set for Sunday, I decided the best thing for me to do was to drop by the office on Saturday and run through the Battle of Midway aerial script and Flight Sequence Schedule one more time so that I could brief the pilots, our pyrotechnic personnel, air boss and announcers.


As I dropped by the office on Saturday, March 21, 2009, I once again reviewed the FAA Certificate of Waiver authorizing the practice session at the airport in Thomaston (OPN), Georgia. In going over the Certificate of Waiver, it occurred to me that there were quite a number of items to be accomplished to comply with the Waiver. The Waiver said that I was responsible for satisfying the safety concerns of the FAA in relation to this rehearsal activity. Believe me, that is not something you take lightly. My concern was not so much that something untoward might occur. My concern was that we might miss a step or fail to check off a square and technically be in violation of the FAA Certificate of Waiver. In true pilot form, I decided to make a checklist. The checklist concerned (1) the 500 foot line, (2) how to identify it, (3) the fact that we had a burn permit, (4) the fact that all pilots signed the Participants’ Statement, (5) the fact that all pilots were briefed, the fact that our pyrotechnic personnel were briefed, and (6) that fact that our air boss was briefed. The Participant’s Statement is an FAA form pilots sign at every air show and includes a series of questions including: (1) date of last medical exam, (2) date of last flight review, (3) date of last air show appearance, (4) whether the pilot has a formation card, (5) whether the pilot has a low altitude aerobatic waiver, and (6) date the pilot’s parachute was repacked. This might sound like a simple matter. It was not. It was not a simple matter because I had to meet with the pilots at the Dixie Wing for a 12:00 o’clock briefing and brief them on the fight sequence schedule. This briefing took the better part of 45 minutes. We then had to brief our formation flight from Falcon Field to Thomaston. We then flew to Thomaston in two elements of two with Keith Wood in the LT-6 flying on my wing and Jack Van Ness in the Zero flying on the wing of Jim Buckley in Buckley’s SNJ-5 Texan. As one might expect, our arrival over the active runway at Thomaston consisted of a 360° overhead approach followed by a break to landing. Jim and Jack were so close behind Keith and me as we turned downwind after our break, we had to extend our downwind leg while Jim and Jack did their overhead break. As we landed on Runway 12, one could see that there were quite a few people assembled for this free air show. The first practice session was set to begin at 3:00 p.m. And by the time I got out of the Kate, it was about 1:30 or 1:45. We only had about an hour to make sure all the requirements of the Certificate of Waiver were satisfied, to brief with the airport manager, the air boss and the pyrotechnic personnel as well as the pilots and then mount up and launch this mini air show. Mike Van Wie agreed to be our air boss, since he is a retired air traffic controller and functions as the air boss at the DeKalb- Peachtree Airport Good Neighbor Day air show every year. As I walked into the terminal building, I met Mitch Ellerbee for the fist time. We discussed the 500 foot line, and he assured me that the compass rose was 500 feet from the spectators. As long as we flew down the center line of the runway, we would have about 1,000 feet lateral separation between our aircraft and the spectators. As I recall, fire department personnel were on hand. The pyrotechnic personnel were across the way in the grassy area on the north side of the field, and John Eggett, our pyrotechnic lead, arrived for the briefing as well. We had a very large conference room within which to assemble the multitudes. Joe Fagundes had flown his SNJ over to Thomaston despite the fact that he had flown another aircraft earlier in the day in the Thunder in Valley Air Show in Columbus, Georgia. Eventually, we got all of our pilots, Jim Buckley, Keith Wood, Jack Van Ness, Joe Fagundes and the undersigned in the briefing room along with our air boss, our two air show announcers, Mitch Ellerbe (airport manager) and Pop Wilson, the Operations Officer of the Dixie Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, and then we had a briefing. I believe the briefing began around 2:00 o’clock. First of all, I gave everyone the “Big Picture” on a flip chart. I explained that the American airplanes would be to the north and the Japanese Airplanes would be to the south. While the Pearl Harbor attack would be down Runway 30, I had planned for the Battle of Midway attack to be down Runway 12 while the American Airplanes were taking off on Runway 30. However, the prevailing winds that day were out of the east, which meant that we had to alter our flight path so that the Midway attack would be down Runway 30 while the American aircraft took off on Runway 12 directly in our face. After getting the Big Picture conveyed, we got into the details of how this thing was going to happen. Mike Van Wie said that it was his belief that the show would flow better if the pilots took care of sequencing themselves. The Flight Sequence Schedule was very complicated, and he felt we could better call our maneuvers and departures ourselves as opposed to relying upon him. That is not necessarily what I expected to happen at the briefing, but as time went on, Mike turned out to be right. John Eggett gave us his briefing on the explosive devices that would be below us. Most of the bomb explosions would be fairly small. There would be one large bomb explosion for the climatic part of the story where the Dauntless destroys a Japanese aircraft carrier. We then had to select a discrete frequency where we could talk without interfering with local air traffic control functions. As we were briefing, there were sky diving operations underway, and we were concerned about whether or not the sky divers would quit when the airport shutdown for our Battle of Midway practice sessions.

 SNJ-5 Texan


In no time at all, it was 2:45, and time to mount up and go fly the airplanes. Just as we were about to start engines, sky divers were still coming down. I made my way to the office where the sky diving operation was based. Thankfully, the sky divers had gotten the word, they were doing their last jump just before our Battle of Midway flight practice session began. Jack and I started our engines about 2:55 and taxied out for Runway 12. We took off and flew to the south, came back and turned north and made our two passes down Runway 30 and 12 respectively. It was then time for the B-25 to attack Tokyo, but there was no B-25. We then went into the Midway attack sequence where Jack and I flew down Runway 30 while the American Aircraft took off in the opposite direction down Runway 12. This was quite interesting. As I raced down the right side of the runway setting myself off to the north from the air American fighter plans, over the roar of my engine, I could hear the propellers and engine sounds of the two airplanes flown by Jim Buckley and Jeff Fagundes. After our first pass, Jack and I circled to the northwest and then made a teardrop turn back to Runway 12. In no time, Jim Buckley was on my tail as an American fighter plane attacking my Japanese bomber. As I recall, I blew smoke and departed to the south. After Jack and I attacked Midway, Keith Wood flying the LT-6 impersonating a Dauntless dive bomber took off to be escorted by Jim Buckley and Joe Fagundes. Jim and Joe flew overhead as Keith took off down Runway 12. They joined up to simulate the flight to the Japanese Task Force. Then, Jim had to break away from the formation so I could shoot him down, since Jim’s SNJ Texan was to symbolize an American Avenger torpedo bomber. After the Avenger was shot down, it was immediately time for the Dauntless to drop its bomb on the Japanese aircraft carrier, following which Jack and I returned as Japanese aircraft from the aircraft carrier Hiryu attacking the American aircraft carrier Yorktown. After we attacked the Yorktown, Jack and I turned to the north so the American fighter planes could get on our tails and we flew down the active runway blowing smoke. Afterwards, the American aircraft joined up for a formation flight down the runway. They then broke formation and landed. Then Jack and I landed afterwards.

fighter, 3 Bombers


As we expected, there was a bit of dead air time in our first practice session. The first practice session took about 34 minutes. There were times when our air boss was lost. For example, he wanted to launch the American fighter planes when we attacked Pearl Harbor. That was not in the Flight Sequence Schedule. I can recall on the Pearl Harbor attack down Runway 30 Mike saying: “Do I launch the American fighters now?” I came back on the radio and said: “No, this is Pearl Harbor – – not Midway.” If our air boss was getting lost in the Flight Sequence Schedule, I think the same thing was true for our air show announcers. At least, that is my impression of what they said after we got down from flying. What we decided to do was to have the pilots coordinate their own flying and let the air boss monitor it. In fact, since I wrote this little drama in the sky, we decided the best thing to do would be for me to call the events myself while flying. So I have effectively become the director in addition to the writer of this aerial ballet. One more thing we learned was that placing Jack and me to the south of the airport in the area of a downwind leg was too far from the action. We had to be able to get in and out of the battle areas more quickly. We also had to stay closer to the airport so that we could be seen. What this meant was that we would loiter at a point of 45° offset from the extended center line of the parting runway at about 1,500 feet. Then, when we were called in, all we had to do was turn to the runway, stay north of the crowd line, buildup our airspeed, then come down for our low passes. One more thing we decided to do was to physically walk through the Flight Sequence Schedule on the ground so that all concerned (the pilots, the air boss and the announcers) all knew what was going on. We walked through Flight Sequence Schedule twice before the second rehearsal session.

North American T-6 and SNJ Texan Chevron


The second rehearsal session was much like the first except that we had pyrotechnics. The pyrotechnics made the flying more interesting. One vivid memory I do have of the second practice session was that of being about 200 feet behind Jim Buckley’s aircraft. At one point, I was overtaking him, and I had to retard the throttle to such an extent that the landing gear warning horn sounded. The Kate decelerated and I stayed in position behind Jim giving the impression of a Japanese aircraft shooting down an American aircraft. Generally, the second practice session was much tighter and crisper. People were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. The second practice session took about 22 minutes as opposed to 34 minutes for the first. A lot of dead air time had been eliminated as a result of the debriefing from the first practice session.


The second debrief confirmed what we knew and that was that the second practice session had been much more successful than the first. The flying was tighter, the scheduling was tighter, and there was no dead air time. Joe Fagundes did note that by keeping our airspeed slower we kept closer to the airport, so the audience could see more of us. In fact, that had been covered during the first debrief. Using slower airspeeds while fighting kept us closer to the airport environment so the audience could see what we were doing.


After our second debrief, it was time for all of these air battle reenactors to make their way back home. I flew back in formation with Jim Buckley as his number 2 while Jack Van Ness flew a loose number 3. We came down over Runway 13 at Falcon Field with me on Jim’s left wing. We made our 360 overhead approach followed by break to landing to the right, landed and put our birds away. By the time all the airplanes were cleaned up and put in the barn, I believe it was nearly 7:30 p.m. It had been a long day. The benefit of the practice sessions at Thomaston were that our pilots and other personnel got a handle on how the Battle of Midway Flight Sequence Schedule is going to work. The practice session was also recorded by a local television station. Matt Jolley, a pilot and journalist flew to Thomaston from Macon to record the practice session and interview me. In between the first and second practice sessions, Matt met me at the wing of the Kate, had a cameraman climb aboard, pinned a microphone on me and interviewed me about why we were reenacting the Battle of Midway. I explained to Matt that we reenact the Battle of Midway to honor veterans who gave their lives at a time when America’s back was against the wall. The Japanese had conquered vast areas in Southeast Asia and the Western and Central Pacific during the first six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. With the impending showdown at Midway Island, the Japanese had roughly two hundred and eighty ships while the Americans had about eighty ships. If the Japanese had conquered Midway Island, nothing would have prevented them from invading Hawaii and even attacking the west coast of the United States. The devotion, courage and self-sacrifice of American airmen, sailors and marines during the Battle of Midway caused a dramatic shift in naval and airpower in the Pacific with the destruction of three Japanese aircraft carriers. Besides interviewing me about the Battle of Midway reenactment, Matt also got a brief interview about the Transportation Security Administration’s Large Aircraft Security Program.


The Battle of Midway practice session was an opportunity for all those participating to find out how to work together. For example, we found that it was simpler for me to call the next sequence from the airplane rather than for the air boss to do so, because I had a more complete appreciation of the script and Flight Sequence Schedule. By the same token, we found that the pilots communicating directly to each other was a far more efficient method to adjust our flight paths as opposed to waiting on the air boss. For example, a pilot who is going to get on the tail of another airplane may need more time and may need to have the aircraft in front of him widen its turn radius to give him more time to effect the intercept. So pilot communication was more meaningful in our aerial choreography than radio transmissions from the air boss. This was true because we could see what was happening before the air boss could. Our seeing the need to make an adjustment and calling out this need over radio was a much quicker way of adjusting our performance than waiting for the air boss to recognize what was happening and issue appropriate instructions. We also found that the best place for the “perch” of the Japanese airplanes was not perpendicular to the runway but at about forty five degrees from the extended centerline of the runway. A forty-five degree offset from the departure end of the runway allows the Japanese aircraft to shuttle in and out more quickly as opposed to a ninety degree point perpendicular from the runway. This is true because being offset forty-five degrees from the active runway centerline requires a shorter flight path to effect a pass on the runway or to effect an interception of an opposing American airplane. At the time this summary of the practice session is being written, we still have to master the development and production of the music and sound effects that will be associated with the Battle of Midway air battle reenactment which I have described as “theater in the skies.” Pulling this act together is no small task. It involves a lot of components and activities that must be carefully crafted and coordinated in order to make a convincing performance. This act will debut at Warner Robins Air Force Base on May 2-3, 2009, and I plan for everything and everyone to be ready.

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