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Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Rode in a Stearman WWII-era Plane Today

Blue sky, plenty of sunshine, a pilot willing to share his BT-13 Stearman, and me with anticipation spilling out at the thrill of riding in an open cockpit, 2-seater plane - what a day! It was an awesome experience!

David Hughston, the pilot, chairs the annual air show, the Air Fiesta, at the Brownsville Airport. He's also the finance officer of the Rio Grande Valley Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). The Stearman is his plane. (Photo at left.)

As we taxied out to the runway, a sense of adventure filled me. I've never been in an open-cockpit before and here I was in the front seat - up close and personal with all the working parts of the plane.

As we left the ground, I thought I understood those pilots who decades ago flew these planes. There's a closeness and an openness that hits you at the same time. The thrill of flying is magnified when the wind hits your face and grit gets in your eyes.

The Stearman served as a training plane during the war. Even as those young pilots trained and experienced the beauty of flight, they knew they had a graver purpose. They knew the danger. That's something I couldn't even imagine as I looked up at the blue sky and down at the city below.

Tom Santos, wing leader for the Rio Grande Valley Wing, and his wife Kate invited me to ride in a flyover for a Salute to the Troops celebration at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

We arrived at the CAF building at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport before 9am. As Tom prepped his plane, Kate took me through the museum. In addition to the aircraft and vehicles, the museum houses numerous artifacts from WWII. Focused on the role that Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley played in the war, the artifacts are varied and beautifully displayed.

An entire display case is dedicated to actual newspapers printed during the war with headlines like: "Japs Attack Pearl Harbor."

World-famous aviators flew in and out of here. I saw a picture of Charles Lindbergh when he landed at the airport. His famous landing in 1929, the first non-stop flight from Mexico City to a US city, proved the speed and efficiency of airmail. Another photo shows the many planes lining the runway waiting to greet him on this historic flight.

Amelia Earhart was in the crowd that day. She earned her pilot's license in Brownsville. Both she and Howard Hughes frequently landed here.

Pan American Airways based their WWII operations out of the Brownsville Airport.

These are just a few of the facts I learned as we waited. I only touched the surface. I'm going back. The museum is a fantastic resource and I encourage everyone to visit and experience the history of this corner of Texas. The museum is another story...

The CAF will host Air Fiesta 2010 on the weekend of March 13 and 14. I plan to be there. Before then, I plan to spend some quality time in the museum learning the history and enjoying all the photos and displays.

Oh yes, Tom's plane is an L-17, made during the Korean War. But that's another story...

A third pilot, Ed Mishou, prepped his plane, a small red and silver Ercoupe. Ed is retired Air Force and serves as the Wing's Adjutant Officer. For some reason, he didn't fly with us. Ed and his plane are another story...

A big thank you to Tom, Kate and David for making my day!

Stay tuned for more stories about this treasure chest of history called the Rio Grande Valley Wing, Commemorative Air Force Musuem. Check out for more info.

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