May 15, 2010 8:14:00 PM
Peter Imes - [email protected]
I''ve logged quite a few hours in aircraft over the past 24 hours, but unfortunately I didn''t earn any frequent flyer miles. Columbus Air Force Base is been hosting Wings Over Columbus, an air show and open house for the base, this weekend, and I''ve taken advantage of a couple of media events.
One was the opportunity to go up with the U.S. Army Golden Knights, a parachute team largely made up of Army Paratroopers. On Friday morning I called CAFB''s office of public affairs and requested to fly along with the Golden Knights. Sonic Johnson, chief of public affairs at CAFB, informed me there was still space with the Knights on Saturday, and that there was also space to fly with the Tora Tora Tora crew later Friday afternoon, at Golden Triangle Regional Airport. I quickly agreed to fly with the Tora crew too.
Tora Tora Tora is a recreation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The performance involves a combination of the aircraft in flight and a major pyrotechnics display on the ground.
The aircraft in town this weekend were donated to the Commemorative Air Force by the 20th Century Fox movie studio. The planes are Japanese Zero replicas that were used in the filming of the Oscar-winning 1970 movie, "Tora! Tora! Tora!"
The Tora group does anywhere from 12 to 15 shows each year. They work with an all-volunteer crew of pilots, ground crew, explosion experts and maintenance personnel. Patrick Hutchens has been a Tora pilot since 2004, and I was assigned to his plane since his plane had a rear seat that faced backwards. Since he was the lead plane, I would be able to easily film and photograph the other planes behind us.
Four planes took off during my flight. The planes take off in pairs, so the plane I was in lined up on the runway with another Zero and we took off side by side. The other two planes took off right behind us. From GTR we flew in formation east over the Riverwalk, then, coincidentally, over my house near the intersection of Military and 5th Avenue North. Little did I know but my wife and children happened to be outside as we flew overhead. They looked up and speculated that I was in one of the planes.
We turned south, passed over APAC and then headed back to GTR at about 130 mph. Three of our planes stayed in a triangle formation while the fourth alternated between flying in formation with us and doing some aerial acrobatics.
Facing backwards I noticed that pilots in each plane flanking us never took their eyes off our plane. Once on the ground, Patrick explained that they do that for a couple of reasons. The others rely on the lead plane for navigation. Wherever he goes, they go. Also, by visually lining up the lead plane''s wing tip and side exhaust, all planes remain in perfect formation.
Each plane did a sharp bank when coming in at GTR, which made me glad I had eaten a relatively light lunch. The planes landed one by one, with a mere three-second window between each touchdown.
On Saturday a little before noon, I reported to the media tent at the air show. From there, I was picked up by a sporty electric vehicle and taken to the Golden Knights'' Fokker C-31A Troopship, which is a dual-engine turboprop.
We loaded on the plane and were briefed by Sgt. Dan Cook, a member of the jump team. He informed us that we would be climbing to an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet. He also mentioned that since the temperature at 13,000 feet was about 20 degrees Farenheit today, I would need a jacket.
As the team prepared to jump, I looked out of the open door and saw the Tora team doing their performance about 12,000 feet below. I could see them swoop down near the crowd while explosions went off along the runways. It was pretty awesome -- even from a couple of miles above.
I was seated next to one of the open jump doors at the rear of the plane. At one point Sgt. Cook came over to me and had me shift in my seat toward the door so I could stick my arm way out of the plane. It was all I could do keep my arm perpendicular to the plane. "That''s how it feels the whole way down," he shouted. I could already somewhat relate. As proof of my love for my wife, I took her skydiving a couple of years ago for Valentine''s Day. She had always wanted to go, but leaping out of a perfectly good plane had always seemed a bit unnatural to me. It was all I could do to breathe as I was falling toward Earth, so I''m not quite sure how these men and women calmly jump out of the plane and then proceed to do synchronized movements in freefall.
The Golden Knights do about 32 shows per year and travel about 270 days per year. They are based out of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and they are the team that President George H.W. Bush jumped with to mark his 85th birthday in 2009.
I''ve posted video and photos of each flight at cdispatch.com. You can see the Tora planes in flight, as well as the Golden Knights leaping out of their plane. The air show and open house continues Sunday, but it appears that the weather may put a damper on that performance. If the weather holds out, you should definitely make a trip to the base. The concessions open at 9, the displays of aircraft open at 10 and the flights start at noon.
Peter Imes is publisher of The Dispatch. You can email him at [email protected]