In late February, one of our Cascade Warbird members, Bob Hill, received a short-notice request for a memorial flyby over the Tahoma National Cemetery. As the Cascade Warbirds Ops Officer, I put a call out for any local warbird owners who might be available to support the requested flyby. Although we usually have a large number of volunteers, the winter weather, normal winter maintenance and COVID restrictions have kept the availability and proficiency level of our warbird pilots quite low. Bob Hill requested to fly the missing man position in his IAR-832 for the memorial, with Dave Desmon joining in his recently re-engined Navion. Smokey Johnson’s newly acquired SNJ was in maintenance in California, but he volunteered to lead the formation in his Bonanza, since from the ground only an expert could tell he wasn’t a 'true warbird'.
We learned that our missing man formation would be honoring Glenn Ewing, a Naval Aviator who had flown with the famous 'Black Ponies' in Vietnam. In 1969 the Light Attack Squadron Four (VAL-4) was commissioned at Naval Air Station North Island, California. Operating the OV-10A Bronco, it was the first Navy squadron of its type, deployed to Vietnam as part of the 'Brown Water Navy'. Operating from Binh Thuy Air Base and Vung Tau Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta, the Black Ponies provided direct support for U.S., Allied and Vietnamese operations until it was dis-established in April 1972.
I had briefed Glenn's wife Kathleen that we would attempt to fly a four-ship, weather and aircraft availability dependent. We had been in a stretch of rain and IFR weather, but Kathleen said she had faith that the sun would appear for the day of the memorial service. With Kathleen using higher powers to work on the weather, it was my job to come up with a fourth aircraft. In the past I've flown Justin Draft's Nanchang CJ-6 for memorial flybys, but the 'Chang was basically pickled for the winter, awaiting Justin's return from the sandbox. I told Smokey that I'd had no luck recruiting a fourth aircraft, and Smokey felt the flyby wouldn't look good with only a three-ship, so he asked me if I'd make it a four-ship by flying my Piper Warrior in the formation. My response was easy - sure, if you can fly slow enough!
As the day of the memorial service approached, the weather magically cleared from the south, and all four aircraft gathered at Paine Field for our formation briefing. Just as our noon briefing time approached, Dave Desmon called to let us know that his alternator on his Navion just went inop, so we were down to a three-ship. Smokey, Bob and I briefed a three-ship plan, with an early start to cover ground delays and my slow cruising speed en route. Just as we were ready to crank, Dave called with good news that he had isolated the alternator issue and MIGHT be able to join, and to hold our three-ship startup.
We delayed past our planned start, and luckily Dave did get his Navion alternator to work, and we gladly taxied for takeoff as a four-ship. Of course, Paine Field then became saturated with Cessnas landing, then an arriving Horizon Air flight as our TOT time over Tahoma rapidly approached. Finally cleared for takeoff, we launched and rejoined the four-ship, where I was able to use high RPM and angular cutoff to join the flight. Smokey provided great wingman consideration by selecting a bit of flaps for the rest of the flight, to allow me to hang in tight formation with my throttle nearly fully forward.
Our good luck continued as we neared Renton and our starting point at Lake Youngs, since Tom Jensen, our ground coordinator at the National Cemetery, informed us that the memorial service was running slightly late, and he would call us in from our orbit when needed. Any time Smokey descended, even without a power increase, the lack of drag compared to my 'gear down and bolted' Warrior caused him to creep ahead. Bob Hill suggested that all four of us put our gear down for the pass (thanks Bob), but once level, I had a tiny bit of throttle available to lock into position on Smokey's right wing.
As we neared our orbit point of Lake Sawyer, Tom made the call to start our run-in immediately into the completely clear skies over the Tahoma National Cemetery. Smokey was as smooth as glass flying lead, and we hit directly overhead in surprisingly tight and aligned formation, especially for a bunch of rusty warbird pilots. Bob Hill pulled his missing man with smoke on to the west, and the family and friends at the memorial service said the flyby looked and sounded great from the ground. No one on the ground could even tell that two of the 'warbirds' were a Bonanza and a Warrior! Whatever it takes to support our Veterans, we made it happen!
After reading the above summary of our memorial flight, Kathleen Ewing sent this heartfelt reply: "Stan and fellow great pilots, that was beautiful, loved the whole telling and how you made it all work, laughed at parts and felt humble for all the time it took you guys. I felt “the wind beneath you and the planes and prayed gentle landings." Glenn would have loved it. The flag I am looking at right now brings pride and tears at the same time. Your gift to us will be remembered by me and my family and friends to share with future generations. Thanks from our hearts."