Anytime, Baby





Fighter pilots make movies.  Bomber pilots make history.

— Stephen Coonts, Flight of the Intruder





On August 19, 1981, exactly 35 years ago today, two fighter pilots and an iconic airplane did make history.  US Navy pilots Commander Henry ‘Hank’ Kleemann and Lt. Lawrence ‘Music’ Muczynski catapulted their F-14A jets off the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, for a dawn combat air patrol, much like ‘Maverick’ and ‘Cougar’ did in the opening scenes of the movie TOP GUN five years later.

Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi had drawn a ‘Line of Death’ across a piece of the Mediterranean Ocean and claimed the Gulf of Sidra as Libyan waters.  Two aircraft carriers of the US Sixth Fleet, the USS Forrestal and the USS Nimitz, steamed to enforce international freedom of navigation.


The Nimitz had two squadrons of Grumman F-14 Tomcats, the new fighter airplane.  The Tomcat went into service just five years earlier.  It had never been in combat.

Kleemann was the Commanding Officer of fighter squadron VF-41, the ‘Black Aces’.  He and his Radar Intercept Officer, Lt. David ‘DJ’ Venlet, had the call sign ‘Fast Eagle 102.’  After launching from the Nimitz at 0600, Kleemann and Venlet topped up on fuel at an air-refuelling tanker and were told to join up with Muczynski and his RIO, Lt jg James ‘Luca’ Anderson, who were flying in ‘Fast Eagle 107.’   Kleemann took command of the flight, flying a racetrack pattern at a patrol station inside the Gulf of Sidra. 



F-14A Tomcat VF-41 Black Aces ‘Fast Eagle 107.’  Before the engagement, one of its Sidewinder weapons pylons went down, rendering the heat-seeking missile useless.  During the engagement, its AWG-9 radar went down, rendering all its radar-guided missiles useless.  ‘Fast Eagle 102’ was left with one heat-seeking Sidewinder and its 20mm internal cannon.  (Image credit aviationgraphic.com)



Radio chatter filled the airwaves.  F-14s from the Nimitz and older F-4 Phantoms from the Forrestal were already intercepting Libyan fighter jets probing around the Gulf.  The mission was to intercept and escort, not shoot.  Intimidation.  “We can target your ships any time,” the Libyan actions suggested.  “We can shoot you down long before you do,” the US reactions signalled.



A U.S. Navy F-4J Phantom II of Fighter Squadron VF-74 Be-Devilers escorting a Libyan MiG-23 over Gulf of Sidra in August 1981.  (U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)


Kleemann and Muczynski flew on opposite sides of their north-south racetrack, so that one airplane’s radar always pointed at Libya.  After 45 minutes, they were down to their minimum combat fuel load.  They were light and agile, but would need to refuel soon.  Kleemann began to plan a tanker rendezvous.


Then Venlet, the RIO back seater in ‘Fast Eagle 102’, broke out a target on radar.  Directly south, 190 degrees, 60 miles away.  Climbing fast.


The unknown aircraft, or ‘bogey,’ was taking off from Ghurdabiyah air base in Libya.  Muczynski in ‘Fast Eagle 107’ formed on Kleemann’s right wing, 2 miles out, both of them level at 20,000 feet.  The bogey was headed straight at them at 540 knots, just below the speed of sound. 

Venlet, who had radar contact in the back seat of ‘Fast Eagle 102,’  commanded a turn 20 degrees to the right, then 40 degrees left, trying to offset themselves and turn in behind the bogey.  The bogey turned to face them each time. 

Ten miles.  Kleemann decided to head directly at the bogey.  He accelerated to 550 knots, going to minimum afterburner to burn off any tell-tale smoke trails from their jet engines.  Muczynski went to ‘combat spread,’ climbing 8,000 feet above Kleemann’s jet, 2 miles to the right.  Total closure speed was 1,100 knots, 1 mile every 3 seconds. 

Eight miles.  Kleemann in ‘Fast Eagle 102’ now picked up the targets visually.  There were two bogies, not one, flying a ‘loose deuce,’ formation.  They were Soviet Sukhoi Su-22’s, also swing-wing airplanes, designed for ground attack, not dogfighting.  But they were armed with two AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles. 



Libyan Su-22M2K, the aircraft that patrolled the Gulf of Sidra in August 1981


As briefed, the first one to spot the bogey, Kleemann, was now the ‘eyeball.’  Muczynski was the ‘shooter’.  Muczynski hooked high and right (remember ‘Cougar’s’ line in the movie TOP GUN?) wanting to have an acute angle off the bandits’ tails, but found himself sucked behind the geometry of the merge, even as he went to Zone 5 afterburner. 

The two Su-22s merged head-on with Kleemann, the Su-22s slightly low.  Kleemann rolled his left wing down, so that he could keep the Su-22s in sight as he passed over them.  They were still on ‘Weapons hold.’  Muczynski, 8,000 feet up and 2 miles to the right, began a hard left turn to get behind the Libyans… .





Five years later, Lt Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell (Tom Cruise) rolled his F-14 inverted directly over a bogey in the movie TOP GUN and gave the opposing pilot ‘the finger’, which his RIO ‘Goose’ (Anthony Edwards) later explained to TOP GUN instructor ‘Charlie’ (Kelly McGillis) as “Keeping up with foreign relations.”  I like the shirt I was wearing as I wrote this article in a Boeing 777 32,000 feet over the Australian outback. 



Writing this article on board SQ238, 32,000 feet, 520 knots.


Three things made the Grumman F-14 Tomcat a fighter pilot’s dream – the swing wings, the radar, and the Phoenix missile. 

The swing wings achieved a perfect balance of speed and manoeuvrability.  Extended forward, the wings gave maximum lift for slow flight, carrier landings or hard air combat manoeuvring.  With its wings swept back, the F-14 was a Mach 2.5 supersonic jet.  The wings swung back and forth automatically.  The airplane constantly re-designed itself to the demands of the pilot.

The Hughes AWG-9 radar had two spectacular features.  It could see out to 200 nautical miles, farther and clearer than any fighter radar then.  It could track 24 targets at a time, even as it continued to scan for more.  And it could guide six missiles simultaneously to six different targets.


Gotcha%20Baby's%20cockpit-001A view of a tactical information display (TID) in the cockpit of an F-14A Tomcat aircraft.

F-14A cockpit, with detail of AWG-9 Tactical Information Display.  Image by Nose Art Guy.


Imagine having a pistol with a tactical flashlight, a laser sight and six bullets.  Your laser sight can keep red dots on six supersonic moving targets at the same time.  You can fire six bullets one after the other.  Your bullets will hit six different targets.  All while your flashlight continues to look for more bad guys.  This was Chuck Norris, Rambo and Star Wars stuff.

There was more.  The targeting computer could accept data from another radar on another airplane or a ship.  The Tomcat’s own radar could stay turned off, and the crew could still engage the remotely-designated targets.

The ‘bullets’ were the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles.  They could reach targets out to 120 nautical miles, over 10 times the norm then.  The missile had its own radar, so that it could home in on its own target even as the Tomcat cycled to a new set of targets or turned for home.  Fire and forget.



F-14 firing an AIM-54 Phoenix missile.  (Suburban Men)


Kleemann and Muczynski also had the less advanced Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles.  Nobody expected to fire any missiles.  US President Ronald Reagan had personally crafted the ROE, Rules of Engagement, for the Gulf of Sidra manoeuvres – “Do not fire unless fired upon.”  Which of course became another line in the movie TOP GUN. 

The previous President, Jimmy Carter, had prohibited shooting at enemy airplanes even after they had fired and were heading home.  Reagan changed that.  If an enemy airplane shot at you, “Follow them all the way into their hangar,” Reagan decreed.





Now Kleemann and Muczynski, merging with two Libyan Su-22s, saw a bright flash and a trail of smoke erupt from the left side of the lead Sukhoi.  Missile shot at ‘Fast Eagle 102’!  The ‘bogeys’ were now ‘bandits,’ enemy aircraft.

Both US pilots knew at once that the missile was not a factor.  The Libyan pilot had fired less than 300 meters from Kleemann, way too close for the missile to acquire a target.  Above, Muczynski saw the missile “do a banana” towards his own airplane, but already it was curving far behind the Tomcat.

The lead Su-22, the shooter, went into a climbing left turn, heading northwest away from Libya.  The second Su-22 reversed course to the right.  To Muczynski, it looked like the second Su-22 was bugging out.

Both Muczynski and Kleemann turned left for the first Su-22.  Kleemann asked Muczynski where he was going.  Muczynski said he was going after the lead Su-22.  Kleemann reversed his turn to the right to go after the second Su-22.


Fullscreen capture 2082016 123800 AM

After the Libyan missile missed, the Su-22s split, the lead Sukhoi climbing left while his wingman reversed course to the right.  Both F-14s made hard left turns to go after the lead Su-22.  Fast Eagle 102 then rolled right onto the wingman Su-22, waited until the target cleared the sun.  Fast Eagle 107, coming down on a hard left turn from above the merge, rolled in behind the lead Su-22, which had begun to turn right, possibly to re-engage with the other F-14.  (Combat Cartography)


Kleemann selected a heat-seeking Sidewinder missile but saw his target arc across the disc of the rising sun.  He held fire for 10 seconds until the Su-22 was completely clear of the sun.  At an angle of 40 degrees off the bandit’s tail, three-quarters of a mile behind, Kleemann launched a Sidewinder off his left glove weapon pylon.  The missile pulled lead on the bandit, then turned 90 degrees, hit the Su-22 in the engine and detonated.  Debris shot out from the explosion as the Libyan’s engine shredded.  The Su-22’s drogue parachute streamed and the pilot ejected.  Kleemann saw the pilot’s parachute open. 



Fox 2 kill by Fast Eagle 102.  Image by GreyWolfeRun.


Muczynski drove to a firing position on his target’s tail.  He was thinking, this guy is fleeing, not a threat, probably never saw Muczynski’s F-14.

“Hank, want me to shoot my guy down?”

“That’s affirm, shoot him!! Shoot him down!”

Under Reagan’s ROE, Muczynski fired a Sidewinder from half a mile behind the bandit.  The heat-seeking missile went straight up the Sukhoi’s tailpipe and blew the entire back half of the airplane into debris.  Muczynski was convinced that he had shot himself down, that debris would enter his own F-14’s engine intakes.  He instantaneously pulled 10.2 Gs to put his F-14 into a hard vertical climb,  Above the debris cloud, Muczynski rolled upside down to watch the Libyan pilot eject.  Nobody saw a parachute open.

“Fox 2 kill for Music,” Muczynski said on the radio.

The entire dogfight, from merge to the shoot down, took 60 seconds.


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Fast Eagle 107 destroys an Su-22.  Image by John Clark.


The F-14 pilots jabbered over the radio net as they flew back to the Nimitz.  In ‘Fast Eagle 102,’ Venlet said to Kleemann, “Hey Skipper, I bet the President gets woke up on this one.”  Muczynski was shaking uncontrollably.  He put his F-14 on autopilot until he calmed down.  The Captain of the Nimitz announced to the entire ship that their F-14s had just downed two enemy fighters. 

Kleemann and Muczynski went straight for the landing pattern, where Kleemann missed the first approach with a bolter.  Muczynski landed on this first try, and Kleemann missed the approach again.  He finally caught a three-wire on the third try.  By the time the pilots shut down and egressed the airplanes the cheering deck crew had spray painted a “Kill Marking,” a silhouette of an Su-22, on each Tomcat. 



Fast Eagle 102 on the USS Nimitz right after the shoot down in 1981.  


Admiral James Service, commanding the carrier task force, flashed the news up the NATO and US chains of command, all the way to Caspar Weinberger, US SecDef, and Alexander Haig, US Secretary of State.  As Venlet predicted, President Reagan was awoken in California.  He was due to visit the USS Constellation, an aircraft carrier of the US Pacific Fleet, off the coast of San Diego the next day.



All in all, US Navy F-14 Tomcats shot down just a total of five enemy airplanes in 25 years of operation, including two again in the Gulf of Sidra eight years later.  In Operation Desert Storm an F-14 shot down an Iraqi helicopter.  Despite (or because of) the F-14’s capabilities and movie stardom, very few enemy airplanes chose to do battle with the Grumman F-14 Tomcat.



   Artwork by Jon Morrison, signed by all the pilots.








The Gulf of Sidra incident in 1981 was the combat debut of the F-14, where it scored its first kills.  F-14 crews designed a patch that announced they were ready “Anytime, Baby.”  The patch is iconic and a great souvenir item. 



Anytime, Baby…!  Tonet Rivera collection.


Just four years later Cmdr Henry Kleemann was dead.  He landed an F-18 at Naval Air Station Miramar, home of the TOPGUN Fighter Weapons School, after a thunderstorm.  The landing gear squat switches suffered a fault, and the airplane hydroplaned on the wet runway and spun in a 180-degree ground loop.  The jet dug a wingtip into the ground and flipped over.  Kleemann’s canopy separated from the airplane during the crash sequence, and he was trapped in the upside down jet with his head driven into the ground by an armed ejection seat ready to fire.  It took 45 minutes to free him, and he died of his injuries before reaching the hospital.



From the book, Fall From Glory, by George Vistica, 1997.


In January 1989 two F-14 Tomcats from US Navy squadron VF-32 shot down two Libyan MiG-23s over the Gulf of Sidra.  The MiG-23, also a swing wing airplane, was then one of the most advanced Soviet fighters.  VF-41 and VF-32 now shared combat honours in the F-14.  Two months later, on March 11, 1989, James Anderson, RIO of ‘Fast Eagle 107,’ died in a skiing accident.



Something in common, VF-41 and VF-32 patches.  Tonet Rivera collection.


In 1991 an F-14 Tomcat shot down an Iraqi Mi-8 helicopter during Operation Desert Storm.  US Navy F-14s never shot down an enemy airplane again, likely because opposing pilots always chose to avoid combat with the Tomcat.  (Iranian F-14s sold by the US to the former Shah of Iran shot down several Iraqi aircraft during the Iran-Iraq war.)

In October 1994 the US Navy’s first carrier-based female fighter pilot, Lt Kara‘Revlon’ Hultgreen, was flying an approach to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the F-14 that used to be known as ‘Fast Eagle 107.’  As she lined up on short final she suffered a compressor stall in her left engine and the airplane rolled to the left.  Her RIO ejected both of them but Hultgreen’s seat fired after the airplane had rolled past the vertical, and she impacted the sea.  Her remains and the wrecked veteran of the Gulf of Sidra, were recovered weeks later.



The wreck of Fast Eagle 107.  From the book, Fall From Glory, by George Vistica, 1997.


Lt David Venlet became an admiral and the executive officer of the F-35 project team.  Lt Lawrence Muczynski left the Navy to become an airline pilot. 


images (86)(1)


In 2006 the F-14 was retired after 25 years of service.  Grumman built a total of 712 F-14As, F-14Bs and F-14Ds.  The Tomcat had become an even more potent fighter, with more powerful engines, upgraded radar and fire-control.  It amassed significant combat achievements as a strike fighter in Operations Deliberate Force in Bosnia, Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom.  At the height of its upgraded capabilities, The F-14 Tomcat was retired by Dick Cheney.  For purely political reasons, Cheney favoured McDonnell Douglas, builders of the F-18 Hornet.  Grumman disappeared.  Eventually, so did McDonnell Douglas, acquired by Boeing.

In order to prevent Iran from acquiring spare parts, every surviving F-14 was shredded into scrap aluminium, except for a few destined for museums.

On August 19, 2012, exactly 31 years to the day after the dogfight that inspired the movie ‘TOP GUN,’ director Tony Scott committed suicide.

Cmdr Kleemann’s Fast Eagle 102 Tomcat is in storage in Midland, Texas.  The Confederate Air Force began restoring it last month.



Fast Eagle 102 in storage at Midland, Texas. Warbirdnews.com.


Iran continues to operate its surviving F-14A Tomcats. 





Posted from on board SQ238

19 August 2016




Actual audio recording and transcripts of US Navy radio calls during the shoot down, August 19, 1981.  The intercept controller, “Bare Ace,” is actually an E-2C Hawkeye from Electronic Early Warning Squadron VAW-124, ‘Bear Aces.’



Diagram of the air combat manoeuvres, from Combat Cartography.



Preserving and restoring ‘Fast Eagle 102’








Jon Morrison artwork


Best F-14 site on the worldwide web



New York Times




GreyWolfeRun Art


Aviation Graphic



Aviation Camouflage of Libyan Su-22M2K



My books

Martin and Walcott have a detailed account of the shoot down.  It’s a dated but excellent book that reflects the times – Desert One, the TWA hijack, the Dozier kidnapping, the seizure of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, the Beirut Marine barracks, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, Black September, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the good old peaceful days.

Vistica wrote about the tribulations of the Navy leadership throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Eye-opening.

Spears is the mother of Hultgreen, and so could have written a very one-sided account about her daughter.  Her book, Revlon, is surprisingly unbiased and a deeply insightful account of her daughter’s experience in the US Navy as one of the first female pilots in the fighter community.  Hultgreen’s journal and personal papers are extensively quoted, resulting in a candid and revealing account of the biases and harassment she faced in the Navy.

Kinzey included an extensive audio-taped interview of ‘Music’ Muczynski, the pilot of ‘Fast Eagle 107.’  His Detail & Scale volume has extensive illustrations of both F-14A Tomcats from the Gulf of Sidra incident.


Tonet Rivera collection.

The Story of This Year’s Christmas Card



Every year, Shirl designs our Christmas cards around our best aviation story of the year.  Last year’s card had a Spitfire, and we have cards marking horrendous air traffic, a migration to a magical grass airfield, a year of endless, er … maintenance, a year of aerobatic training.  It was a close call this year, because I had to choose between flying in an actual dogfight vs. celebrating another kind of aerial victory.  Given the Season, it was an easy choice.










In 1948, just 3 years after the World War against Germany ended, the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin to force its former allies out of the city.  Deep inside East Germany, West Berlin was a democratic island in the middle of a Communist sea.




Allied pilots flew over two million of tons of food, coal and other critical supplies to Berlin in 1948-49.  It was one of the coldest winters in Germany.  During his final approaches in a heavily-laden C-54 cargo airplane, American pilot Gail Halvorsen dropped parachutes with gum and chocolate bars to German kids who waited all day at the end of the runways.  He had met the German kids at the perimeter fence, and he realized that they had never tasted chocolate bars or chewing gum before. 




The Airlift defeated the Soviet blockade, won the hearts and minds of a former enemy, turned around an impossible election for an American President, preserved democracy in West Berlin, and left an indelible mark in the hearts of German kids who today run Germany.




I’m a supply chain professional, and a pilot.  I always wanted to fly, since I was a very young child.  I love candy and chocolate.  The story of the Berlin Airlift captivated me.  This is a heart-warming tale of pilots, kids, chewing gum, an incredible supply chain case study, fabulous feats of flying, and an aerial victory without any shots fired, neither at a former enemy or at a former ally.

This year I went to Tempelhof, toured the Allied Museum, walked the runways I had read about decades ago, and stood on the ramp beside a C-54 on that had actually flown in the Airlift, nearly 70 years ago. 









I tried to give everyone a card until I ran out. And a few illustrated books about the Candy Bomber, which were really written for children. To all of you, especially those whose cards are lost in the post office supply chain, …


… Merry Christmas!  Frohe Weinachten!








Posted from Manila

24 December, 2015




My Bucket Runneth Over


When I was young, Dad introduced me to the concept of the bucket list.  This was shortly after one of our first SCUBA dives together, exploring a submerged mountain, watching a cuttlefish changing color in front of us like a rotund neon starship.  I remember the salt taste in my mouth, the ache in my nose from the awkwardly-fitted children’s dive mask as I told Dad that this was the closest we’d ever get to being astronauts.

I didn’t see the look on his face, absorbed as I was by the waves lapping against our banca.  I talked about how it was zero gravity, strange alien creatures, life support equipment.  Adventure.


SEAL Team Sicks


I would later find out that Dad was checking “astronaut” off his bucket list, that list of things one must do before one dies.  This year, he checked off “Fly a Spitfire,” and that’s our previous story.





When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was to be a pilot.  My first movie was either Star Wars or Top Gun, which explains a lot.  Mom complained on a trip to Disneyland that the only toys I ever asked for were airplanes.  The first item on my bucket list was there from the start.

I became more sensible, of course.  I grew up.  Learned to be responsible.  The school newspaper.  The honors section.  Dad and I built model airplanes.  I decided I wanted to be a teacher.  Not a legend, like my mentor, Dr. Onofre Pagsanghan (Mr Pagsi to his students).  Just a teacher.  A good one, someday.  Maybe.

I was as surprised as anyone when I lifted off the runway in 2006, in a genuine, bona fide airplane (I had learned to pronounce “Cessna” correctly at the age of three).  I laughed out loud and swatted at the empty air beside me where my instructor should have been.  Solo flight.

It took me two circuits to realize why the plane was pulling to the left.


Carlo in 1049 Sep 16, 2006


There is a very specific feeling, somewhere between disbelief, joy, and satisfaction, when you do something that was on your list.  This is one pleasure that young people don’t realize they have –- to feel something new for the first time.  The first time you influence someone’s life in a big way.  The first heady rush of sexual attraction, at once so natural and unfamiliar.  And of course, the first time you cross something off your bucket list.  You need to savor that feeling, memorize it.  Because here’s a secret:  you will sometimes feel this feeling at the most unexpected times.




I thought I would be as old as Mr Pagsi by the time anyone thought to call me legendary.  When Celadon awarded me their Legendary Teacher award at the age of 27, I felt it again.  I didn’t particularly feel that I deserved it.  But I felt that rush of joy.  Another item off my list.  One that I had stopped taking seriously some time before.




Sometimes, life tells you in subtle ways that you are doing something you were meant to do.  Sometimes, you won’t realize that something was on your bucket list until life gives it to you.

I teach the Ateneo de Manila University’s Introduction to Ateneo Culture and Traditions class, which helps incoming freshmen adjust to college life.  Sort of like a cut-rate guidance counsellor.  I was expecting a bit of good fun, a little extra cash, a chance to brag about my being a fourth-generation Atenean.

What I got instead was a young woman who burst into tears during what should have been a routine consultation.  Her Dad had a stroke.  A student begged for advice on what to tell her cousins, whose mother was dying of cancer.  In my first year of teaching, in a very conservative Catholic high school, someone snuck a message into an essay.  Sir Rivera, I’m gay.  What do I do?  A young woman, eyes no longer quite so young, talked about her baby boy.

There’s something of a formula for these situations.  You listen without judging. You use all your art to convince them that they’re not evil or worthless.  You name-drop a guidance counsellor.  Then you say farewell, and give them a hug if you’re young and foolish enough, and that’s where the formula breaks down, because nothing in a teacher’s preparations prepares you for the feeling that comes next.  I wanted to tell these kids-not-kids that they would be alright.  I wanted to do more for them.  I felt an urge to prove to them that the world is a good place.  I felt…





Sometimes, life gives you something that you never realized you were meant to do.  Sometimes something you’d cast aside as a silly dream.  Sometimes something you’d never really considered.  So that’s why it’s important to check things off your bucket list.  Not just for the experience itself.  But so that you learn to recognize that feeling, to understand that at this moment, life is giving you something Important.

My suspension of disbelief has been broken since about 2006.  Nothing seems impossible anymore.  My cup runneth over.

And for the record, “astronaut” is still on my list.



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Posted from Manila

January 7, 2015


Thank you to Johans Lucena for Carlo’s photo at Reach for the Sky 2




Berlin Express


Carlo has a excellent article on Bucket lists.  He was ready for a New Year’s Day publication.  I’ve held it up because I wanted to find the perfect photos for the article.  Soon, I promise, Carl – this week.

To pass the time, here’s a quick, very short story.



It’s January 3, 2015.  Carlo and I have just logged 4.5 flying hours.  We have been flying a wonderful group of aviation and flight simulator enthusiasts – former student pilots, current student pilots, future student pilots, R/C flyers, scale model builders, photographers, Facebook friends, fathers and sons.  Carlo and I are just using up fuel now, enjoying quiet time together in the sunset sky over Woodland Airpark.  We are happy-tired. 




The hat I am wearing has been with me for 10 years.  I got it at the 2005 Hiller airshow at San Carlos airport in California.  

I lost that hat four days ago.  I misplaced it after flying with an old friend last December 30.  We are both Presidents of the only two flying clubs in the country. 




The hat recalls a P-51C Mustang fighter airplane named "Berlin Express" flown by Bill Overstreet, an American World War II pilot.  Overstreet was a squadron mate of Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier as a test pilot after the war.  Overstreet named his airplane "Berlin Express"  because his 357th Fighter Group regularly flew to Berlin as fighter escort for B-17 bomber missions, deep into wartime Germany.




Overstreet flew in a dogfight over France in early 1944 against a Messerschmitt Bf-109.  The German pilot flew directly over occupied Paris so that the German gun batteries could shoot Overstreet’s Mustang off the Messerschmitt’s tail. 

His engine already hit and damaged, the German flew under the Eiffel tower in a desperate attempt to evade Overstreet.  Overstreet followed under the Eiffel tower, kept firing, and won the duel. 


"The Berlin Express Arrives in Paris"


Exactly a year ago, on January 3, 2014, Bill Overstreet, the pilot of Berlin Express, passed away.  He was 92 years old. 

Today, January 3, 2015, another pilot found and returned my ‘Berlin Express’ hat to me.


I should stop losing things.



Posted from Manila

03 January, 2015


William Overstreet’s obituaries:






On Christmas Day 45 years ago, Santa left my presents at my Grandfather’s house in Manila.  My Dad watched with sparkling interest as I unwrapped my first airplane scale models, a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt.  I was 12 years old.

We had no colour TV, DVDs, internet, or computer games.  No computers, even.  The model airplanes filled my world.


Revell H611 Spirnarr



It took me 45 years to fully unwrap that gift. 





My Dad’s delicious stories of World War II dogfights kindled my childhood interest in airplanes.  My son Carlo, of the TOP GUN generation, had his imagination fired up by his own Dad’s airplane stories.  Now we were in this amazing adventure together.

Our airplanes taxied line astern, canopies open, weaving side-to-side.





We held short of the runway with three Cessnas.  Ardmore Tower re-sequenced all of us.  Carlo and I would take off together.  Just like the movies.  



Airborne and in formation, it was Christmas, Fathers Day and birthdays all in one.  We took photos of each other laughing out loud, tears in our eyes.  That unmistakable elliptical wing bridged us, less than one wingspan apart.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;





Everything was perfect.  Blazing blue sky, creamy clouds edged in white gold sunlight.  Ecstatic pilots vaulting skyward in classic warbirds, streaming contrails of laughter.  Father and son.


Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of…





High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there… 
I flung my craft through footless halls of air….





I slipped below Carlo, echelon left.  The sun slashed our canopies.  Overhead, towering cumulus raced us to altitude.


Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —





We rolled in tight formation.  Our hearts filled to bursting.  Our faces ached from grinning like schoolboys.




We were having way too much fun.  Suddenly we were over England, and it was the summer of 1940.  Bandits, break right!


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In the video you can hear Carlo whooping into a barrel roll.  No stiff upper lip now.  “Whoo-hoo!”  Then a loop, aileron roll and steep wingovers left and right.








Mickey Mouse stretched his arms.  Time stilled.


Miles away, Gavin and I pulled hard Gs.  Loop, barrel roll, aileron roll, a full Cuban Eight.  We were doing 300 miles per hour, 4,000 feet per minute in vertical up-lines.  Remember, this is a 72-year old airframe that survived 89 combat missions in World War II.  

We levelled out, snarling low over the Firth of Thames, rocketing past the North Island coast.  I jinked away from flakJust like the Spitfire model in my childhood bedroom.

Then we spotted the Harvard, the Hun in the sun!  Hard climb to his 5 o’clock, bit of left rudder, and a bit of Robert Shaw in the movie ‘Battle of Britain’…






We snapped into a vertical bank, our wings straight up and down as Carlo and JK spiralled low, dropping far below us.  “You can run, kid, but you can’t hide.” 

We took these last two photos of each other at almost exactly the same time.





It was time to return to base, ‘pancake’ in RAF slang.  In less than an hour we had flown almost 80 nautical miles. 

As a final treat we shut down at the NZ Warbirds Association ramp. 


I thought of Santa and my Dad, who started it all.  As the memories streamed past, a fellow from NZ Warbirds took my photo.




A very Happy Christmas to all our readers,

Make a bucketful of dreams come true in the New Year!  



Posted from Manila, Philippines

December 24, 2014



Warbird Adventure Rides



New Zealand Warbirds Association



Lines from High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Spitfire pilot, killed in December 1941 at the age of 19


Twenty Five Years of Top Gunning



My Dad and his Delicious Airplane Tales




Already, I Didn’t Want the Day to End

I didn’t look up the Spitfire school website.  I could never afford it.  For two years I just watched the video of Alex James flying the Spitfire.  Here’s a rock star who once lolled in champagne with groupies in a hotel.  And was awed to tears by a World War II fighter airplane, “The prettiest girl at the ball.”  Lucky man. 

Fly a Spitfire, pfft.  It would never happen to me.





Carlo and I found Ardmore Airport at 10am.  The Spitfire flight was scheduled for 12 noon.  Already, I didn’t want the day to end.

Ardmore is just south of Auckland, in the beautiful North Island countryside of New Zealand.  Carlo and I wandered around the ramps.  Pilots fueled Cessna 162s at the Auckland Flying Club.  Instructors hovered Schweizer helicopters over grass.  A privately-owned Strikemaster attack jet ripped around the circuit.


My son Carlo, who used to watch TOP GUN every day at 1 year old, still watching airplanes


We watched two hangars in particular.  They harboured a matched pair of North American T-6 ‘Harvards’.




A pilot pushed one Harvard out.  This must be Carlo’s airplane.  Warbird Adventure Rides had offered us a Spitfire and a Harvard to fly in formation.  Carlo and I meant to toss a coin for the Spitfire.  But I had made an executive decision sans currency.  Carlo, the English Professor, agreed to become a Harvard alumnus.




We hurried over.  John “JK” Kelly, with 900 hours in Harvards, introduced us to the airplane.  The Royal New Zealand Air Force once had 200 of these training airplanes.  Ours, used for gunnery training, had a .303 machine gun in the starboard wing.  That Pratt & Whitney R-1340 gulped seven litres of gas per minute.  That’s seven times what our Cessna sips.  Nomnomnom!




Carlo, in his Burberry, looked the RAF ace back from leave in Blighty, keen to get his ticket re-upped in a dicky op.

Other smiling pilots arrived.  Liz Needham, CEO of Warbird Adventure Rides, is a B767 airline pilot.  She has 20,000 hours in 37 years in aviation.  She is #2 in the Harvard “Roaring 40s” flying display team and also flies the P-40E Kittyhawk.

I checked my camera batteries yet again.  Then JK called out to me from the porch.  She was here.


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The prettiest girl at the ball.

I could only gawk.  I took several photos.  I wish I took hundreds.  I should have walked around, propped my camera on the grass, climbed a ladder, taken close ups.  The day was going too fast.

Safety briefing.  Pull bumblebee to jettison canopy.  Egress.  Clear the aircraft.  Pull parachute ripcord D-ring all the way out there.




Instructor pilot Gavin Trethewey would fly with me.  Gavin is ex-Air New Zealand and flew military jets in the RNZAF.  He stressed that, “This is your flight.  It is all about you.  We will do what you want to do.”

We briefed the op.  Formation photo shoot.  An aerobatic routine.  And I would fly the Spitfire through a low-altitude corridor near the Firth of Thames.  Down on the deck to evade Adolf Galland’s Jagdgeschwader 26.

Then we boarded the airplanes.




I was strapped to a Spitfire, cocooned in history.  Twisting around, I watched Carlo clamber into his own cockpit.  Carlo and I, who love airplanes almost as much as each other, were wingmen in this incredible adventure.





Too soon, it was time to go.  Clear ‘round, switches on, starter button.  The iconic Merlin V-12 engine was smooth and warm, like an old favourite song record.  The headset crackled, Gavin checking in.  But what I heard was a radio call for my childhood airplane models.

“Gannic Squadron, scramble, orbit station angels fifteen, bandits two-zero miles.”





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Posted from Köln, Germany.

13 December, 2014




Warbird Adventure Rides, Ltd.


Warbird Adventure Rides





History of Carlo’s Harvard:  The Royal New Zealand Air Force flew 202 North American Harvard T-6 trainer aircraft.  This was the advanced trainer flown by pilots before moving on to high-performance fighter aircraft.  This particular Harvard, NZ1057, served from the 1940s to the 1970s, then became a playground piece.  It was fully restored to airworthiness in 1998.


Harvard NZ1057





Want to hear what a Merlin engine sounds like?  Headset and medium volume recommended.  I played this here in Köln, Germany.  I thought the air raid sirens would go off.  This is the exact same Spitfire I was about to fly.



Sleep, Food, Money, Sex, Luck


New Zealand is breathtaking.  Most people see this fabled land second hand, in movies like Lord of the Rings or The Last Samurai

There are flyable Spitfires in New Zealand.



New Zealand is stunning from any altitude, from the window of a Boeing 777, the cockpit of a De Havilland Beaver, or an AS350 helicopter.  It’s almost a mythical landscape.


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New Zealand has a strong aviation heritage.  The country perches on the edge of the South Pacific, close to Antarctica.  Airplanes are vital here.  Helipads, grass airstrips and proud aircraft museums dot the countryside.

In Christchurch I once gave a talk under an A-4K Skyhawk jet at the RNZAF museum.  They also had a Spitfire. 





Auckland has the Museum of Transport and Technology.  Their Avro Lancaster is an airplane that made The Dambusters famousThe Auckland War Museum has another Spitfire, a German V1 flying bomb and a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero.



I took Carlo to New Zealand last month.  Carlo lucked through visa, document and scheduling hurdles right into a new Airbus A380 to Auckland. 




Carlo will always be lucky.  He is a teacher.  Teachers are angels assigned to earth.  I always stick close to Carlo. 

We all need luck.  There are things in life you just cannot work hard enough for.

When we arrived, Auckland was buffeted by thunderstorms, gusts to 120 kph, lightning strikes.  I walked with Carlo on the waterfront, waving him around like a magic wand.  The weather began to clear. 





At the cruise liner pier there was a Perry-class guided missile frigate.  I built a scale model of this 20 years ago.  Our walk was turning curiouser and curiouser.




The Lancaster bomber dwarfed Carlo.  Those Rolls-Royce Merlin engines were legendary.  A Lancaster could carry to Berlin a load bigger than that of three American B-17 Flying Fortress. 




The De Havilland Mosquito light bomber could carry a 4,000 ‘Cookie’ bomb to distant targets.  Merlin engines again.  Frederick Forsythe’s Shepherd.



Carlo said I spent a quarter of an hour photographing the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine of the Spitfire at the War Museum.  I was being a nerdy engineer.





That Merlin and the Spitfire’s wing are the Holy Grail of aircraft engineering. 

In a dogfight, you must get behind your enemy.  Then he can’t shoot back.  The Spitfire’s elliptical wing could turn a full circle faster than the German Bf-109 or the American P-51 Mustang. 

Eight guns, four inside each wing, gave the Spitfire massed firepower.  The Bf-109 could fit only one gun inside each wing, the P-51 just two or three.




Wings are choices.  Long wings fit more guns but roll slower into turns.  Short wings snap into turns but have less lift and internal space.  Thin wings are faster, thick wings stronger.  Narrow wings have less drag but also less lift.

You now know more than the average pilot.  Pilots don’t read aerodynamic theory.  That’s because engineers use long words like spanwise flow, mean chord length, aspect ratio, or lift coefficient to describe what they want.  Pilots use words like sleep, food, money, and sex to describe what they want. 


Bet you were wondering what this article’s title was about.


Carlo and I had to get to Ardmore airfield.  A taxi would cost 250 Kiwi dollars.  A rental car was cheaper, but I’m too old to learn right-hand drive. 

Then we made a wrong turn on Queen Street during our walk.  We bumped into an old friend on the sidewalk.  He insisted on driving us to and from Ardmore.  He could visit his Dad there anyway.





Posted from Chicago, Illinois

05 December, 2015




The Spitfire at Ardmore



More Kiwi airplane museum tales




The Dambusters!



How bad was the weather when we arrived?




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