One of the most thrilling things to experience is an air show and to see those pilots put their planes through their paces. A high-point of any air show is when ex-military planes, aka warbirds, make an appearance. The snarl of the inline engines and the deeper thrum of the radials seem to resonate as the flag snaps in the breeze while an announcer gives the crowd some history while telling of the planes flying overhead. One organization that has been involved in flying some precious WWII heavy metal has been the Collings Foundation with their B-17G Flying Fortress and B-24J Liberator.
Starting in the late 1990s, the Collings Foundation started a project to recognize all the veterans of the Vietnam War and what resulted is their Vietnam Memorial Flight. In 1998, after literally getting an Act of Congress, their dream finally started to crystalize when an F-4D Phantom II was transferred to the Collings Foundation from the USAF. Since then they have added a TA-4J Skyhawk, but still they were missing one plane. Since 2005 they have been petitioning the USAF to release an F-105 Thunderchief so the public could see in flight the one plane that truly took the war to North Vietnam and bore the heavy cost of doing that. Even with offer of a no liability waiver, the USAF has so far refused their request. A petition from veterans of the Vietnam War, including Medal of Honor ‘thud driver Leo Thorsness, has not moved the USAF. It is 2010 and things are still stymied.
As to why the USAF loathes to surplus jet aircraft to the public, its endemic of all military branches and can be for many reasons. For example the USN scrapped every F-14 Tomcat, save those destined for museums, because the Iranians still fly F-14s and need parts. Though the biggest reason has to be the fear of liability in case an ex-military jet fighter crashes and kills people on the ground. Fear of John Edwards suing the US government for negligence can chill any endeavor, no matter how noble the purpose. And there is a history of such ex-military jet crashes in the US and worldwide. Like the F9F-8T/TF-9J Cougar that vanished high above the Gulf of Mexico leaving no trace of the plane or civilian pilots, just a mystery. Or the Sabre that crashed near San Isidro, Dominican Republic or in California when another F-86F, flown by Dave Zeuschel, at an air show suffered an engine failure, crashed atop its drop tanks, and burst into flames killing Zeuschel.
The biggest fear is a repeat of what happened on September 24, 1972. On that day, a Canadian built Sabre Mk. 5, registered as N275X, attempted to take off from Sacramento Executive Airport runway 30 after an air show. Witnesses saw the plan try to get off the ground, but it never managed to get airborne. Instead it popped over a berm as the pilot struggled to keep it aloft, flew through the perimeter road, and then crashed into parked cars at a shopping center that had been built at the end of the short active runway. If the crash had stopped there, this crash would have been as memorable as the crash of Zeuschel’s Sabre just a decade later. Instead N275X’s momentum carried the flaming jet into Farrel’s Ice Cream Parlour where many parents and children had gathered for a family treat.
The jet’s pilot, Richard Bingham, was pulled from the wreckage of his jet and all he could say and think about was, “I’m sorry.. I’m sorry. Get the people out!” Every ambulance, public and private, responded to the disaster scene as the heat scorched the paint of cars 60ft away. Smoke poured out of the restaurant as survivors staggered out, including children. The human cost of this tragedy was horrific. The death toll was 22 people, 12 of them were children along with another 28 injured. One family of four was wiped out. There would be one or two more victims of this tragedy when William Penn Patrick, who had owned the Canadair Mk. 5 Sabre involved in the crash, lost his life when his P-51 Mustang crashed in 1973. Also killed in this crash was one of Penn’s employees – Christian George Hagert.
Notwithstanding Collings Foundation having flown their F-4D without mishap since 1999, the spectre of Sacramento still haunts the jet warbird community and any dealings the US government has with this community. Since that day in Sacramento, hardly a single US made jet fighter has been released/sold to civilians in flyable condition. Which is why so many L-29s, L-39s, MiG-15s, MiG-21s, and Hawker Hunters are on the civil registry in the US along with Canadian build Sabres. The few American made F-86s, F-104s, and A-4s flying in the US have come from overseas as MAP countries surplus obsolete jets. And why Darryl Greenamyer had to scratch build an F-104 Starfighter for his speed record attempt.
The record Collings has built with the F-4D seems to make them ideal to maintain and fly an F-105. Just so people can once again see flying an F-105 and hear its thunder. And remember all the men who went 'downtown' and never came back.