If you’re an aviation nut, then you know all about SUN ‘n FUN, the fantastic week-long fly-in, expo and airshow in Lakeland, Florida. Heck you’ve probably camped out there! This year’s event was dedicated to honoring veterans, and we were proud to play an important role in that endeavor, because it’s one of the things we do best (if we do say so ourselves!).
A lot of folks may think of vintage military aviation as relics in a museum, forever on static display. It’s an honor for the CAF Red Tail Squadron, as part of the Commemorative Air Force, to bring these flying pieces of history back to the air, and wow crowds at events all over the country, like SUN ‘n FUN. There’s a little something for everyone at this event, but being a part of the warbird community is like our own little family. And CAF was proudly on display at SUN ‘n FUN!
To help tell the inspirational story of the Tuskegee Airmen, we appeared with Texas Raiders, a fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress from the CAF Gulf Coast Wing. Paired with our RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the CAF Dixie Wing’s P-51 Mustang Red Nose, we were able to share an important story that honors the history and legacy of these WWII aviators, and serves as an inspiration to current generations to RISE ABOVE obstacles in their own lives. We were three unique CAF assets coming together to honor these special veterans.
During WWII, the B-17 Flying Fortress and P-51 Mustang shared a bond like no other. The P-51’s skilled pilots provided desperately needed protection of B-17 bombers during their raids over Europe. The Tuskegee Airmen played a pivotal role in these escort missions, demonstrating such talent that they were requested for their skill. Tuskegee Airmen pilots had endured the injustice of racial segregation and bigotry while in service to their country, but earned a place in history as some of the most respected bomber escorts of the war.
At SUN ‘n FUN we had the absolute privilege of hosting original Tuskegee Airmen LtCol George Hardy and former B-17 pilot Col William Brake with a flight aboard Texas Raiders. It was LtCol Hardy’s first time in a B-17, the same aircraft he protected from his P-51 in service to his country, and it was Col Brake’s first time in the aircraft in over 60 years. See one of the many news stories here.
“THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! It was a complete surprise. I had been thinking how nice it would be if I could fly the “Fort” one more time,” said Col Brake. “Then, right out of the blue you said, ‘We’re going to take you up with us!’ Marvona had kept it a secret. Well it brought back a lot of memories… most good. After my 20th mission I began to wonder, how much longer can we do this? Please accept my sincere thanks for the wonderful day you gave me. I will always remember it.”
Right before the flight, veterans were invited to come see the Flying Fortress take to the air AND meet today’s crews alongside yesterday’s heroes! The event featured a meet-and-greet with Col Brake and LtCol Hardy to share how the unique relationship between the bombers and the Tuskegee Airmen ensured the success of critical bombing missions. All veterans were asked to gather for a special photo with the P-51 commemorating their success and sign a special print of the B-17 and P-51 that was donated to SUN ‘n FUN after the event to thank them for their efforts to honor veterans during the event.
Before the end of the festivities, LtCol George Hardy and Squadron Leader Bill Shepard presented an award on behalf of the CAF Red Tail Squadron to four students from the Polk County School District’s Central Florida Aerospace Academy. The students were selected because they have exhibited the Six Guiding Principles of the CAF Red Tail Squadron – Aim High, Believe In Yourself, Use Your Brain, Be Ready To Go, Never Quit and Expect To Win. This annual tradition is such a wonderful way to see our mission in action!
As we bid farewell to sunny Florida and head north to Tennessee, we are infused with excitement for what the season will bring us. SUN ‘n FUN was a wonderful opportunity to honor veterans and spread our inspirational message to many, many people of all ages. We hope to see YOU at one of our events in 2016!
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.