Speed and Beauty: A Ballet in the Skies of France

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

Copy of Boy with model sculpture.250There used to be a program on one of the television sports channels called World of Speed & Beauty. It was about fast, beautiful and graceful machines on the land, water and air. That is what this story is about. These past few weeks have seen enough tales of woe, bigotry, greed, anger and most of the other deadly sins that I thought we needed something to bring a smile to a few faces. Below the fold are two High Definition videos I hope will do just that.

Almost everyone looks up when they hear an airplane go over. The kid who never grew up still lives in most of us.

These videos feature a P-38 Lightning and F4U Corsair. They are now owned by Red Bull, who is now responsible for their care, upkeep and displays. I don’t care for the gaudy logo painted on the planes which is anything but historically accurate; however, they are the price to pay for the preservation of these historic aircraft. Some argue that these antique planes should be just kept on display in a museum. In some respects I agree with that, but any gearhead will tell you a machine needs to be operated if at all possible. A friend of mine owned 33 World War One airplanes, including all the museum quality replicas flown in the movie, The Blue Max. They were flown regularly.

About the planes you see in the videos. Both these airplanes are now seventy years old. One of my former flight instructors had flown P-38s in Europe. When one of the small handful of remaining P- 38s made a stop for fuel, I asked him if he wouldn’t like to fly it. He looked at me over the top of his glasses and growled, “That plane is almost as old as I am, and I know what kind of shape I’m in. I don’t think so.”

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning was one of the great fighter aircraft to come from the fertile imagination of design genius Kelly Johnson. He also designed the U-2 spy/research plane and the SR-71 Blackbird, among other truly innovative aircraft. During WW2 in the skies over Europe, Luftwaffe pilots dubbed the P-38, “der Gabelschwanz-Teufel” or “fork-tailed devil.” The Japanese who had to fly and fight against it, called it, “two planes, one pilot.” (2 つの平面、1 つのパイロット) It was a squadron of P-38s that shot down Admiral Yamamoto, dealing a body blow to the Japanese war effort.

The Chance-Vought F4U Corsair was a fighter aircraft that saw service primarily in World War II and the Korean War. It was capable of operating from both aircraft carriers and land bases. The famous Black Sheep Squadron led by Pappy Boyington flew Corsairs. Enemy pilots who flew against it and managed to survive regarded it as one of the most formidable fighter planes of WW2. In the first video, you see Eric unfold the wings in preparation for flight. Carrier aircraft have had folding wings since the earliest days of naval aviation. Folding wings allow more planes to be stored on a ship.

These machines built for war now fly only peaceful missions, demonstrating technologies of the past, a significant bit of history and not least, grace, speed and beauty in the skies. The P-38 is the same one owned by Lefty Gardner who bought it surplus after WW2 for little more than scrap metal price. Lefty flew it in the Reno Air Races with the name “White Lightning.” In 2001, Lefty’s son, Ladd Gardner, developed an uncontained fire in one of the engines while flying over the delta country of Mississippi. He tried to make it to the airport, but couldn’t get there, crashed-landing it in a field short of the Greenwood, MS airfield. His quick thinking and skillful flying saved the old bird with minimal damage. Story and pictures of the crash at this link.

Lefty Gardner’s P-38, now worth about two million dollars, was completely restored and sold to Red Bull. It is in as good condition now as it was when it rolled off the Lockheed assembly line seventy years ago.

Both the videos are of the same subject, and both put together by Eric Goujon, whom you see piloting the F4U Corsair. Eric is a multi-talented man. He selected the music of E.S. Posthumus for the background soundtrack, which is an interesting choice to say the least. I like it, but some commenters on YouTube dislike it.

Both videos are the same, with the exception that the first (YouTube) includes engine start and preparation for takeoff. The second (Vimeo) video begins with the takeoff sequence. I included it because I think Vimeo has somewhat better video quality.

For non-pilots, note that Eric flies in close low trail, and never takes his eyes off of the P-38. Formation flying requires intense concentration and teamwork with no surprises. Adding to the difficulty, formation flying with two completely different aircraft is exponentially more difficult. Different wing loading, different parasitic drag, different engines and different handing characteristics adds to the work load. Although when they make their passes in front of the crowd they appear to be locked in position together, in the cockpit views you can see the turbulence of a warm day. Eric must constantly adjust speed and position as the air bumps them around. Lead pilot Raimund ”Ray” Riedmann has the responsibility of keeping them out of the trees, because if he flew into the ground, Eric would not see it coming.  That is why the entire flight of USAF Thunderbirds crashed in 1981.

This airshow display took place over La Ferte Alais, France 19 May 2013. Best viewed full screen in 1080 HD quality.

10 thoughts on “Speed and Beauty: A Ballet in the Skies of France”

  1. BK,
    Somebody commenting online remarked about the shots of the Corsair closing in on the Lightning from behind, Imagine being a Zero pilot and glancing over your shoulder, only to get that view.

  2. Lots of low tow position 🙂

    Nothing like a well executed barrel roll.

    Makes me miss the flying.

    Love the video. Thanks.

  3. LK,
    Only four of the Doolittle Raiders are still living. Three will make it to the last reunion. I have a picture hanging on my office wall of Jimmy Doolittle taking off from the aircraft carrier Hornet that morning of April 18, 1942. He autographed it in pencil. I wouldn’t take any amount of money for it.

    Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, 97, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 95, and Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92, plan to attend. Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, 95, is ill and can’t make it.

  4. OS, lovely planes, thanks.

    You might be interested in this though you probably already know about it:

    “Public activities part of Doolittle Raiders’ Final Toast weekend at National Museum of the U.S. Air Force”

    “DAYTON, Ohio (AFNS) — When the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders’ make a final toast to their fallen comrades on Nov. 9 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the world can witness the historical moment.”


    Live feed streaming:

    “Although the final toast ceremony is not open to the public, a LIVE feed of the event will be broadcast on The Pentagon Channel at 6 p.m. EST. A link to the LIVE stream will also be available on the day of the event at http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil and http://www.af.mil. “

  5. Raff,
    I am not sure why Eric Goujon wears the oxygen mask, but suspect it is for safety just in case he gets smoke in the cockpit. He has that big 2,325 horsepower 18 cylinder radial engine right in front of him. If anything goes wrong, he could have a cockpit full of smoke. That engine will keep running even if a cylinder head cracks or blows completely off. That has happened in combat when engines were all shot up, but kept running. He could land, provided he could breathe and see.

    As for Ray in the P-38, his engines are hanging out on the wings. Besides, the P-38 used liquid cooled engines just like in your car.

  6. Exciting video OS. I am a big fan of the p-38! How come the one pilot has on an oxygen mask and the other one doesn’t?

  7. The bronze sculpture at the top of this story stands in front of the Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee. It is one of only six clinics affiliated directly with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I took that photo last June.

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