In Memoriam

The original post detailing my experience of Saturday’s tragedy at the Wings Over Dallas airshow follows below the relevant updates. I will continue to update and revise as more information becomes available.

Update 11-14-22: The names have been released. My deepest condolences to their families and to the Commemorative Airforce.

Flying the P-63 King Cobra: Craig Hutain of Montgomery, TX

The Texas Raider Crew: Terry Barker of Keller, TX; Kevin “K5” Michels of Austin, TX; Dan Ragan of Dallas, TX; Leonard “Len” Root of Fort Worth, TX; Curt Rowe of Hillard, OH.

Their smiling faces have broken my heart anew. Photograph from Commemorative Air Force.

If you wish to donate to their families, you may do so here. Select “Donation in honor or memory of an individual” and type “CAF” as the “Name of Memorialized”. 100% of the money collected will be provided to the families as emergency funding, with all funds divided equally amongst those families impacted.

Update 11-13-22: The medical examiner’s office has confirmed six dead.

Original Post

How does one begin a post like this?

With heartbreak and tears?

No – each bitter word I type is already dripping in sorrow.

We shall begin with facts.

At approximately 1:30 pm today CST, November 12th, 2022, at the “Wings Over Dallas” warbirds airshow, tragedy befell the Commemorative Air Force. A Bell P-63 King Cobra collided mid-air with the B-17 Super Fortress “Texas Raider,” cutting it in half and sending both craft into the ground where they were engulfed in an inferno. At this point in time (9:30 PM of the same day) we do not yet know how many lost. I can say only that – having been there – there were certainly no survivors.

The day began beautifully. I hadn’t been to an airshow since before Covid. I arrived half an hour after the flying began, at approximately 11:30 AM. From the moment I entered Oak Cliff I could see the planes already, and I got immediately just so excited! The CAF had their Zeros in the air flying aerobatics.

The Zeros are not authentic – they’re replicas from “Tora! Tora! Tora!” To my knowledge, no authentic WWII Zeros exist.

The Zeros like to reenact Pearl Harbor at the air shows, which – seeing as how we are landlocked and have no harbor and no ships – really consists of the Zeros putting on a good show and buzzing the runway alot while pyrotechnics go off on the ground. I was getting all choked up just watching them, enjoying the spectacle, admiring the machinery and the plain daring of the pilots. Honestly it’s a miracle I didn’t cause a wreck because I was paying more attention to the planes than the highway!

But of course, all y’all that follow me know of my serious love affair with my planes and my flyboys. And engines. Good, loud, rumbly engines. The kind that vibrates your guts when they start up. Ohhhhhhhhhhhyeah.

I pulled in in time to enjoy a contradictory sight – a squadron of Zeros escorting a B-17. They had fallen into formation with the CAF’s resident Flying Fortress, Texas Raider. Although we are blessed to also have FiFi, one of two flying B-29s, Texas Raider and the B-17s have always been my favorite. I got a chuckle watching the enemies fly together, as if the Zeros would not have previously just “escorted” the B-17 and any other Allied bomber straight to hell and no where else!

I was waiting for my friend Outlaw to join me. It was stupidly cold (to a Texan) and irritatingly windy. I pulled the hood up on my shearling coat and took one glove off so I could get video as Texas Raider taxied in from her landing.

Approximately 90 minutes before the tragedy. How could I have known this was the last time I’d ever watch her come taxxing by?

She parked, and I watched the crew swarm over her in their khaki coveralls, securing her. Now I rack my brain – how many was she carrying? Did I see five? Six? (Update, 11-13: She was in fact carrying a crew of five.)

While I waited for Outlaw I enjoyed some fantastic barn-burning stunts by a Super Steerman and admired a number of trainers and cargo planes, including the C-47 which hangs on my wall. I was mentally shopping, imaging which plane I would buy when my book is published and makes me millions. I decided if I couldn’t get a proper fighter, I could make due with one of the nice little Beeches. Eventually bored of watching the cargos and trainers fly I went to go admire the parked planes and discovered the pilots climbing into the P-63 King Cobra and our Red Tail P-51 Mustang. I’d seen the Cobra at the shows before, but had never seen her fly! I was excited. That plane is a bit of a rarity. American pilots didn’t much care for it, one of their many complaints being the blind spot beneath her. We ultimately shipped most of them over to the Russians. Although they grumbled at us for not sharing the Mustang, they soon took to the Cobra and declared her to be an excellent little fighter. I waited for them until my hands went numb from the cold so I catch them both starting up. The pilots were both older gentlemen with silver hair.

This proved to be the last time the P-63 would ever start up.

Outlaw turned up and set up our seats just in front of where FiFi was parked, slowly spooling up her massive engines. If y’all have never been near a B-29 with her engines going, it’s an amazing experience. The ground literally thrums with power. You feel it in your gut.

Fifi is one of two flying B-29 Super Fortresses. Obviously the engines are not the originals, as those had the nasty habit of exploding.

At this point, an amazing group of planes were lined up on the runway. Both Mustangs and the King Cobra had taxied off. I spotted our Helldiver taxxing along with her wings folded and literally chased her down so I could watch them unfold.

Sorry y’all – there were too many people in front of me to get decent video.

We watched the planes launch, a lust-inspiring assortment of bombers and fighters. In the air was a B-24, B-25, and Texas Raider. Fifi was patiently waiting below, her powerful engines thrumming the runway. With the bombers flew the Helldiver, two Mustangs, and the King Cobra. They circled overhead several times, not doing anything fancy – just existing, and doing so splendidly. I thought “that’s so many WWII planes in the sky at one time. They’re flying right overhead. I need video.” I looked down to take my glove off. I looked up, and I saw carnage.

These photos were snapped by Outlaw while I was trying to turn my video on.

Please understand, that at the time I did not fully understand what I was seeing. It was too surreal.

I registered fire to my upper left periphery. I looked up to see a massive wedge of smoke and flame. The flame clung to a plane. I saw a familiar nose, the left wing, and two engines plunge into the earth a few hundred yards in front of me. Then all was fire.

I remember screaming, “No!” I remember running to the barrier and having the strange thought, This cannot be undone. I remember shouting, “Which plane was that? Was that the B-17? Was that the B-17?” even though I had seen the dual engines on the left and knew damn good and well it was the Fortress. She was the only four-engine bomber in the air at the time, as Fifi was still on the runway.

It was Texas Raider. She had eaten dirt right in front of me, and it could not be undone.

I heard a child say, “Are they gonna be okay?”

Disconnected and in cold shock, I answered, “No, darlin. There’s no way.” There was no plane left. She had positively crumpled. And been consumed.

There was only fire.

The fire trucks came, I don’t know how many.

The surreality melted. I processed what I had just seen – my favorite bomber, my B-17, my love affair, my Texas Raider… explode into a fireball and nosedive into the earth, killing I don’t know how many. I ran back to Outlaw, buried my face in his jacket, and sobbed. I heard conversation around me while I hid in the dark, cigarette-scented comfort of his camouflaged jacked and cried. “It was a collision.” “A fighter hit her.” “Which one?” “It was a P-51.”

Someone asked us, “Did you see it? Was it the Mustang? I bought a ride this afternoon….” We looked up. The two Mustangs were flying close formation just above us, circling the fire. I can’t image how they felt.

“No,” Outlaw said. “The Mustangs are right there. It was a different fighter.”

Someone offered, “It was the King Cobra.”

“But what about my ride?” he asked. I decided he was a douche.

“I think the show is over,” I simply replied.

The airport firetrucks – – – I don’t know, ran out of water? They left. City trucks arrived. She was still burning. The police showed up. I watched an ambulance trundle towards the wreck and wondered if there was any point. I said to Outlaw, “Let’s get the fuck outta here.” He agreed, but all the same I returned to the barrier. I couldn’t just leave her, just turn my back and walk away like all of had meant nothing. I guess I wanted to say good bye, to find some sort of closure, although none of that made much sense to me. I watched the fire and felt the powerful urge to give some sort of blessing or offer a prayer for the men, but my stunned brain could not summon a thing. I fell back on my Catholic upbringing and simply made the sign of the cross. It felt empty and pointless.

This photo shows how very close we were to the crash site. Outlaw later commented that if it had happened a few seconds later, it could have come down on us, and our part of the crowd.

At this point, the announcer said the Dallas Police needed us to all evacuate. We left. When I got home, my horrified roommate (an Army veteran) asked, “Was it loud?” I blinked at him a few times and said, “… I don’t remember.” He shrugged and said, “Oh well, adrenaline does that to you. It closes your ears.” Pouring over that again and again, I am troubled to say that while I see Texas Raider’s death in perfect, high definition clarity each time I close my eyes, there is no sound track to the memory. Although it happened literally right in front of me, I did not hear it.

Trauma is weird. Like when Mom died, I know I took her wedding ring off because I found it later in my pocket and put it back in her jewelry box. But I don’t remember taking it off of her.

I saw the wreck, but I did not hear it.

This story is developing, and there will be an investigation. But at this point, there have been various videos released from different angles and here is what seems to have happened.

Outlaw later told me he heard Ground Control instruct the fighters to overtake the bombers. The Cobra was banking sharply left, following the path of the Mustangs who were zooming in front of the bomber. That angle put Raider in Cobra’s blind spot. Perhaps Raider was going faster than estimated, or perhaps the Cobra was going a bit too slow. Maybe her elderly pilot – Craig Hutain – even suffered a stroke or other medical issue while in flight. Regardless, he likely didn’t even see the bomber until they hit. At which point, the fighter’s wing literally cut Raider in half, dropping her tail section and littering highway 67 in debris. Raider’s nose proceeded a bit further as she fell into a slow spin. The fire started immediately at the severed part of her anatomy and cumulated in a massive explosion when she hit the ground.

Which again, I saw but did not hear.

The Cobra swung upwards after hitting the bomber and then flipped, hitting the ground beside Raider.

These deaths were quick, and I hope relatively painless. I imagine they were. I hope these men had very little, if zero time, to register what was happening and be frightened. I hope the last moments of their life was filled with nothing but joy and delight and then it was merely “lights out.” I know these men died doing something they loved, but I know that is little comfort to their families.

Some asshole is passing a pixilated picture around the internet where he’s put boxes around debris that he “thinks” are bodies flying out of the plane. To you, I can only say, “Get Fucked.” You are a tacky, insensitive asshat and when I say Get Fucked I mean it with vitriol.

On the way out the gate, a teenage boy was walking nearby, clutching a model B-17 to his chest and openly wailing, “The B-17! The B-17!”

I feel you, kid. My human heart bleeds for the families, but my history heart bleeds for the planes.

Today was a goddamn Greek tragedy.

I am sorry that I have nothing cheerful to say to you, dear reader. I suppose – tonight – we simply mourn together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s