Minute Men celebrate 50th anniversary |
Posted 6/23/2006 Updated 8/21/2006
by Mrs. Barbara Atwell
460th Space Wing Public Affairs
6/23/2006 - BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Before the Air Force Thunderbirds ever dreamed of slipping the surly bonds of earth, the National Guard's Minute Men had retired from dancing the skies on laughter's silver wings. (words inspired by the poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee).
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Colorado Air National Guard's Minute Men, the Air National Guard's first precision aerial demonstration team. While officially only in existence for three short years, the team established some extraordinary records.
The history of this distinguished flying group is documented in Colorado Pride, a comprehensive record of the Colorado Air National Guard from 1946 to 1988. Mr. John Spann, public affairs officer for the 460th Space Wing and former public affairs officer for the Colorado Air National Guard helped to compile the history.
According to Mr. Spann, the Minute Men story began in 1947 when three pilots of the 120th Fighter Squadron, Colorado Air National Guard, flying the P-51 Mustang, formed a group to put on aerobatic shows at local fairs and rodeos. As their reputation grew, so did the number of performance requests they received. By 1950, the team was widely known in Colorado, and neighboring states were beginning to call on their services.
When the team returned from flying combat missions over Korea, the 120th received a new airplane, the F-80C Shooting Star. Lt. Col. Walter "Walt" Williams, founder of the Minute Man, again had the idea of forming a precision team, said Mr. Spann. By the fall of 1953, the team was, again, organized with a fourth, or slot, position added to complete the diamond formation. The first four man team consisted of Colonel Williams; Maj. Warren "Satch" Harvey, left wing; Maj. Arthur "Arch" Curran, right wing; and 1st Lt. Richard Hueholt, slot.
"Initially, their maneuvers were simple - low level passes, loops and rolls," said Mr. Spann. "As their proficiency increased, so did the number of complex aerobatics."
They started incorporating change-over maneuvers, the
six-G and finally, the 360 degree turn.
By 1955, the team was well established in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region.
In January 1956, Major Harvey submitted his resignation and Capt. Robert "Bob" Cherry was offered a position on the team. Lieutenant Hueholt moved to the position of left wing and Capt. Cherry moved into the slot.
During an event at the Casper, Wyo., Natrona County Airport in June 1955, the four pilots flew a very credible performance witnessed by several dignitaries from the National Guard Bureau. Fate smiled on the team.
One of those in the audience was Col. Jack Blanchard, a regular Air Force officer and the National Guard Bureau's newly appointed director of operations. Colonel Blanchard was impressed by the performance, said Mr. Spann.
Later that year, the Nevada Air National Guard sought Colonel Blanchard's assistance in obtaining an aerobatic team for an open house. He suggested that Nevada contact Colonel Williams to see if the Colorado team was available. The April 1956 show in Reno became the first officially sanctioned demonstration for the team, even though the team was still unofficial.
The Reno show was great.
Colonel Williams began looking for a name for the team. Lieutenant Hueholt suggested the Minute Men.
"The Minute Men was chosen to represent the citizen-soldier of Colonial days and to honor the National Guard's proud heritage," said Mr. Spann.
Lieutenant Hueholt left the team in June 1956 to become a test pilot with a major aircraft company. Capt. Cherry moved to left wing and Capt. John Ferrier became the new slot man. Maj. Winett "Wynn" Coomer became the solo performer and Capt. Ronald "Ron" Jankovsky became the back-up solo. The team also added Maj. Ed "Mack" Miller as the narrator and advance man.
With this new-found national recognition, requests for shows came in from all over the country.
An October 1957 performance in Spokane, Wash., was seen by Secretary of the Air Force Donald Quarles. A few days later, the Minute Men were designated as the official Air National Guard demonstration team. The team was jubilant; Colonel William's carefully nurtured dream of an official aerobatic team was finally a reality.
With the official recognition, the team received some much needed support. An old C-47 support aircraft, a primary support pilot, a back up narrator and mechanics were added to the support team.
The weeks and months following the designation as an official aerobatic team were extremely busy and the team continued to improve although their practice time was limited. According to Col. Gobel D. James, retired, in an article he wrote about the Minute Men that appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of SabreJet magazine, in 1957, the team performed at more than 38 official airshows.
Also during that year, the team added the "corkscrew roll"-- a maneuver where the two wingmen did slow rolls at low altitudes around the lead and slot aircraft -- which soon became the signature maneuver for the Minute Men. The maneuver was an example of Colonel Williams' showmanship ability. During 1957 as well, Lt. Robert W. "Bo" Odle came to the team as right wing replacing Major Curran whose tour of duty had come to an end.
In early 1958, the team received word that it would soon be flying the F-86F Sabrejet.
"The team took only three short months to transition to the new aircraft and soon found themselves flying the show circuit again," said Mr. Spann. "The F-86 served only to enhance the team's already spectacular demonstration."
During an appearance in Dayton, Ohio, in June 1958, the team suffered its only accident. While performing the "bomb burst" maneuver, the ailerons became jammed on slot man, Captain Ferrier's plane, throwing it into an uncontrolled roll at 6,500 feet. To prevent loss of life on the ground, he stayed with his plane until it crashed in a tiny open space in a crowded residential area. The crash occurred on Captain Ferrier's 33rd birthday. He was later posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Although the crash was still fresh in everyone's mind, the team still had a schedule to maintain. Only 11 days after the crash, the team flew their next show. Capt. Gobel James joined the team as slot, replacing Captain Ferrier, and flew his first show on June 19, 1958.
Joining the team in October 1958 was the young 1st Lt. John France. After intense training, he replaced Captain Jankovsky as solo in January 1959.
"When I joined the team, I flew solo," said retired Maj. Gen. John France, former Adjutant General for the Colorado National Guard and former Minute Man pilot. "Later I became the left wing in the formation."
General France remembered the other members who had flown with the team over the years.
"At right wing was 'Bo' Odle and 'Arch' Curran; Gobel James flew slot and 'Wynn' Coomer, Ron Jankovsky and Dick Hueholt were the solos," France said.
In December 1958 Colonel Williams left the team to devote more time to increasing responsibilities as the commander of the 140th Tactical Fighter Wing. In February 1959, Cherry, then a major, became the new team leader.
With Major Cherry's move to team leader, Lieutenant France moved to left wing. About the same time, Major Coomer left the team to assume duties as the commander of the 120th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
In May that same year, the Minute Men performed at an air show in Anchorage, Alaska, celebrating Alaska's statehood.
Early June 1959 brought the official word that the Minute Men would be disbanded. The team, however, still had one commitment left - a July performance in Grand Junction, Colo. So, unofficially - just as it all began - the Minute Men performed their final demonstration.
The following month, said Colonel James, the planes were ferried to the boneyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base.
"The credit for the creation of the Minute Men belongs to Walt Williams," said General France.
From their official recognition in 1956 until disbanding in 1959, the team achieved a formidable record, he said.
In all, the group performed before more than three million people in 47 states, as well as in five foreign countries. The team traveled an estimated 135,000 miles -- a remarkable achievement for a team of part-time military pilots.