SEARCHING FOR WARBIRDS IN WALT DISNEY WORLD
Story and photos by Bill Sarama, except where noted on photos
I had the recent good fortune to be invited to stay at a Vacation House with some friends on the property at Walt Disney World near Orlando Florida for the last week on March. This crew were all Disney World experts; they had been down many times to Disney World to stay in a multi-bedroom suite – kind of like a time-share based on vacation points that the Owner builds up. They knew everything about Disney World Florida! One guest was even a Senior VP at Disney Studios in LA – that really worked well when looking for a parking space! But you don’t need a car here -the Disney bus service is frequent and takes you everywhere. We stayed in an area called “Disney Springs” – a cluster of low rise well designed housing units set up like a hotel around a lake with a Horse-Race theme. We stayed at the “Paddock”. It was a beautiful lakeside setting but don’t go for a swim in the Lake – there were signs warning of “Alligators and Poisonous Snakes”. No big deal – that’s everywhere in Central Florida. Anyway, our friends took us to different Disney Parks every day – Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood, Animal Kingdom, etc. They knew the special restaurants, the rides, the presentations, and the special exhibits. But the one thing Disney didn’t have, at least for me, as a veteran airplane chaser, was …… AIRPLANES! So I got permission from my Commanding Officer to take one day off from Disney and go to visit some close by “Airplane Worlds”: Kissimmee Warbird Museum; Valiant Air Command; Kennedy Space Center and Patrick Air Force Base.
Kissimmee Air Museum:
The Kissimmee Air Museum (KAM) is a small Warbird museum located at Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM) south of Orlando Florida within the City of Kissimmee. KAM is right off of taxiway Charlie and next to 15/33, it’s main 6,000 x 100 foot runway. Across Charlie was another Warbird base – “Stallion-51”. They offer rides in Mustangs and T-6 Texans and perform Mustang sales, maintenance and services management. They have three Mustangs: “Crazy Horse” – a TF-51D; “Crazy Horse 2” – also a TF-51D and “Little Witch” – another TF-51D, all of which were RCAF aircraft. Stallion also has a yellow T-6G Texan and an Aero-Vodochody L-39 Czech trainer. When I was there, the Stallion hangers were all buttoned up tight. Next to Stallion was another small hanger that looked like it had a yellow Stearman in it. The Kissimmee Air Museum, also known as “Warbird Adventures”, is owned by Thom Richards and is in one hanger that was previously owned by The Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum that shut down in 2004 and has been owned by KAM ever since. Warbird Adventures sells rides in three T-6 Texans (SNJ-6’s): 15 minutes $290, 30 for $490, 45 for $690 and 60 for $790 with aerobatics available on the longer flights. When I was there, one SNJ-6 was on the ramp while two yellow SNJ’s just came in from a 2-ship revenue flight: a yellow Marine SNJ with a green band and the other, a Navy SNJ with a red band. I could just make out a Mustang on the other side of the taxiway. It was KAM’s North American P-51 XR, a sleek Reno Racer Mustang known as “Precious Metal”, previously the Swiss Breitling racer appearing their recent watch advertisements. It is flown by the KAM museum Owner, Thom Richards. Unfortunately, it suffered a recent ground fire and is undergoing nearby repair. It will be fully restored into its original racing color scheme of bare silver metal with what appears to be a yellow “peal off” partial top coating. – very artistic!
KAM now has a famous visitor for a while; the B-17F (really a “G”) known as the “Movie Memphis Belle” (41-24485 / “D” tail), that has left the National Warbird Museum in Geneseo, NY, and has now set up shop on the grass at KAM. All right – what’s here at KAM? As you come in the front door and on the front lawn, is their Fouga “Magister” CM.170, a 1950’s era French 2-seat jet trainer, with this aircraft originally built In Finland but now wearing IAF colors. Outside on the ramp was a 1952 Grumman S-2F “Tracker” in Navy Key West carrier-based ASW markings. Inside was a beautifully restored olive drab Cessna L-19 / O-1 “Bird Dog” liaison and observation FAC aircraft now in Austrian AF colors. Also inside was; a Boeing N2S-5 “Stearman” biplane in a grey color scheme and yellow wings; a restoration project for a Boeing PT-17 “Kaydet” that’s currently striped down; a 1948 Hiller OH-23B (UH-12D) “Raven” helicopter; a 1952 “Fresco” Mig-17 fighter, this example really a Chinese Shenyan J-5 variant; a 1946 Molt Taylor “Aero Car” that’s a combination of a licensed car and a certified flying airplane, that was previously owned by TV Host Bob Cummings and who once took up (get ready…) Marilyn Monroe, and… It still flies; a PZL TS-11 “Iskra”, a Polish aircraft used as a trainer in the Polish Air Force, however this aircraft was in USMC black and gold colors; a modern flying replica of the 1906 French “Demoiselle” flying machine; a 1985 Van’s Aircraft Co. RV-6A home-built kit-built tricycle-geared monoplane; a 1928 Arrow Sport biplane restored in 2007 and still FAA air-worthy; a silver second TS-11 “Onslaught” Polish trainer; a 1943 Curtis P-40N Warhawk based in Ockeechobee, FL; a BD-5 Microjet and finally two hangliders “hanging” on the wall.
Valiant Air Command:
Then it was head east on Route 528 and on to the Valiant Air Command, previously and still sometimes called the Tico Air Museum (still on the big sign down the street) located at the Space Coast Regional Airport, in Titusville Florida, right off of US Highway 1, right at the foot of the causeway that goes to Cape Kennedy, 5 miles to the east. Valiant is about an hour away from Kissimmee, but I couldn’t resist two quick pit-stops at two LZ’s that Leading Edge Helicopters runs near Kissimmee on Route 192, each about two miles apart. Leading Edge operates a number of Robinson R-44 four seat helos that take passengers for rides over Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Gatorland, and Sea World with prices varying from $15 to $150 per person, that fly with all doors shut tight and with quick-release safety belts!
The Valiant Air Command complex consists of six buildings adjacent to an active runway: the Reception Building with a Memorabilia Hall, Canteen, Gift Shop and Exhibit Area; the Main Hanger; the Vietnam Memorabilia Hanger; the Shop and Storage Room; and the Restoration Hanger. Many aircraft are displayed in hangers with some on the ramps. When I was there some of the aircraft were being moved outdoors for the big “Space Coast Warbird Airshow” to be held the next weekend on April 6th to the 8th, 2018. Valiant has a total of almost 50 complete aircraft to see up close. My docent even told me there is even a recently arrived B-52 Stratofortress sitting on a remote ramp at Orlando Airport but the museum doesn’t have the money to take it apart and transport it over to the VAC ramps. (Any rich donors out there?)
The VAC collection includes the following aircraft: an OV-1D Mohawk (street gate guard); a Mig-21U “Mongolian AF” (street gate guard); an F4F / FM-1 Wildcat, actually pulled from Lake Michigan and recently restored by Grumman volunteers and now sitting in the Main Memorabilia Entry Room (MMR); a 1907 Epps Monoplane ( MMR); a Mig-15 UTI “Midget”; an F9F-5 Panther; a B-25J-32-NC Mitchell Bomber “Killer-B”; an F-86F Sabre in “Skyblazers” USAF Air Demo Team colors; a Navy Boeing N2S-3 (PT-19) Kaydet; a TBM-3E Avenger Torpedo Bomber; a Stewart S-51 (a 3/4 size P-51H-20-NA); a Piper L-4J Grasshopper (J-3 Cub); a Messerschmitt ME-208 built in occupied France by the German Occupation Forces in the French Nord Aircraft Factory; a DH-82A De havilland Tiger Moth; an F-80 / T-33 “Shooting Star” with “Miss America” nose art; an SNJ (AT-6) Texan in a Navy VC-10 GTMO grey paint scheme; a TA-4J Skyhawk II in Blue Angels blue as BA-7; a Grumman F-14A Tomcat from VFA-41 “Black Aces” from the USS JFK; a Douglas C-47A Skytrain “Tico Belle”; a Grumman F-11F Tiger with a light blue color scheme; an F-16A “Fighting Falcon” (Viper) from the VT-ANG, 134th FS / 158th FW, “Green Mountain Boys” (in a terribly restored inaccurate light green color scheme), this ANG unit noted for flying CAP over Lower Manhattan right after the 9-11 attacks; and an F/A-18A Hornet (161948) in Blue Angels colors.
The weather was Clear Air, the Visibility Unlimited, real CAVU WX for the birds on the outside ramp. Basking in the sun were: a T-34C Turbo-Mentor from TAW-5 in white with day-glo training orange; a T-28C Trojan from VT-27 also in white and orange training colors; a beautifully restored Grumman A-6E Intruder from VA-145 “Swordsmen” off of the USS Kitty Hawk; another beauty, an F-8K Crusader from Marines VMFA-333 with a shamrock tail band with three green clovers; a recently arrived British Royal Navy Canberra light recon bomber (RB-57); in Show Center for the Air Show, a beautifully restored Navy F-4J Phantom II in the colors of VF-114 “Aardvarks” out of NAS Miramar; a 1966 French-designed twin-engined two-seat Fouga (Valmet) CM.170R Magister (c/m FM-73) jet trainer from the IDF Air Force in bare metal with a split V-tail; a T-2C Navy “Buckeye” trainer from CTW-9 in white and orange training colors; a F-101 B “Voodoo”; a Republic F-105 “Thunderchief” with logo “Ye Old War Horse” nose art; a recent Northrup-Grumman F-5E SSBD NavAir DARPA Experimental “Tiger II”; an OV-10G white Bronco V-1; a Navy A-7A Corsair II from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Restoration Hanger had some airplanes getting fixed up: An F-100D Super Sabre in bare metal; a Grumman S-2F “Tracker”; an Army UH-1 “Huey”; a second F-11 Tiger; a Stinson Mono-wing; a Nelson PG-185B Hummingbird 2-seat glider; a Fokker DR.1 “Red Barron” replica of the red tri-wing WW1 fighter flown by, yes, “Snoopy”; a WW1 Sopwith Camel fighter; finally I guess you can say that they will be restoring the B-52 that is “allegedly” sitting on the ramp at Orlando Airport, if they can just figure out a way to get it here to Valiant!
The Vietnam Hanger also had a nice bird collection: a Sikorsky UH-19B “Chickasaw” nicely restored; a 1948 Bell H-13D-1 “Sioux” observation helicopter; a yellow Navy SNJ / T-6 “Texan” from TA-536; a yellow T-28B “Trojan” trainer; a Mig-17F with logo “FighterJets.com” and “Check-6” in big letters on the side; and finally another A-7 Corsair II. So this makes about 50 airplanes, all nicely restored (except for that ugly light green F-16), and some actually air-worthy.
Cape Kennedy and Patrick AFB:
And, I still had two more airplane stops to do: I drove across the causeway and 5 miles east was the NASA Cape Kennedy Visitors Center. NASA has built it up over the years into a “Disney World” with at least 12 major buildings for rides and exhibition areas. But, being interested in things that fly, I enjoyed the 20 large space rocket Launch Vehicles that they had outside and actual Space Shuttle with the associated large fuel tanks all on public display. They had a 45 minutes bus ride that took you to most of the NASA Launch Pads and some of the launch areas at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Finally I couldn’t resist a trip to the fence line at Patrick AFB, 15 miles south, on “Scenic Route A1A”. Patrick AFB is an Air Force Space Command (SFSC) Base and Home to the 45th Space Wing (45 SW). In addition to its ” Host Wing” responsibilities, the 45th controls and operates the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the “Eastern Missile Range”. Additional tenants include the 920th Rescue Wing (920 RQW), the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) and the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute. It has a total of 13,000 people on base.
The 45 SW manages all launches of unmanned rockets at CCAFA 12 miles to the north. These launches include classified launches for NSA, CIA and NRO as well as some scientific payloads for NASA, NOAA, and for the European ESA and for some commercial customers as well. SpaceX, a private space launch company specializing in heavy reusable rockets and founded by Elon Musk, is now a major user of the facilities at Cape Kennedy and at the CCAFS facility.The AFTAC Center works with the AF-ISR Agency, the 25th Air Force and the Air Combat Command and is the sole DOD agency operating and maintaining a global network of “Nuclear Event Detection Sensors” in a large blockhouse windowless building on base.
HH-60G file photo
Except for a few transient aircraft, the only real flying unit at Patrick AFB is the 920th Rescue Wing run by the AFRC. The 920 RQW operates the HC-130P/N “King” variant of the C-130 Hercules and the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter always ready for world-wide deployment. The 920th is an Air Combat Command (ACC) gained Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) unit. In addition end to its CSAR mission, the Wing also participates in civilian rescue operations, ranging from rescue support for NASA manned space flight operations, to augmentative support to the USCG SAR operations, to Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA) operations in the wake of major disasters. Because the USAF HH-60 can refuel in flight from the HC-130, MC-130, or the USMC KC-130T and its own HC-130P/N aircraft, this helicopter possess a much greater range and mission radius. As a CSAR unit, the Wing has also deployed to Iraq, Djibouti, and Afghanistan for Combat Rescue Standby operations in-country. When I was on the fence line, I could see six HC-130 Hercs on the line. The HH-60’s apparently were in shelters. Nothing else was there. Now it was 1800 and it time to “Depart the Area” and “RTB”. It was a great day! And I certainly found some “Warbirds”! Now back to Disney World and my “Disney Expert” friends!