Formation of a Legacy

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

When 93-year-old Fred Roberts walked into the bar at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, all eyes turned toward him and all conversations stopped.


Roberts was a World War II P-51 Mustang pilot who tangled with the Luftwaffe on dozens of missions over Europe; the bar was filled with young Air Force fighter pilots who all thought their aircraft were the best on the block. However, those young pilots knew the retired U.S. Army Air Corps Major had flown the best fighter of his time, too, and he had proved it in combat.

As soon as the legend sat down, two A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots approached him.

“It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” one said. “Do you have any advice for a group of young pilots?”

Roberts chuckled and said, “Fly high and fast.”

“But, we are A-10 pilots, sir,” the two replied. “We fly low and slow.”

Whether flying high and fast or low and slow, staying more advanced, adaptable, and prepared than the adversary, has always been at the forefront of the U.S. military’s mindset. This conviction provides a combat advantage for today’s pilots, just as it did for Roberts when he flew missions against the Nazis.

To showcase the need to maintain our advantage in the skies, a lively lineage of aircraft flies in formation with Heritage Flight; a group of aviation enthusiasts, military veterans, and active duty fighter pilots, who meld the past with the present at air shows across the country.

In its 20th year of performance, Heritage Flight combines historic warbirds such as the P-38 Lightning, P-40 Warhawk, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, and the F-86 Sabre flying in formation with their modern counterparts, the F-16 Falcon, F-22 Raptor, and the newest aircraft in the Air Force arsenal, the F-35 Lightning II.

The multi-generational flight formations practicing in the arid desert air over Tucson were watched by a corresponding group on the ground as Maj. Roberts and fellow P-51 pilot, Bill Lyons, 94, stood alongside young pilots and maintainers based at Davis-Monthan AFB and provided them with a living history lesson about the WWII-era aircraft on the flightline.

“The Lightning, Warhawk, and Thunderbolt were tremendous aircraft,” said Roberts as he pointed around the flightline. “Each was reliable, played a pivotal role, and cemented their mark in history. But, it was the Mustang that changed the War (World War II). With bomber losses at an all-time high, and the abandonment of (air campaigns) being considered, the introduction of the P-51 saved the day.”

In 1944, the P-51 replaced its fellow Heritage Flight fighter, the P-47, as the primary bomber escort. While the Thunderbolt was a tough and capable dogfighter, it did not have the range to escort the B-17s and B-24s all the way to Germany. The Mustang had the firepower and range to protect the bombers all the way to the Reich and back to England.

Aside from the Mustang being a more-than-capable escort, it proved to be an outstanding fighter, instantly gaining respect from the Germans. It was the Nazi Party leader and commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Goering who immortalized the aircraft when he said, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”

The flyboys Roberts met the night before in the bar joined him as he made his way around the chocked Warhawk and over to the Mustangs. Trading war stories and aviation banter, the young pilots followed the legend around, clinging to every word.

“I love joking with young pilots and talking about our ventures,” Roberts said.  “It truly puts a visual to the lineage of the aircraft.”

Anchoring the exposition’s commemoration of the past with a composite of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War-era airplanes, was a group of pilots from the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation (AFHFF). The AFHFF is a group of civilian aviators from all walks of life who share a simple commonality … love for country, love for the military, and love for aviation.

“The best thing about being a part of Heritage Flight is the impact that is has on people when they see us at an airshow,” said Dan Friedkin, the founder of the Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation and demonstration pilot. “The music, the sound of the airplanes, and the visuals, inspire great feelings. It makes people proud to be an American, proud of the U.S. Air Force  and happy to see others inspired.”

The inspiration that Friedkin referenced has surrounded the U.S. Air Force and Army Air Corps since day one. Korean and Gulf War veterans were just as inspired as the civilian spectators upon seeing the F-86 and F-16 perform close-formation barrel-rolls and low-passes.

“Seeing the best aircraft from each generation, like the 86 and the 16 is very vivid reminder of how far we have come along,” said retired Master Sgt. Bill Cook, a 21 year weapons loader and Heritage Flight spectator. “The differences are so drastic that it’s like taking Dad’s old ‘48 Flathead Ford with a three-speed, six (cylinder engine) and running it against a new Ford Mustang. There is no comparison.”

Although there may be no comparison between the capabilities of the modern fighters and their predecessors, there is one thing that they have in common; the aircraft shocked their adversaries with their advanced capabilities when introduced, but needed to be replaced with more advanced aircraft in order to maintain air superiority over adversaries, both current and potential.

While the P-51 was king of the air space over Europe and the Pacific during WWII, it was no match for the jet aircraft introduced in the early 1950s. The arrival of the Soviet-made MiG-15 in skies over Korea ended the Mustang’s reign.

The U.S. Air Force answered with the F-86 Sabre, an equal of the MiG-15, but flown by many of the same pilots who racked up kills in the Mustang six years prior. The marriage of battle-hardened pilots with a state-of-the-art jet fighter led to the remarkable kill ratio of 10-to-1, which the Sabre attained during the Korean War.

The advent of multi-role fighters, such as the F-4E Phantom, kept pace with the Soviet Union, but in order to assure air superiority in an impending conflict, a giant leap in performance and firepower was needed. Enter the F-16, and its companion, the F-15. With unimaginable maneuverability and multirole flexibility to perform precision strikes, night attacks and beyond-visual-range interception missions, they were pioneers in modern-day avionics and computer-controlled flight surfaces and giving their pilots ownership of the airspace. Serving in the U.S. Air Force and the air forces of our allies, the two aircraft are a combined 178-1 in aerial combat.

As they looked into the Arizona sky, spectators below waved flags and whispered “oohs” and “aahs” as the premier fighters of their time all flew together in one formation; telling the tale of 70 years of U.S. Air Force domination. The P-51 flew with its successor, the F-86. Both were joined by the ground-breaking and battle-proven F-16 and the reigning monarch: the F-22 Raptor.

Impressing the crowd with its futuristic look and ability to seemingly defy the laws of physics, the fifth-generation fighter boasts a combination of stealth, super cruise, maneuverability and integrated avionics, coupled with improved supportability. It represents an exponential leap in warfighting capabilities and is unmatched by any fighter in the world.

“The F-22 is jaw dropping … no aircraft should be able to do the things that plane is able to do,” said Cook.  “I guarantee if you took someone from a past generation and explained what the Raptor is capable of, he would look at you like you are full of ‘horse-pucky.’”

With all the marvelous displays and formations being flown, it was actually a familial relationship that had everyone talking.  There was no sudden electrostatic discharge or atmospheric pressure change, but still, it was the Lockheed “Lightnings” that stole the show. In their first side-by-side flight, the P-38 (Lightning) and the F-35 (Lightning II) were the ultimate display of a fighter aircraft developer’s past and present.

Nicknamed the “fork-tailed devil” by the Luftwaffe and “two planes, one pilot” by the Japanese, the P-38 showcased its ability to be an adaptable, multirole airplane. Loved by the Americans, and feared by the Axis, the Lightning was flown by America’s two top aces of WWII, Richard Bong (40 victories), and Thomas McGuire (38 victories).

The F-35 is a fifth generation fighter and the Air Force’s most advanced strike aircraft. It boasts unprecedented capabilities that combine stealth technology with fighter speed and agility, fully integrated sensors and network enabled operations, and state-of-the-art avionics. The Lightning II will replace the U.S. Air Force’s aging fleet of F-16’s and A-10 Thunderbolt II’s, which have been the primary fighter aircraft for more than 30 years.

It’s formation pairings, like the two “Lightnings”, that epitomize ACC’s Heritage Flight mission to present and preserve U.S. Air Force history, showcase the evolution of air power and promote recruitment and retention. However, it’s the more than half a century of family history that truly resonates with the program.

“I was enjoying myself on the flightline, preparing to watch the upcoming displays, when I was introduced to a man and woman gathered around the P-47,” Cook recalled. “Come to find out, her dad was shot down and killed (in December of 1943) flying with the 355th (Fighter Group). It wasn’t what she said about the moment that took me aback, it was the way her face glowed with joy. It was if a piece of her family history was finally complete. To me that is what the Heritage Flight program is all about.”