Following is an account of a trip from Houston (KEFD) to St. Maarten made last March, 2011 by 4 of the airplanes of the Texas Flying Legends Museum. I will lead off with this disclaimer, if you are reading this article to pick it apart for inaccuracies then you are going to have a hay day.
Throughout the fall of 2010 and the winter of 2011 a plan was formulated to take one or some WWII aircraft to St. Maarten in March. The aircraft were to be displayed static at St. Maarten and then flown 17 miles to St. Barths to be part of the entertainment for the 25th annual St. Barths Bucket Regatta. As time went on the size of the fleet grew and ended up being four aircraft and the crew members to support them. The aircraft were; a B-25J (Betty’s Dream) crewed by Capt. Doug Rozendaal, F.O. Hank Reichert, Flight mechanic and all around spare pilot Tim McPherson and our fearless leader Chris Griffith. A P-51D (Dakota Kid II) flown by Casey Odegaard, A FG-1D, flown by Bob Odegaard and a P-40K flown by yours truly, Warren Pietsch. It would come to light that each and every one of this group would prove to be an invaluable asset in many ways. Add to that the easy going nature of the entire group, a dream mission and you have a recipe for fun in the third degree.
First in the long line of preparations and challenges is the permitting and paperwork required to execute a journey that involves warbirds, guns and multiple foreign governments. Enter Chris Griffith, new to the Warbird world, but not new to the world of getting’ stuff done. Chris does not know what the word can’t means and he was able to provide us with preflight planning and authorizations that enabled us to fly the trip seamlessly and on schedule. Chris, Duane Haugstad and I worked together throughout the winter making preparations for the trip. Duane works with me at Pietsch Aircraft in Minot and is a pilot/restorer, he was instrumental in the organization, he and his wife Rita would join us in St. Maarten during our stay.
A few days before our planned departure the crew started arriving at the Texas Flying Legends Museum hangar, some by personal plane some by air carrier. The survival gear was inspected and placed in the appropriate places, the airplanes were prepped and test flown by the crews who would fly them(we decided that we would not swap airplanes and that everyone would stay in the same seat until returning to the mainland, so even the smallest change in the aircraft would be noticed) and a day of planning was followed by a great dinner( I think it was Dominos or Pizza Hut) and you guessed it, an adult beverage.
Let the fun begin. Well, not yet, it’s foggy. Hang around for about two hours get all nerved up, drink some coffee…NOW LET THE FUN BEGIN. We left Ellington Field about noon with the B-25 as our lead and headed into what would turn out to be a beautiful day of flying with some great photo ops. Did I mention Chris is also a professional aerial photographer and videographer? He had the hatch out of the right side of the B-25 and we all took our turn having our pictures taken.
Our first stop was Piquane, MS. On approach the Corsair was one light shy of three in the green, so the B-25 formed up and confirmed the gear was down. While we fueled up the fleet, folks at the airport helped us find some extra bulbs for the gear indicator. We were on the ground for about an hour and by the time we left there must have been a hundred people out to see the planes. Next stop Cross City, FL. Quick turn and uneventful. On to Ft. Lauderdale Exec. For the night. We parked at Banyan and were treated very well. Before leaving the aircraft for the night we all completed a very thorough post flight knowing the following day would be mostly overwater.
We checked into the hotel and it was off to dinner at Hooters.
The next morning we filed our flight plans and Eapis and headed out, first overwater leg, first stop Great Exuma, Bahamas. 1.7 hours later we arrived at Great Exuma on the heels of cold front that presented us with a 90 degree crosswind gusting to 25 kts. (so this is how it’s gonna be). After getting everybody gathered up and on the ramp we cleared customs and fueled up with the hopes of stopping in the Turks and Caicos and making Puerto Rico that evening(that ended up not being in the cards). On the way to Provodincials, T&C we ran into the back side of the afore mentioned cold front and were forced to turn around. We ended up going back to Dead Mans Cay on Long Island in the Bahamas. Dead Mans Cay is a small village with a 4,000 foot runway divided by the main road. With bad weather approaching we set about transferring fuel from the B-25 to the Fighters to enable us to continue to Provo in the morning. We also found numerous cracked exhaust stacks on the P-40, which Bob welded using a borrowed torch. While all this was going on we gave tours to a couple hundred people including most of the school children, all of who had been let out early to come and see the excitement. The kids were all dressed in uniforms and very polite. They had good knowledge of WWII and it turned out the island was still very influenced by the British. Chris found 3 rooms for us stay in and a great restaurant to have supper, once again proving he was capable of the most astounding feats. Dead Mans Cay turned out to be an unplanned stop that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. An interesting note is about the P-51 Dakota Kid, it also recognizes the crew chief by having Long Island Kid on the nose. Since we were stranded on Long Island(Bahamas) many of the locales had their picture taken in front of it. One young girls name was Dakota and since she was from Long Island the airplane was particularly fitting for her.
The next morning as we were loading the airplanes for departure all of the school children and their teachers came to the airport to say goodbye and watch our departure. Now we were on our way to provo for customs and a quick turn to back on schedule. In route to Provo we had a chance to look at and photograph the airplanes over a gorgeous calm Caribbean sea. The Corsair was especially at home with the multi blue backdrop. Once in Provo we completed our duties there and although it was not a “quick turn” we were on our way to Borinquin, PR in about an hour and a half. Leaving Provo we made our way over Grand Turk then across the water to the north shore of the Dominican Republic, following that east to the channel between the Dominican and Puerto Rico. The folks at Borinquin gave us a truly quick turn and we were on our way to Princess Julieanna airport at St. Maarten. That leg consisted of going down the north coast of Puerto Rico, over San Juan, then over water again passing the Virgin Islands and arriving at our destination about 5:00 P.M. that evening.
We put the airplanes to bed and went to the resort on the beach and met our wives, who had come in earlier that day on the airlines( they had a head start). It was time to relax, have a beer and recount the first part of a phenomenal adventure.
The next day we met with local dignitaries and press in the morning, flew an airshow with all four aircraft for a sailboat that was underway in international waters and then drove to the French side of the island to meet with French and Dutch aviation officials.
The next four days were spent giving tours of the airplanes, doing maintenance and flying two shows a day. In the morning we would fire up about 11:00 A.M. and coordinate with race officials to circle the Regatta once all the boats were underway at the conclusion of our Regatta tour we would go to the St. Barths airport and do a flyby at the request of the local controllers. After returning to St. Maarten we would service the aircraft for the afternoon airshow and standby for the call advising us what time to be on stage. Usually the show was flown at 4:30 P.M.. We would fly a 30 minute show consisting of a formation entry pass, 4 individual acts and the a missing man formation at the conclusion. The show was flown over water adjacent to the shore line with the box being surrounded by the Regatta competitors.
On Sunday night after the last show the St. Barths Club de Aeronatique arranged to have members pick us and our families up and fly us to the 2,100ft long, one way, down hill runway at St. Barths. Once arriving at St. Barths we were treated to a fantastic awards ceremony and a look at some of the beautiful ships that had competed in the Regatta. We were taken by dingy to yacht for a cocktail party and then taken back to St. Maarten by a very fast motor boat.
The following morning we prepped our machines and reversed course for the mainland. On the way home we spent one night in Provo and made it to Lakeland the next night. Our stop in Lakeland was during Sun’N’Fun and we ended up spending two nights due to weather. We were there for the bad night but luckily none of our airplanes were damaged.
The time in Lakeland gave us a chance to fix a few things and we were back on the road Friday morning. We stopped in Dothan, AL and Baton Rouge,LA on our way back to Houston, arriving at Ellington about 2:30 P.M.. Our early arrival allowed all of us time to either catch a flight or fly our airplanes home the same day, so when we got to Houston it was a quick adios and we scattered to the four winds.
This trip was a milestone event for me. I met and made many new friends as well as spent time with some old ones. We, as a group worked and played well together, which made the entire trip extremely enjoyable, even the challenging times. I know we are not the only ones who have done this type of thing, nor are we the only ones who could have done it, but I feel I had the good fortune of having the best multi talented group of individuals any organizer could hope for. The fact that they are all good friends is icing on the cake.
When I look back or look at the pictures I know how fortunate I am to have been involved in one of the most picturesque, exciting and gratifying adventures of my lifetime. Enjoy the pictures, the scenery was awesome.
Vice President of Operation and Chief Pilot,
Texas Flying Legends Museum
P.S. The Texas Flying Legends Museum is a 501(c)3 organization that supports the Dakota Territory Air Museum of Minot, ND by displaying their collection in Minot for three months each year. This is a traveling collection used to educate upcoming generations about the commitment it takes to maintain our freedoms.