Thursday, March 13, 2014

Commemorative Air Force Follow Up

This seems to be about the right era.
If you’ve read my posts for very long, you’ve likely seen me reference a memory of one unforgettable day in elementary school.  It was early in the day and the class was in full swing when someone knocked on the door.  The teacher walked over, opened it, and in short order I was told to get my stuff together and meet my brother at the principal’s office.
Being a regular, when I arrived I was greeted with the secretary’s usual smile as I walked by her and straight through the door and breaching a line most kids never wanted to cross.   That’s when I got the news I would never forget; “You’re going with John (my brother) to Lexington to see some planes”.  Did I mention my dad was the principal of the school?
Sadly, although I often have a pretty detailed memory, for the life of me I can’t remember exactly what my dad said.  I do though vividly remember the intent and purpose behind the trip.  Roughly put, he said we were going to see these planes because they were important to the history of our nation and that we would go there, see them, learn about them, and understand what they meant to our country and to the history of the world.  Somewhere in there, I was also told that he, and therefore us, may not even be alive were it not for these planes.
Looking for love.  In need of restoration.
You see, my dad was on a carrier in WWII that was part of Task Force 58.  Had the United States invaded the Japanese mainland, he would have been in the thick of it and the chances of him and his buddies (maybe your dad) dying would have greatly increased.   But, we dropped “the bomb” from a B-29 instead.  And because of that, my brother and I, both still very much kids, would be driving two hours away to see The Confederate Air Force aircraft, “Fifi” and “Diamond Lil”.
So what’s the point of this?
A few weeks back I posted a letter concerning the CAF, now the Commemorative Air Force, that was being rapidly fired about.  If you’ve been around aviation long enough, you’ve seen several of these.  They have the tone that can easily go one of two ways; one last angry holdout of the old days fighting against new ways that are actually better, or someone who is the only person willing to speak out against the club.  I wanted to believe the prior but having known the CAF in its glory days of the insider’s club, I felt its true soul was up for debate.  In either case, these communiqués never, in any form or fashion, feel like a love letter.  Therefore, I posted it to look for outside opinions in hopes someone might know what was going on and be willing to tell me.  Doug Rozendaal would turn out to be that person.
Doug is one of those people I always enjoy talking to.  90% of percent of the time we agree on any given situation but 50% of those instances we disagree on the cause or solution.  That’s one of the reasons I look forward to our limited conversations.  Nothing is more useless than someone who thinks exactly the same as you and Doug is firm in his convictions.  To debate anything with him you either have to understand the situation or be willing to agree and move on because he’s rarely going to concede defeat.  Doug, if you don’t know, also has a long history with the CAF.
Before I go into our conversation though, let me back up and review the overwhelming response expressed to me by the aviation masses.  Clearly there are a lot of people out there who verge on hate of the organization.   Those that don’t hate them have had some sort of experience that makes them sure they’ll never drop another dime on the group.  And the rest, at some point in time, have merely become disenchanted with the CAF due to some flight suit wearing Colonel Jackass (sorry but we all know it’s true) at one wing or another.  Maybe you too feel the same.  And to my surprise, during our conversation, Doug openly admitted to much of the group’s sordid past.
During our time on the phone, it also became clear that every complaint you may have about the CAF is something the group is doing its best to move past at a rapid pace.  But how are they doing this?  In short, they’ve committed to a mission of telling a story.
The story they wish to tell is one of freedom and how their aircraft, and the people who touched them from initial design to combat, helped shape the free world.   And in turn, by being committed to teaching history to new generations, their message and the sincerity in which they strive to convey it, drives contributions.  Essentially, it is the organization version of “do what you believe in and the money will follow” and yet that’s not to say money is their primary goal.
Sure, it takes dollars to make things fly.  But as I talked with Doug, it became clear they were on the right track.  The fact it takes money to keep the operation going, does not make the organization bad.  And the fact the heavy iron is sponsored by big money donors does not necessarily indicate people are buying their way in.  At one point he even went so far as to ensure me that even the biggest money donors are not guaranteed a “ride” if they aren’t up to speed or don’t bring the skills necessary to operate the historical machines safely.   That’s a great thing to hear if you knew the CAF when it was best described as “one a day in Tampa bay”.   And even if you are someone who wants to believe the worst, it is hard to deny they’ve turned things around.  The evidence is in his corner.
Then there’s the marketing.  This is my area and as we talked, and he gave his best pitch, I realized he didn’t have to.  Many of the things the CAF is doing today are things we’ve supported in the past as they represent the application of sound branding and marketing principles.  Something, to our dismay, the rest of aviation continues to ignore. 
Of course there is also that decision to move their HQ which generated the letter we recently posted.  Listening to what Doug had to say about the move, again it was hard for me, being a person who believes in sound ideas and logical decisions, to argue with any of it.  Their facilities may have been incredible but the location was horrible.  Heck, if you’ve been paying attention, even Kermit Weeks has come to realize the same issue.   It’s cliché to say, but location - location - location is hard to challenge.  And this is what the CAF boldly overcame when they decided to move.  Unfortunately, as is always the case, a very small number of people were not happy with the planned relocation and they have made it their goal to be a thorn in the side of progress.  That’s what Doug said, and by the evidence I can't disagree.
As for all of you who have personal stories that make you distrust or dislike the organization, it seems most of them stem from a past wing interaction gone south.  And since the stories are always remarkably similar, I’m going to move beyond all the possible reasons they weren’t great and share the CAF’s solutions to these problems.
First, from what I gather, the focus from here on out will be the teaching of history.  This means the airplanes will not exist to puff up egos but to serve as exotic props in an amazing story.  Pilots who merely want to fly don’t fit that mission and therefore will not feel at home.  To Doug's credit, he admits that wasn’t always the case.  But, he also insists those days are gone and that the group if focused on moving forward.
Next, I get the distinct impression that CAF wings not participating in that story, or existing only as social clubs for a few people, will be allowed to wither on the vine.  And as time goes by the mission will be refined until the CAF is known as the organization who teaches the history of freedom with the use of some impressive machinery to help convey the message.   To me, that’s one of the most positive things I’ve heard from aviation in some time.
Of course, it’s always tough for members of any group to stay grounded in reality as they spend more and more time together.  For that reason, I wish them a steadfast course.  If they mean what they say, and vigilantly guard against this ever present problem, in the future I believe many more people will be able to share their own childhood story of seeing the planes for the first time.  If the CAF has its way, they will also understanding the role they played in our history.

Note:  Of relevance to this conversation is the recent addition of Adam Smith to the CAF roster.  This may indicate the organization is becoming the new refuge of previous EAA employees estranged by the Hightower administration.  I only mention this because I can see the CAF developing an event that would seriously compete with Oshkosh in the future.  It would be more centrally located, have predictable weather, and come equipped with flying machines that are typically the biggest draw.  One thing’s for sure, Adam did great work with Oshkosh and I’m sure he’ll do the same for the CAF.  


Rich Wegener said...

Well, Rich, I guess that I have to count myself as one of those that "distrust or dislike the organization", leaning strongly towards the "dislike" side of that equation.

I think the CAF is, and always has been and always will be a rich boy's club. I have no interest whatsoever in paying for someone else's joy ride.

They can re-brand themselves as a purely historical organization, but I honestly believe that if the CAF thought they could continue flying their toys using the same old formula, they most certainly would.

I have had no personal problems with any local "wing" or any specific "flight suit wearing Colonel Jackass".

I almost laughed out loud when I read this bit: "being committed to teaching history to new generations" Sorry, but I have to call BS on this. Just as an experiment, walk into a CAF tent someday and bring up the subject of the bombing of Dresden, or the fire-bombing of Tokyo. More than likely, you will hear the old "Well, THEY started it!" argument.

Rich Davidson said...


I get the feeling there is no convincing you otherwise, and you could very well be right. But remember this, Doug's statements are out there and that sets a bar that must be met or missed. If missed by the organization at large, then you can rightfully call BS. That's as much the benefit of these conversations as anything. Get people on the record and get them to stand by it. But, if you refuse to consider things may have changed, or you just have something against people who can afford to sponsor aircraft, your statements are as tainted as the people who sponsor planes and act like arrogant assholes to everyone but the club members. I encourage you to take a fresh look, consider how many other aviation organizations have, for example, traveling exhibits built into semis that allow them to tell a story, and then tell me what you see. You could be right, and you could be wrong. I'm open to either as long as they are unbiased reviews. Tell me what you find out. I look forward to hearing it.

Unknown said...

I have a zillion and one things to do today and have tried to stay out of these conversations. But, this comment hit a cord and I felt the need to share.

The story most don’t know is that I got my start in aviation because of the CAF. Yes, it was the Confederate Air Force at the time way back in the early 1980’s. Having an interest in aviation and being a high school student headed toward college needing a job, the local wing must have noticed my passion and hired me to work during the weeks leading up to the airshow at the then Mount Comfort Airport.

I cannot begin to tell you the things that I learned that summer while working 12 and 14 hour days. I learned about aviation but more importantly, I learned about history. I met men and women who had flown during WWII and saw the pride on their faces when they talked about their country. I learned and absorbed. I saw a dedication that others put into preserving and teaching history through this event. It has stuck with me throughout life. It made a huge positive impression.

After college, getting established in my career, and obtaining my pilot’s license and some advanced ratings, I went back and helped this same group as a general advocate, wing leader, and pilot. During this stent, as it is with most organizations that loose the founding core group, the original passion was unresolved and the mission floundered. Heck, even the name changed. But, I felt a need to give back. I more than tripled our wing’s membership and ensured that our PT-26 got back in the air (one of the same planes the wing had when I was in High School by the way). I endured a ridiculously ‘wrong’ checkout in the plane (amongst some other strange things) to take it to airshows and events across the Midwest for several summers. I lifted, heaved, and generally got every kid I could find into the cockpit of the plane. I talked to them about WWII and learned it wasn’t being taught in schools. This was where they were learning about some of our country’s history for the first time.

The problem with this statement ‘being committed to teaching history to new generations’ is that we have become a nation of people needing to see immediate results. These statements do not come through results that you see tomorrow. They come from having a mission and sticking to it through your actions. In my case, the CAF accomplished this. They should make me a poster child for the organization.

During their ‘transition phase’, the CAF did leave me with ill feelings. Unlike my husband who writes passionately with hopes of enticing action from others in order to correct what he sees wrong in aviation, I left the organization with hopes that it would make a statement. The sad thing is that after putting so much time, effort, and resources into an organization, no one even contacted me. Although, no longer a member, I still hold this group near and dear to my heart as it is responsible for many choices I’ve made in my life. But I stray from the original point that urged me to take time from my busy day.

I’m almost certain that there are other similar stories where people have learned about history from the CAF. Every person that hears a radial engine roar to life, learns something. If you smell the exhaust from a Merlin engine, you learn something. If you see Fifi flying through the air, you have to take notice and learn something. All of this is our country’s history. It is being forgotten and not taught. My hats go off to the CAF for trying to accomplish this and staying true to this part of the mission.

Now, there are a zillion and two things to do and I'll relinquish the writing stick back over to Rich.

Just a pilot said...

RW, Come back and take a look.

The CAF has several "traveling education programs". The Red Tail project crosses the country telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen both with and without an airplane. The B-29 tours 24-26 weeks a year with other aircraft giving an Air Power History Tour. Check out

As with any organization with 1000's of members there are some bad ones, and having some of them as pilots probably doubles the number of Bozos but most of us are here for the planes, the people and the story they tell.

The "Rich Boys" are few and far between. They can no long walk in and "buy their way" into seat. The aircraft are just too valuable.

Again, come back and see how the CAF is telling the story of Military Aviation History.