Confederate Air Force, RIP

Lew Rockwell’s 1996 article on O.P. Alford, III was inspirational — I would certainly like to have met this man, and hope I’m that productive in my nineties.

I couldn’t help but note Mr. Alford’s involvement in the Confederate Air Force (CAF) — many of my friends here in the NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) community derive great joy in the annual air show at Ellington Field, of which the CAF is a major participant.

This was originally going to be a quick note to Lew, to convey my appreciation for the article, but when I realized I was writing with the same manner and speed as I did the other column I wrote for this site regarding aviation, it occurred to me how much aviation had gotten into my blood.

But the aviation infection is easy to get here. An old friend who grew up in the area described it as a neighbor on the street screaming, "Hey y’all, come on, we’re going to build a space ship!" And they did.

(This is not intended as any kind of anarcho-capitalist thesis — God forbid that I have contradictions in my soul!)

Surely the astronauts typify this spirit, and there’s a degree of astronaut worship among some, but that’s not in my nature. But I’ve worked with my share of astronauts, most closely during advanced space suit tests. One of those was Sonny Carter, and if he wasn’t an over-achiever, I don’t know who is.

Sonny was a professional soccer player for the Atlanta Chiefs, a well-decorated Marine, Top Gun pilot, expert SCUBA diver, and a surgeon. He was also very easy to work with, and thorough, and went so far as to attempt surgical knots with the prototype gloves we were testing underwater.

And I certainly had my share of fun as a test subject, including space suit testing at vacuum and on the KC-135, the "Vomit Comet."

It’s not called the "Vomit Comet" for nothing. During two-minute parabolas (the 0-g portion only lasts around 25 seconds), the modified 707 (and its wary contents) undergoes 1-g, 2-g, 1-g, 0-g, 1-g … then over and over and over again. It’s the roller coaster from Hell.

Now it was well known that Sonny was not fond of the KC-135, and he was trying to avoid the tests we had planned for him on it. "Uh, someone needs to try to talk him into it," as they looked at me. "Alright, I’ll do it."

After a friendly chat (I know he knew what was coming), I made my case. Now remember, this is a Top Gun pilot talking, "Brian, I’d rather eat live roaches off the floor than fly on that plane." After that comment I acquiesced, but he lost in the end — the Engineering Director called the Mission Operations Director and that was that.

In the very end, the JSC Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory was named after Sonny, as while he was on NASA business, the passenger plane he was aboard crashed in his home state of Georgia. (Sen. John Tower was also aboard that plane.)

(One more little nugget: All the astronauts that have met their Maker did so while they were doing what they wanted, and were profoundly aware of the risks. Mourning is one thing, whining is another. Their deaths may rip the hearts from some of us, but a tragedy it isn’t.)

To be certain, I could not not get my pilot’s license in this environment. It was ontological.

In fact, my first flight instructor was really into the Zen of flying, and had me read poetry aloud before lessons. He also insisted I read Night Flight, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a metaphysical treatise for aviation if there ever was one. The work was later made into a 1933 film with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Lionel and John Barrymore. The plane of Saint-Exupéry, who was best known for The Little Prince, disappeared on a reconnaissance flight that left Corsica for the south of France, and was found just this month.

But I digress.

A good thumbnail history of the CAF is found here (be sure to scroll down to see the CAF blood chit!):

The origins of the Confederate Air Force date back to 1951, with the purchase of a surplus Curtiss P-40 Warhawk by Lloyd Nolen, a former World War II Army Air Corps flight instructor. In 1957, Nolen and four friends purchased a P-51 Mustang, each sharing in the $2,500 cost of the aircraft. With the purchase of the Mustang, known as Red Nose, the group was unofficially founded.

On September 6, 1961, the CAF was chartered as a nonprofit Texas corporation in order to restore and preserve World War II-era combat aircraft. In 1965, the first museum building consisting of 26,000 square feet was completed at old Rebel Field, Mercedes, Texas. The CAF created a new Rebel Field at Harlingen, Texas, when they moved there in 1968, occupying three large buildings. The CAF fleet continued to grow and included medium and heavy bombers such as the B-29, B-25, B-17 and B-24.

Today, the CAF is comprised of over 11,000 members, several hundred of whom serve as pilots and flight or maintenance crew members committed to preserving World War II American aviation heritage. The CAF is responsible for operating a fleet of more than 140 airplanes known as the Ghost Squadron.

The dynamic and patriotic O.P. Alford III died in 1996, and I’m glad he didn’t live to see the CAF lose its name.

Not long after 9-11, the name change was announced at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) annual banquet across the street from JSC. I was really looking forward to the guest speaker from the Confederate Air Force, but my fragile mood had already been made sullen by a military officer at my table that seemed to be looking forward to kicking some towel-headed ass.

And at the end of the very entertaining CAF presentation, the announcement: Because the word "Confederate" is offensive to some, after fifty years, the CAF was to change its name within the next few days. I know it wasn’t just the evil eye I cast in his direction, the presenter knew this wasn’t right, as cowardice was written all over his face.

So if you want to link to them in all their cowardly glory, the old URL for the CAF still works, but it now takes you to the home page of the "Commemorative" Air Force.

But don’t look for the word "Confederate" in the "Commemorative Air Force History" page, or anywhere else on the site. You won’t find it. In their defense, what would they say? "Because the collective huevos of the CAF are the same as that of a little girl, in the year 2002 the word u2018Confederate’ was removed from the name of the organization."

To hear the old CAF lore, long ago a group of South Texans chose the name Confederate Air Force as kind of a joke. Well, it’s no joke now.