|What began as an American Vultee BT-13 trainer metamorphosed into a convincing stand-in for one of the Japanese Aichi Type 99 "Val" dive bombers that attached Pearl Harbor. This one brings a living history lesson to AirVenture. Photo courtesy of Frederick A. Johnsen.
|Dan Reedy is proud to follow in his father's footsteps as a pilot for the Commemorative Air Force's Tora! Tora! Tora! air show group. He flies this modified T-6 Texan that was part of the fleet assembled for the movie of that name. Photo courtesy of Frederick A. Johnsen.
By Frederick A. Johnsen
Hollywood loves a sequel.
So do the pilots of the Commemorative Air Force's Tora! Tora! Tora! air show flight.
Starting with a half-dozen aircraft from the 1970 movie, Tora! Tora! Tora!, portraying Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Texas ag pilot Tommy Reedy created the then-Confederate Air Force's Pearl Harbor battle re-enactment in 1972.
Today, Reedy's son Dan flies one of the movie's original avatar aircraft in the ongoing Tora! Tora! Tora! show presented by the Commemorative Air Force, as the organization is now known.
Reedy's fellow Tora! pilots include sons of two more founders: Mike Burke and Patrick Hurchins.
The CAF received a gift of about six of the modified movie planes from donor Gerald Weeks after the movie was finished. Tommy Reedy noticed the Japanese aircraft stand-ins deteriorating on the ramp at Harlingen, Texas, so he secured approval from the organization to refurbish them for air show use.
The elder Reedy and other pilots soon had a hit on their hands with their re-enactments of the Oahu sneak attacks - but on Texas air shows.
One early Tora! was Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, according to Dan Reedy.
As the 1970s bloomed and flying under the leadership of Charles Hutchins, the Tora! crew enlarged the show to include mock attacks on the CAF's B-17G Texas Raiders, complete with smoke issuing from the bomber and a simulated one-wheel landing by pilot Van Skiles, who rolled it a full runway length with one main wheel out, the other retracted.
Next a CAF-friendly fighter, often a P-40 or Wildcat, would jump the Japanese attackers.
Hutchins' Zero replica "would have a fur ball fight with one of the American fighters and get shot down," Dan says.
The lead Zero replica was the only one with smoke back then, descending to the deck streaming a smoke plume signaling the American victory.
Early on, the pilots of the Tora! aircraft paid their own travel expenses. "You were lucky to get gas," Dan explains. The Tora! flight's fame spread, and air shows were flown beyond Texas, as far as Anchorage, Alaska. The team's business plan now calls for air show fees to pay for maintenance on each aircraft, Dan says.
"Each individual pilot is the sponsor of that airplane," Dan says. "We have 13 airplanes in the Tora! Tora! Tora! group." Most or all of the aircraft fly in the big annual Texas CAF shows; smaller contingents fly other events. As many as 15 pilots share flying duties, often taking vacation from other jobs to make a particular air show date.
Additions to the show team are generally made by invitation, Dan explains. "We've got to feel comfortable flying with him," he says.
That caution stems from the formation flight en route and especially the mix-em-up style of the show. The apparent disarray of battle, compounded by smoke, is convincing to viewers.
But the Tora! pilots carefully mark show sites with reference lines for each aircraft type to use as they stay clear of each other.
The team's own pyrotechnic team adds to the drama with explosions sending geysers of flame skyward.
"Hats off to the pyro guys," Dan says. Without them, "it's just a bunch of airplanes flying around in circles."
Dan says the Tora! show is living history, especially for younger viewers who may not know the history surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack.
Once in awhile, the team gets questions from viewers who wonder why they are portraying former enemies of the United States. He says it is not to glorify attackers of this country, but to tell the story. To that end, he says the show's accompanying narration by Ken Crites is evocative and stirring.
They may be movie airplanes and special-effects explosions, but the Tora! Tora! Tora! show at AirVenture promises to be gripping during the air show this afternoon and Saturday.