The Dragon Cometh

Prose: Camden Shoebridge
Photos: Camden Shoebridge & James Woodard

A sweltering start to the day didn’t keep a group of friends from showing up for a birthday. Warbirds and their pilots, photographers and friends from far and wide arrived in celebration of Tim Savage, a man who has given most of his life to the warbird community. Pulling into the airport, a TBM Avenger, T-6D, and a uniquely marked Canadian T-34 were parked in a row among the few GA aircraft that came in as well. I spotted my good friends James Church and Job Savage tugging the Silver Dragon down the taxiway to park with the other aircraft. Her polished panels and flamboyant nose art radiated between the hangars as she was pulled closer to the ramp.

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After she was parked on the far side closest to the road, I settled into a conversation with a man who was on his way to Cincinnati before being buzzed by an FM-2 Wildcat joining the festivities. One of the benefits to helping with a warbird during any event is seeing the look of fascination in people’s eyes with what they’re able to experience, and this man was no exception. I soon found myself spending time with friends near the A-26 when our host, Tim Savage, drove up to tell his son, Job, to fuel up the Invader. At this point, I realized that Mark Novak was here; a former B-1 and KC-135 pilot turned warbird pilot, flying Fifi, Doc, and even the Silver Dragon. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was about to happen.

Job and I snaked our way through the cockpit and on top of the Invader, opening the fuel panels and caps to pump in 200 gallons of 100LL into each side. It may be nice to see polished warbirds sitting in the sun in all their glory, but being on top of one for more than 15 minutes with no cloud cover gets very hot, very fast. Drenched in sweat, we both climbed down from the cockpit and into the bomb bay to hear from Tim that the Invader is going for a flight soon. My reasoning for even coming by that day was to catch whatever interesting aircraft might be flying in, but at any event that I’m either volunteering or spectating at, any free time I have I usually spend helping with the airplane. Just being in the presence of these beautiful machines makes my day, but I had no idea about the trip I was about to take.

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A conversation took place between Tim and his son and before I knew it, I was going up in the back of the Invader. Before this, I had only flown in this monster once, on our way back from Airventure 2017. To say I was a bit nervous was an understatement. The one requirement that I had to follow was that I needed to wear a flight suit. After trying on one that was too small, Job and I found one that fit like a glove, complete with a 122nd ANG Blacksnakes F-16C patch. We were driven back down to the ramp where we crawled into the back of an Invader in 90+ degree heat. There was only one door to my left, about the size of the top of a dumpster that we could open for ventilation. We sat facing backwards in the back of that airplane for what felt like hours before the first engine kicked over.

As we taxied down to the end of the runway, Job received a message saying that we were the lead element in a 4-ship flight consisting of the FM-2, T-6, and T-34. As we held short of the runway, I secured the door while Mark ran up the engines before takeoff. The back of the airplane bounced around with the trees behind us, frantically waving from the prop wash. The rumble from the R-2800’s reverberated through my chest as I wondered how much the brakes would hold.

We pulled out onto runway 27 and buckled up into a pair of Huey bench seats, anticipating when we would feel and hear the airplane start its takeoff roll. The engines came to life, spinning up faster and faster while we sat motionless at the end of the runway. When Mark let off the brakes, our torsos were thrust against the straps and pressed harder and harder as we heard the engines spool all the way up. I was astonished to look out my little window on the door to see how fast we were accelerating. We rocketed down that runway faster than I had ever seen, rocking around as we were brought up to takeoff speeds. I could feel the tires lift from the ground shortly before being slightly pressed into my seat as we climbed out. Once we cleared the trees, the power came back as we cruised up to a comfortable altitude for our little friends to form up.

Diving down onto us from over the runway was the Wildcat who had taken off just before us. I had to take a moment and think about how many aircrews saw this right before being jumped by US fighters over the Pacific. Seeing as I was in the gunner’s position, I also wondered what it would have been like reacting to an enemy fighter diving on us. I found a new appreciation for those who flew these so many years ago, so that I could experience this now. The Wildcat came around the starboard side and kept it nice and close for the rest of the flight.

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We circled around town, our eyes glued to the Wildcat that we were taking photos of bouncing around to my left. Off in the distance, the remaining pair slowly came up to fly off the far side of the Wildcat. We surfed through the air, casting shadows across rock quarries, lakes, and small towns that were spread out around the airport a few thousand feet below us. Straining myself to look forward, I saw that we had a few degrees of flaps down to allow for the slower two aircraft to keep up. About half way through the flight, I could hear the flaps retract, the tail sink down a little bit, and the power come up. We watched the T-6 and T-34 slowly fall behind as we accelerated to a more comfortable speed.

After a few more laps around the local area, we were brought around to line up with the runway. Job and I assumed Mark was positioning us to break for landing. The Invader rolled to the left and pulled a clean break over runway 27, and we were pushed into our seats. We came across the trees at the end of the runway low enough that I was unable to see our full shadow anymore. The trees passed and opened into the grassy area before the runway and we leveled out, sinking down to the runway. The big tires on this beast moaned as they contacted the concrete. We smelled hot rubber coming from the nose tire shortly after touchdown. With the smell of hot rubber came the heat of the day, making a need for fresh air undeniable. We then forced the door open to get the cool air that we craved.

Hopping down from the back of the airplane, the smell of burnt avgas and nostalgia filled the air. Job and I walked from there to the far side of the lineup where the TBM was parked to have our own little debrief of the flight. We shared pictures and videos and we even got a chance to hear what the flight looked like from the T-6. After we gathered our things and peeled ourselves out of our flight suits, we went back to the hangar to grab some food.

Halfway through lunch, the quiet skies slowly began to roar with the sound of a Skyraider orbiting above. After the break to land, we were able to identify it as the Vietnam war combat veteran AD-6 “Lieutenant America”. It passed by and parked down by the TBM before we had a chance to get down there and go see it. James, Job, our photographer friend George, and I drove down to check out this living piece of history; complete with patched bullet holes, the action camera housing, and untouched faded roundels on the wings from the war. After we all got our fill from the Skyraider, a few came out of the FBO sounding like the Invader was going to go back up for another flight. Just like before, I found myself pulling on that flight suit and grabbing my headset.

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I never expected to even see the Invader move under its own power that day, let alone being in the back for both flights. This time as the engines kicked over, I hung my leg out of the door to cool myself off as well as keep the door propped open. We did the usual run ups and a more gradual takeoff down the same runway, but this time we were climbing much faster. We started into a right-hand orbit around downtown Huntington, Indiana as we climbed up to about 6,500 feet. The air was so smooth as we ascended into the clouds that I caught Job yawning a few times. Far below us I spotted the dark blob of our shadow and suddenly, a small cloud passed underneath us, revealing the full silhouette of the Silver Dragon. With each cloud we flew over being higher or lower than the last, the shadow seemed to be rising and falling like the most intense roller coaster in the world.

As our turn became sharper, I spotted the photo ship through the clouds to my 9 o’clock high. It flew consistently in one direction while we headed towards its right side in a tight turn to form up in formation. The cloud layer had morphed into a cathedral of columns, creating a sort of alien ballroom for our photo flight. We fell into the shadows of a few of these mountains, breaking off then returning to the formation that made a constant left turn our arena.

We cloud surfed for about half an hour while imagining being on a higher altitude mission over Europe on our way to bomb Nazi factories, railways, and bridges. The cool air was very refreshing compared to the hot surface we were about to return to. Our final maneuver pulled us into a hard-right turn, breaking away from the T-6 and starting us into a shallow dive. Even with the power pulled back, I could hear the air accelerating around us as we descended from the heavens. I watched my half full bottle of water on the floor board slowly implode as the air became more and more dense.

We approached the airport from the same direction as before, this time circling around to the south as we were brought in to break for landing. The hangar tops rushed underneath us before we pulled up and rolled to the left to bleed some energy before dropping the landing gear. After touching down, the recently familiar smell of rubber again filled our cabin as we rolled out.

After such a long and amazing day of airplanes and rides, we returned the Silver Dragon back in front of its hangar and began the birthday celebrations. Days like today make a person wonder what it was like to be someone in this amazing plane’s crew. The things they saw, heard, and experienced could leave a person in awe. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities Tim and Job Savage have given me with this magnificent aircraft on days like this.