Vopat

Prose: Richard Souza
Photography: Richard Souza, Craig Rembold, Dan Villeneuve

The roads of the world are paved with good intentions. I have been meaning to clean the gutters of my house but never have found the time; I just never get around to it. There is a large gap between intending to do something and actually doing it. 

All it took was an ounce of gumption and a ladder. Sometimes you just have to put your mind to it and climb up on the roof and get it done. Once finished, as I prepared for my descent, I realized that my well thought out plan had a major flaw. There was nobody around to hold the ladder steady. I did not have my cell phone on me and there wasn’t anyone within earshot to help me. I had no alternative than to just sit on the roof and wait. There I was, stuck on a roof on a beautiful summer day. I quickly devised a plan “B”… sit back, listen to the birds sing, and stare into the deep blue sky. 

It was a moment like this that I was in need of. A moment where I could just think and derive the necessary inspiration to extract a story that was stuck in a holding pattern in my brain. When the lyrics are buried deep, it takes a melody to bring them to the surface. I lay back with my hands behind my head and look to the heavens. The song of the birds slowly turns the key and the door begins to open.

About a decade ago, I jumped on the digital bandwagon and picked up my first DSLR. Feeling bold and confident, I ventured off to the Mid Atlantic Air Museum’s annual World War II weekend. I wandered aimlessly taking as many photographs as the memory card would hold. With every aircraft, there were a dozen clicks of the shutter. As I prepared to snap a shot of a T-6, I noticed a lone individual dressed as a World War II aviator. He had placed his camera on a tripod and was taking a photo of himself and the aircraft. I seized the opportunity and snapped the photo. That is where this story begins. 

I would eventually learn that I photographed a man by the name of Scott Culver. Over the following years, I would run into Scott at different airshows and events. I became fascinated with his story and how he was honoring the memory of his father (a World War II Veteran).  One year, I ran into Scott at one particular edition of the World War II weekend, sitting on a Tiger tank, filming a sequence for a promotional film he was working on. Besides the film crew, Scott was being photographed by this character with a bushy white mustache and a safety green t-shirt. Not one to be left behind, I took full advantage of the photo op. Following the shoot, I introduced myself to this photographer that goes by the name of Craig Rembold. Craig came all the way out from California, and as the conversation progressed, he began telling me tales of this place called Chino, a Flying Wing and a pilot by the name… David Vopat.  At the end of the day, Craig turned to me and said “you have to come out to Chino”.     

The truth is, I knew of this magical place called Chino. Many years ago, I had visited the Planes of Fame Air Museum and I did see something that resembled a wing. It was being worked on and quite frankly, I was still drooling from seeing my first P-51 up close. So, I really didn’t pay attention. I knew that Craig was referring to the annual airshow, and yes, it was on my bucket list. 

The years go by and the endless road of good intentions never took me west of the Mississippi. During that time, I became a follower and admirer of Craig’s photography and his two favorite subjects, the Northrop N9MB Flying Wing and that pilot… David Vopat. This year, I finally had enough of my promises and good intentions… I accepted Craig’s invitation and I was heading for Chino. 

I consider Craig a mentor and his work has been a real inspiration. I knew this would be a special opportunity. Once the tickets were purchased, I spent some time mulling over Craig’s air to air photographs of the Flying Wing with David Vopat at the controls. Through Craig, I met a photographer by the name of Dan Villeneuve. Two years prior, Dan had received a similar invitation as I, and he too had the Chino experience. Dan’s photographs, of the Flying Wing, also fueled my inspiration. I knew I had to photograph that one-of-a-kind bird and meet this pilot that Craig kept telling me about. 

On April 22, 2019, tragedy hit the aviation community. News of an accident began to spread like wildfire. As the haze of confusion began to lift, we would learn that David Vopat lost his life at the controls of the Flying Wing. I sat stunned as I read the news. I sent a quick message to Craig “I just heard the news, are you ok”. It was through the responses I received, that I began to understand how close David and Craig really were. 

A week and a half later, I landed in San Diego and was met by my friend and mentor. The greeting was bittersweet but I wasn’t going to let the moment pass. I gave Craig a big hug and could feel the pain of his loss. Over the next four days, I would hear stories and see magnificent unpublished photographs of David in the N9MB. 

The day before the airshow, we stopped by the Planes of Fame Museum. As we entered the first hangar, Craig encountered the first of many familiar faces. I didn’t have to hear the conversation. The look in their eyes and the body language spoke volumes… Disbelief. We walked across the compound to the next hangar, where a small group was gathered. Craig greeted everyone and introduced me to some gents that were standing just inside the hangar.  I look to my left and I notice a work bench with 5 letters painted on the back…VOPAT. I turn to my right and noticed a bottle of beer and a note sitting on a table. A young lady walks up to Craig with tears in her eyes. They hug. It all begins to sink in. 

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 03, 2019_03.jpg

Craig calls me over and introduces me to Elvia Diaz, David’s girlfriend. What does one say? I say the only thing I can… "I am so sorry for your loss". Craig explains to Elvia that I write stories and turns to me and asks for me to explain. As I put the words together, I feel a lump in my throat and tears well up in my eyes. I went to Chino so I could write about the experience, the Flying Wing, and David. Elvia looks into my eyes and with a tear-covered smile says “do it, please do it, David would have wanted that”. With a crack in my voice, I made a promise.

The weather that entire weekend was wonderful. But even as the warm sun touched the California sky, the proverbial dark cloud loomed over Chino and the airshow community. The decision had been made to go on with the show. This is not a decision that is made without thought or feeling. On the contrary. Those who gave the green light did so knowing that David would have been upset had they not. It was not a surprise to know that the 2019 Planes of Fame Airshow was dedicated to David Vopat. 

It was going to be a busy weekend. There would be so much to see and so much to photograph, I just figured that I would be transported to an alternate reality. In the end, I was wrong. No matter how many P-51 Mustangs you line up, how many P-47 Thuds you amass or aircraft that I have never seen, there will always be that special one that is missing. Inevitably, I saw the dark cloud. We tried to make the best of the day. As we photographed on the ramp, Craig was approached by a young lady. It was obvious that they knew each other. They both had that same look I had seen the day before. They hugged and pain was written on their faces. Craig then introduced me to Meagan Tracy and her husband Michael Tracy who later joined us. Both are airshow volunteers and were friends of David. The conversation started at shock and would end with a few anecdotes of David and Craig’s exploits. Loaded with images of dozens of air to air flights, Craig would pull out his cell phone and scroll. One beautiful shot after another. With each shot, came a story on how it all came together. During the show, Megan would stop by our spot on the airshow line and check in on us and exchange a few words. There was one thing Meagan said that stuck in my head. She said, “I still can’t believe it, I'm waiting to hear that voice any minute now”. I learned that it was a voice with life and one you would never forget. 

Parking ourselves by the pilot chalet, the ramp volunteers would race by in a tow, golf cart or jeep. Those who knew Craig, would wave or stop by and say hello. One gentleman in particular, came up, leaned on the barrier and began chatting with Craig. Soon they were joined by woman followed by a young lady. Through deductive reasoning, I determined they were a family; Dave Erickson, his wife Jodi and their daughter Sarah. Dave is a mechanic and worked closely with David on the Flying Wing team.

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 04, 2019_32.jpg

I was hovering on the fringe of the conversation when Craig introduced me. As he had done before, he opened the door and asked me to walk in. Craig says, "you tell it better". The more I told people why I went to Chino, the harder it became. This time, halfway through my words, I looked at Dave Erickson and saw tears run down from behind his sunglasses, my voice cracked again and I felt the soft caress of tears as they rolled down my cheek. Craig shared yet another photograph and another story of David dancing in a vintage plane under the gorgeous light. The more I listened to the stories, the more I began to understand the impact that dark cloud was having. How was I going to translate that into words?

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 04, 2019_33.jpg

The time came and went and it was time to head east. I bid my friend and mentor good bye. I hope I left him in a better place than he was when I arrived. During the long trip home, I had time to reflect on the emotional experience that was Chino. The more I thought, the more I realized that there was one person I needed to talk to so that I can understand more about the part of the experience I missed.

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 03, 2019_14.jpg

A couple of weeks later, I met up with Dan Villeneuve. Dan made the trip to California two years before. Sitting in a campsite in Orange, Massachusetts, I asked Dan…”Tell me about David”. Dan had heard about David but had never expected the impact this unknown person would have. When they first met, David walked up in his blue Northrop hat and tan flight suit, Dan felt the energy. David’s demeanor was what one would expect from a true aviator; walking the fine line of confidence and cocky. The true aviator walks that line like an iron worker walks a steel beam; walks it straight and level, this is why they are a special breed. 

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 07, 2017_16.jpg

Humble and passionate were two words that Dan repeated when describing David. He was a man with a boyish spirit that lit up when talking about something he was passionate about, like a little kid talking about transformers or their favorite superhero. David loved to talk about flying and especially doing air to air photo sessions with Craig. Especially when it came to David’s “ride” in the Flying Wing.

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_April 28, 2016_29.jpg

Dan didn’t know much about the Flying Wing until he was face to face with it. Once Craig began explaining that this plane was one-of-a-kind, Dan began to appreciate the fact that he was up close with a very unique piece of aviation history. Craig is a walking trove of aviation knowledge and for anyone who has an appreciation for aviation or was diving into it as Dan was, hearing Craig debit facts and stories about the object just feet in front of him, just enriched the experience. How often would one see an aircraft without a rudder and tail fly? It was a rare experience. When the strange yellow plane took to the air, Dan was amazed how David connected with the aircraft and flew her gracefully and smooth as ice. N9MB was an extension of David. This was a sight that Dan confesses, still gives him a pleasant chill. 

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_April 28, 2016_27.jpg

Days at Chino can be long. By the end of the first day, Craig and Dan were exhausted. The plan was to grab a bite to eat, head back to the hotel and edit some of the day's catch before collapsing from exhaustion. David had other plans. He insisted that these two beat photographers join him at the hangar party for pilots, crew and volunteers. Craig and Dan, not wanting to be the uninvited party crashers, did their best to “try” and convince David it wasn’t a good idea. To no avail. That mischievous six-foot kid just looked at them and said “Don’t worry, I will get you in”.   

The trio walked into the party and David began introducing the reluctant party crashers to everyone associated with the airshow. Dan was introduced to Elvia, who joined them at the table. Dan asked David about flying the different warbirds. It became evident to Dan that David was always appreciative and felt blessed that he was able to fly these planes. But it wasn’t all about David. Dan was able to open up and talk about things he was interested in while David listened attentively and was genuinely interested in every word.

Following the airshow, Dan and David kept in touch. David had an interest in all photography. If Dan posted a photograph online, David would always comment or have a kind word. Many times the comment was “when are you coming back? I want to hook up on a shoot”. Dan felt that David wanted to keep the relationship and the communication going. It meant the world to Dan that David would take time out of his busy schedule and reach out to him. Toward the end of our intimate conversation, Dan described David as a passionate friend with the highest amount of integrity. Dan got choked up when he said “I wish I had more time with him… It was fun to watch him fly”.

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 07, 2017_21.jpg

I now understand what I missed out on; the experience of meeting a man who lived his passion. He flew some of the rarest and most unique aircraft in the world. He left a mark on anyone who knew him, in and outside the aviation community. Spending time with Craig, I would learn that they had a very special bond. It was the kind that only exist between those who share the same passion. It was through aviation and photography that this duo expressed themselves. Craig is the artist and David understood the art of photography. When in the air, David knew where to place the aircraft and Craig would pull out the pallet and brush and paint a masterpiece. 

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_May 04, 2018_31.jpg

My Chino experience was a special one. It wasn't the way it should be... but such is life. It takes an army to put an airshow together, and in every army, there is that one special person that is the spirit. David Vopat added to the Chino experience. David was Chino. 

This was a long journey which started many years ago in Reading, Pennsylvania. I never imagined the day I saw Scott Culver in front of a T-6, that I would be here talking about David Vopat. My father always told me to measure a man by the company he keeps. Craig, Elvia, Meagan, Michael, Dave, Jodi, Sarah and Dan. They allowed me to stand beside them and share in the stories and experiences they had with that aviator and his Flying Wing. I felt David's energy and I still shed tears for a man I never met.  

FullDiscAviation_Vopat_RichardSouza_September 04, 2019_23.jpg

*Full Disc Aviation would like to Thank Craig Rembold and Dan Villeneuve  for contributing their meaningful images to this story.
Instagram - @craigremboldphotography | @dan_villeneuve_photography
Web - www.tiredironmotorsports.com | www.dv-photography.com
For more information on Scott Culver visit www.sonofagunnerb24.com