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Air(show) Assault

With a Caribou, Mohawk, Bird Dog, Hueys, and Cobras, Army aviators are teaching the loudest history lesson you ever heard.

In the spring of 2002, Carr spent weeks cutting and polishing a plywood floor for the foundation’s Caribou, one of several jobs he undertook to restore the aircraft to its 1962 appearance. He pieced together enormous sheets of plywood to fashion the floor of the Caribou’s spacious cargo section, fitting them like puzzle pieces and cutting complicated, asymmetrical holes to match the placement of tie-down handles.

“He didn’t let anybody get up there on it for the longest time if they had shoes on,” said Dick Teipel. “He didn’t want any scuff marks on it. A lot of time and love went into that floor. Mostly it was hard work.”

The Army used the Caribou as a flying pack mule early in the Vietnam War. A twin-engine hauler built by de Havilland Aircraft Company in Canada, it was valuable because it could land on short—sometimes as short as 1,000 feet—rough landing strips. (In 1966, the Army chiefs, in the continuing effort to control close air support, transferred their CV-2 and the larger de Havilland CV-7 Buffalo transports to the Air Force and agreed to relinquish most of the Army’s fixed-wing aircraft in exchange for the Air Force’s recognition of the Army’s right to operate helicopters for troop movements, fire support, and resupply.)

Besides carrying the foundation’s airshow equipment and supplies, the Caribou has an on-stage part, circling above the crowd during the show, along with the L-19. During an airshow, the ’Bou is brought in low over the field, just a few feet off the ground. When the aircraft crosses show center, the crews will kick out a box, simulating a resupply flight. The exercise shows what the aircraft did on a daily basis almost four decades ago, delivering supplies to U.S. and Vietnamese troops.

On the night before the airshow at Fort Rucker, there’s a lot of chatter in the hangars at Tara Field. Bob Schrader has come down from North Dakota to help get -149 ready for its performance. The Caribou’s nacelles are popped open and Schrader is checking the exhaust pipes to make sure the bolts have all been tightened. He remembers several of the 20-some bullet holes in the aircraft.

“It makes me happy to see that when people get home from Iraq, they get parades and celebrations,” he says. “When we got home, we pretty much got the finger.”

The night Schrader found -149 on the Internet, he had been searching for information about a downed aircraft, the one he had confused with -149. Ten or 15 years earlier, he says, he had researched it in the Fargo library, curious to see if North Dakota newspapers had published anything about it. One newspaper called it “the worst U.S. military air disaster in Vietnam.”

It happened on Monday, May 4, 1964. The night before, Schrader had returned from a “church run,” a Sunday flight that shuttled a chaplain from base to base, and was preparing his airplane for Monday’s mission. “Another chief wanted to switch missions with somebody,” he recalls. So Schrader switched, exchanging his shorter mission for the other man’s longer one, because the other chief had a bad back. (“He was an old man,” says Schrader. “He was 29.”) The airplane that Schrader would have been on crashed 25 miles south of Saigon, killing all on board. It had caught fire just after takeoff. “It wiped out my assistant crew chief. Nine Americans and six Vietnamese,” Schrader says.

“Most people shut their emotions up when they got home and got on with their lives,” he says. “One thing I like about putting on airshows: There’s probably one or two old vets that have their closet doors shut yet.”

“The airplane draws back a memory string that pulls up people and events,” says Woodward. “When they see an airplane at an airshow, they have a tool that allows them to talk to their family, a little bit of a catalyst for people.”

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