John Ockenfels sits poised in the cockpit of his vibrant yellow T-6 airplane, the eyes of three fellow pilots glued to him. As he raises his hand, the engine of his slumbering 1940s war bird kicks to life.
The other pilots follow suit. A soft hiccup and a plume of white smoke flow from each of the four T-6 planes, first Ockenfels’ yellow craft, then a gray, another gray, and finally a silver plane. The air, which seconds ago had carried nothing but the muffled tones of a gentle summer breeze is filled with the raucous sound of four steel giants, itching to fly.
The quartet spent roughly a half-hour soaring above the Iowa City Municipal Airport on a late August morning. Between 1,500 and 2,000 feet above the ground, they passed over in diamond, V and echelon formations. But the distance betrayed reality. And what from the ground appeared to be a leisurely flight for four pilots was in fact a calculated, intense exercise in precision.
“When you are flying, there are a lot of things to keep an eye on. It is a high stress situation,” says Jim Rohlf, who piloted one of the two gray and orange planes. “Especially when you get rough air and the planes are getting bobbed around. When you are up there and there are planes flailing around, you have all those moving parts in three dimensions you have to keep track of. And now, you have three or four planes in a row, there is a lot going on there.”
With a top speed of roughly 225 mph, the T-6 isn’t the fastest plane available on the market. It isn’t the sleekest, or most maneuverable craft ever built either.
But for this quartet of fliers, owning and maintaining one of these historic 1940s crafts — which originally were used to train military pilots during World War II and into the 1950s — is the epitome of hobby aviation.
“I’ve put people in the back seat of my plane, and the last time they have seen a T-6 was when they were in the military,” David Mills says.
Mills owns a sleek silver T-6. The sun bounces off the gleaming metallic rivets and red-capped nose.
The paint scheme — which is a tribute to the Mosquito Squadron, a group that flew missions in Korea — was not Mills’ handiwork.
“It is painted that way because the guy that I bought it from had it that way,” he says. “I own it to fly it.”
Others in the group, though, have taken it upon themselves to modify their historic birds’ plumage.
“The paint scheme on mine exactly matches the paint scheme on the Iowa Air National Guard for 1952,” Ockenfels says.
Ockenfels says it was important to him to pay homage to the group of Iowans who flew T-6s because “that was the only military flying you could do in Iowa, was the Air Guard.”
For every member of the group, owning and operating a piece of history takes precedence over the physical aesthetics of the craft.
“Part of it is because they were actual U.S. property trainers,” Ockenfels says. “They used to be owned by our government and were used to train what we call ‘The Greatest Generation,’ so it does contribute to that.”
And Don Gurnett, who owns the second of the two gray and orange T-6s, says helping former servicemen reconnect with their pasts by giving them rides is an emotional experience.
“I have taken people up for rides, guys who are practically in tears when they got out of the airplane,” Gurnett says.
Minutes after landing from their flight over the Iowa City Airport, the four men sat in the office of Ockenfels’ hanger. As they debriefed each other on the flight, a minor disagreement between Ockenfels and Gurnett ensued.
The duo disagreed on what speed was adequate for certain maneuvers, and while a few miles per hour difference may not seem like a big deal, one of the pilots pointed out how when flying, even minor adjustments can have major consequences.
“We debrief air speeds. It is always about getting better and perfecting the art, and flying to exacting critical standards,” Mills says. “Because if you get a guy who is not on his game or isn’t competent, current, and capable, well, you trust your life with him and that is quite a bond between pilots.”
But while life-threatening situations are a real possibility in formation flying, Ockenfels used a somewhat curious word to describe how he feels when flying with the other three pilots: “Comfortable.”
“We start off with a training program. We don’t just go off and do this,” Ockenfels says. “We go through training programs so I could have walked up on the street and have just met these guys for the first time, and after a little bit of discussion, we would figure out what we know, what we think we know, and what we really know, and whether we are going to fly together.”
But not every formation these men fly their planes in is to wow or impress, some are to pay respects.
“The missing man is a tribute to veterans and servicemen who gave so much in defending our country,” Mills says. “I have done countless of them and that is particularly gratifying.”
The missing man formation is frequently flown by four planes in a V formation, where one of the lead pilots abruptly pulls his plane vertical, flying up into the sky, away from the group.
“Somebody has to defend the country at some point and I have flown over for funerals for kids that got killed in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Rohlf says. “We are not on the ground seeing what it (war) is, but you cannot forget these people, so that is why we do flyovers.”
Mills remembers the exact moment he wanted to become a pilot.
“I know the instant,” he says. “I flew in with my dad and some friends on floats into a rural fishing cabin, and I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I was in junior high at the time.”
For others in the group, that passion started even younger.
Ockenfels remembers watching planes take off and land at the airport near his childhood home.
“I used to sit on the front porch saying, ‘some day I’m going to get to ride in one of those airplanes,’ ” he says.
Gurnett, the most senior member of the quartet, remembers getting the itch as a child playing with model planes in an aviation club in Cedar Rapids.
But for every member of the group, flying is a passion they put time, money and effort into. They all count themselves lucky to be in possession of a T-6, and they don’t take that responsibility lightly.
“They are just neat old airplanes, and they are not making any more, and there is nothing like them,” Ockenfels says. “There are a lot of people who will look you in the eye and say, ‘I don’t own that T-6, I just happen to be the current caretaker.’ ”