WWII Fighter Aces reunite at weekend air show

03-23-09 Air show
Maj. James Brooks stands in front of a P-51 Mustang at the 2009 Luke Days air show held at Luke Air Force Base last weekend. The plane is modeled after the plane Brooks flew in WWII. (Emiley Darling | The State Press)
Published On:
Monday, March 23, 2009
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Seventy years ago, it might have been easier to walk up and say “hello.”

The men who sat in the shade of a blue and white tent this weekend would still have their youth, their futures and have yet to define their place in history.

But now, their experiences precede them, and their accomplishments are out of the ordinary.

These were the boys who put their lives on the line, the high school graduates who became heroes, and the men who are now impossible to talk to without being completely overcome by gratitude and respect —they are the ones who inspired the movies.

“They saved this country from the last great threat we faced as a nation,” Terry Emig, pilot of a 1942 Stearman bi-plane said. “They came off the farms and out of the factories to serve. They really were the greatest generation.”

This weekend at the 2009 Luke Days air show held at Luke Air Force Base, members of The American Fighter Ace group, an elite team of pilots who shot down five or more enemy aircraft in their careers, shared their stories.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Tyler Pencek, an ASU business management major who is going into the Marine Corps said. “Everyone dreams of flying when they’re young, and these people lived it.”

Among the Aces was Major Ralph Wandrey, who was sworn into the Air Force as an aviation cadet on November 20, 1941.

Wandrey was told he would have six months to prepare before his three years of training.

But two weeks later, Pearl Harbor was attacked.

“The week after Pearl Harbor I got the telegram telling me I was going to begin my training,” Wandrey said. “They cut three years down to nine months and I was sent overseas immediately after I was trained.”

Wandrey flew both a P-38 and a P-46, and in his 21 months in the South Pacific obtained six kills and had 16 probable kills, an effort that established him as a Fighter Ace.

“These are the legends who paved the road for us to do what we do today,” said Christopher Minnec, an ASU professional flight and aeronautical management technology major. “All the modern technology that we have now makes it easier for us, they didn’t have it. They flew by the seat of their pants — they’re the true aviators.”

But for some of them, the Air Force wasn’t exactly an ambition.

Major James Brooks, a retired P-51 pilot, entered the Air Force voluntarily to get out of jail.

He ended up with 13.5 kills in World War II, and a household name as the pilot of the “February.”

“We were all high school graduates,” Brooks said. “There were no college kids, it was all high school stuff, and if you give a high school graduate a very loud, very powerful airplane with six guns, he’s going to go out and kill something.”

His story, much like Colonel Robert “Shorty” Rankin’s, didn’t start with a passion for flight.

Rankin’s military career began in a military band in El Paso, Texas, and it ended with ten kills in 75 missions after flying his P-47 against the Germans in England.

“It turned out my career was great,” he said. “It was one-of-a-kind — a good record, went up in rank pretty fast, ended up commanding six different fighter squadrons and then I flew in Korea.”

The annual Luke Days open house and air show also included aerial demonstrations by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, a demo by the F-22 Raptor, fly bys by the Stearman squadron and other aerial demonstrations as well as displayed antique air planes for exhibit.

“A lot of people out here are pilots or they want to be pilots,” Minnec said. “It’s the aviation bug. Once it bites you, you’re hooked for life. It doesn’t matter if you’re 9 or 90, you love it. It’s the best thing in the world.”

Reach the reporter at emiley.darling@asu.edu.