Florida Warbirds Squadron: Taking to the skies over Boca Grande

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BY CAROLINE CLABAUGH – Having two very important veterans in my life, my father, retired LT Col. Edward “Shorty” Livingston and my husband, former Air Force, Airman First Class, Mark Clabaugh; I jumped at the chance to ride along with EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Florida Warbirds Squadron 24 to salute our troops and veterans to open the Gasparilla Island Kid’s Classic Tarpon Tournament.

My father, appropriately nicknamed, Shorty Livingston had to have his height measured twice and was told to “stand up as tall as you can” before he became part of the “Greatest Generation.” He became the “Radar O’Riley,” ordinance officer who ordered bombs and placed them on airplanes during World War II. In later years he served as a reserve officer in the Army Corp of Engineers.

My husband, Mark Clabaugh was, at one time, one of only two aircraft electricians covering all of South Korea. He also serviced planes coming out of Viet Nam. My husband’s electrical talents may be seen out in our yard every night as it seems like every blade of grass is lit up. I thank them, all of our troops, veterans, and those who gave their lives so I can ride in vintage airplanes and write about my experience without fear of censorship.

taking offThe cumulous clouds were billowy and a few of southwest Florida’s showers were popping up here and there as I arrived at Punta Gorda Airport. I promptly got out of my car to meet “Warbird Zack” (Jim Olzacki) and stood right in the middle of one of the airport’s famous ant hills. Back at Zack’s hanger we got back to why we were taking this flight. Four years ago Capt. Sandy Melvin, Gasparilla Island Kid’s Classic Tarpon Tournament’s organizer and son of a Viet Nam helicopter search and rescue pilot, wanted to create a fanfare for the opening of the tournament that the children would remember. He contacted the EAA Florida Warbirds Squadron 24 and the relationship began.

The mission of the EAA Florida Warbirds Squadron 24 is to educate members and the public in the history, preservation, safe operation and maintenance of World War II and other such historic aircraft.

Warbird Zack aspired to be a pilot from the time he was a young boy. He played football and injured a knee, so by the time college rolled around his Air Force pilot days were over. He met Robert Pond, a Minneapolis industrialist, who collected World War II airplanes. Zack is the President/Commander of the EAA Florida Warbird Squadron 24. He has presided over the whole state of Florida Warbirds and is currently on the Board of Directors for the EAA National Warbirds.Warbird Zack on ground

Dick Russell is a retired United Airlines pilot, who has been flying for 65 years and is 85-years-old. He is from Spruce Creek Airport in Deland, Florida along with Art Patstone, a retired Chrysler engineer who has been flying for 47 years. Both planes were also T34C Turbo Mentors.

The last to arrive was Rich Langer, a retired Southwest Airline pilot from Ocala, Florida. He has only been retired for two years and was flying a Chinese made CJ-5 Nanchang. This was the plane I was assigned to.

Introductions were made, pictures taken, pilot briefing, and we were off, since we had a schedule to keep in the Boca Grande Pass so the tarpon tournament could begin.

The signature aqua water around Gasparilla Island made a beautiful backdrop to photograph the colorful planes flying around me. Once the National Anthem had been played and the colors presented, the formation flew through the Pass with the smoke oil streaming from the planes.

It was a wonderful feeling to honor our troops and veterans on the 71st anniversary of D-Day.

Part of the Warbirds’ mission is to teach children about aviation. If you gain the curiosity of just one child at an early age to be interested enough to pursue it throughout life, you have accomplished your mission. Whether it is flying a plane, avionics, technology, fishing, oceanic ecology, or business, our future are our children and they are very impressionable.