Accidental Historian Goes to Oshkosh

EAA’s 2001 AirAdventure brought delight to hundreds of thousands of people and gave ALPA the opportunity to show off its strengths, history, and achievements.

Air Line Pilot, January/February 2002, p. 24
Story and Photos By Gary DiNunno, Editor-in-Chief

The Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual extravaganza in Oshkosh, Wis., last year showcased aviation firsts from the Wright brothers’ gliders and early airmail airplanes to modern military and general aviation aircraft. During the weeklong show, some 750,000 people came to see their favorite warbirds, classic aircraft, seaplanes, racers, homebuilts, and other experimental aircraft. Nearly 2,500 aircraft were on display along the flight line and on the display ramp, including a historic Tuskegee Airmen AT-6 advanced trainer, which an ALPA member painstakingly restored to its original markings and condition.

Also in the spotlight were a replica of a 1919 Vickers Vimy, a British Tornado that the German Air Force operates, a Boeing 307 Stratoliner in Pan American livery, several national champion air racers, a 1927 Avro Avian biplane that was used in September to recreate Amelia Earhart’s 1928 record-setting flight across the United States in that aircraft type, and a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) Lockheed Constellation. B-1B bombers thrilled the crowd with a fly-by. F-18s roared down the runway as Staggerwings, DC-3s, and ancient Cessnas, Swifts, and Mooneys waited for takeoff clearance. Every day ended with an aerobatic show that sometimes included a mock air race or warbirds dogfighting and strafing the runway.

ALPA, the first U.S. airline pilot union, was well represented as line pilot volunteers, including members of ALPA’s Education Committee and the union’s vice-president–finance, Capt. John Feldvary, staffed the booth to talk union and piloting careers with hundreds of aviation enthusiasts who stopped to hear the message. In addition, several ALPA members flew to Oshkosh to display their privately owned vintage aircraft.

More than 400 ALPA members and retirees stopped by the booth to say hello and to see who else might be attending the event. Airline pilots who belong to other unions dropped by to express support for bringing their organization into ALPA or to get information about ALPA services and benefits. The wife of an airline pilot who hurried by the booth without making eye contact was overheard asking him, "I see ALPA’s here. Is your union here?" Military pilots about to transfer to civilian status picked up information and asked about airlines that were hiring and minimum requirements. A complimentary propeller toy with an ALPA logo brought smiles and delight to young children who until that moment were not interested in being dragged from booth to booth by their parents. Some of the children even dragged their parents to the ALPA booth because they remembered receiving the propeller toy during previous shows.

Line pilot volunteers in ALPA’s booth for staggered periods during the week included Capt. Mitch Mitchell (Alaska); Atlantic Coast Capts. John Swygert, Jerry Smith, and Brian Ross; First Officer Ed Rafacz (Delta); First Officer Jon Brittingham (Northwest); Capt. Steve Cowell (Sun Country); Capt. Bill Kientz (TWA); Capt. Eric "Pill" Popper (United); and Capt. Chip Mull (US Airways).

This year, the pinnacle of ALPA’s presence at Oshkosh had to be Capt. Cowell’s restored AT-6. The aircraft was a major attraction in a static display next to the Tuskegee Airmen tent, which included another AT-6 and two P-51C Mustangs, one of which was painted in the livery of World War II ace and Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer. Capt. Cowell’s airplane is the only surviving AT-6 that the Tuskegee Airmen actually flew.

Capt. Cowell refers to himself as an accidental historian. He had no idea that the aircraft he purchased was so famous. He says that he always had a love for WWII-era airplanes, now known as warbirds. He decided to look into the purchase of an AT-6 with a friend, Sprague Limbaugh, whom he had met at Pioneer Airlines, where Capt. Cowell first became an ALPA member a little more than 17 years ago. They shopped around for several available AT-6s and expressed a real interest in one in California. To discuss the purchase, Capt. Cowell called Capt. Julie Clarke (Northwest), who is a well-known T-34 air show performer. Capt. Cowell decided to look elsewhere and found an ad in Trade-a-Plane for an AT-6 located in Minnesota.

He says, "I just happened to be going to the NWA training center in the Minneapolis area for a 6-month captain’s check, so I decided to look at this AT-6. I called the number in the ad and was faxed some information and then made plans to view the airplane."

He says, "The airplane sat in its hangar with two dummy 100-pound bombs under each wing and a red cowl and a dent under the right spar, where it had apparently fallen off a jack. I looked all around the airplane in the hanger as best I could and viewed the logbooks. I decided this airplane might be a suitable purchase. I called an individual with AT-6 expertise and arranged a pre-purchase inspection. I asked him to examine the airplane and to give me a very detailed report."

Capt. Cowell notes that a banker who had died owned the airplane for about 18 years, but the banker was not a pilot—he had always been a passenger in the back seat. The banker’s veterinarian friend, who was a pilot, flew him around. The banker was from Rake, Iowa, and the airplane was based and located in Blue Earth, Minn., near the Iowa–Minnesota border.

"After receiving the report on the phone and receiving a fax of the pre-purchase inspection," Capt. Cowell says, "I really questioned whether this would be a good airplane. I was told that, if I did not buy it, then the person who inspected it would.

"The price negotiations began, and I ended up purchasing the airplane for $115,000, but I knew that I would have to put some more money into it immediately."

But Capt. Cowell did not yet know the extent of the project he had begun. "During the course of the purchase process," he says, "I took the airplane’s serial numbers, which the mechanic provided to me during the prepurchase inspection, and mailed a request to the USAF Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. I asked them to please tell me everything they could about this AT-6. I didn’t hear a word from them either before or during the time of the airplane’s purchase."

Capt. John Vick (United), who has a tremendous amount of experience with AT-6s, Capt. Cowell says, helped fly the airplane home to Denver. Capt. Cowell began the process of checking out in the T-6. He had a basic tail-wheel checkout, but noted that the AT-6 is "a whole lot different from the B-727, which I fly. You really need to remember where the rudder pedals are."

Four months after he bought the airplane, Capt. Cowell received a telephone call from a Sgt. David Byrd from Maxwell AFB, "who, after apologizing for not getting back to me sooner, very excitedly told me that I had one of the most historic airplanes he had ever come across in his research."

Sgt. Byrd said the airplane had been originally delivered directly to Tuskegee Army Airfield for use by the Tuskegee Airmen in March 1943 and was flown there until June 16, 1946, about the time of the base closing. To the best of Sgt. Bird’s knowledge, no other T-6 exists that was used at Tuskegee, and it was also the only airplane that was delivered directly from the factory to Tuskegee. Three Stearmans that flew portions of their careers at Tuskegee still exist, but they were not delivered directly there and did not spend as long there.

"I was in shock," Capt. Cowell says. "I really did not know what to do," he adds. "I was very proud that I had an airplane with significant heritage.

"I called the National Air and Space Museum and asked to speak with the appropriate historians and was put in touch with Dan Hagedorn, who, as it turns out, had written about the AT-6 in a warbird tech series book. Dan and I talked about my thoughts to paint the aircraft like a Mustang in tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen. Dan said it would be more of a tribute if I returned the airplane back to the way it was." Capt. Cowell told the historian that he had spent months getting the right screws and other parts for the airplane. "Hagedorn strongly encouraged me to continue that effort," Capt. Cowell reports. "The more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was correct."

So Capt. Cowell began researching the Tuskegee Airmen. "I didn’t know more about them than was depicted in the 1995 HBO movie," he says. During the course of this research, he says, "I have been able to meet many very interesting people and, once the word of my project got out, other people who I wouldn’t have dreamed of meeting contacted me."

Capt. Cowell states that during his research he was contacted by Alice (Wilgoose) Ferguson, the daughter of the inventor of the Pratt & Whitney 3140 engine, the Wasp, and the R2800. He says that "she was very enthused about what I had accomplished and that I had brought back fond memories of her father, who died in 1949.

"I have had people from all over the country write to me with valuable information for this project," he said. "People have been terrific."

One of the greatest experiences for Capt. Cowell was taking the airplane back to Tuskegee on June 25. "At 1:21 p.m.," he says, "I landed at Tuskegee and brought the airplane home for the first time in 55 years. I felt incredible. I knew that my work to restore the airplane to its original state was worth all the cost and effort."

Capt. Cowell observes that the restoration began slowly at first. Then in July 1998 came a sudden turn of events. "While landing at Longmont, something that held the tail-wheel steering cable tension let go," he says. "I thought that I had completed a very nice landing and was well into the roll when the airplane, without warning, took an immediate hard right. I went bounding over the grass. The left main wheel contacted a taxiway sign, which sheared off the left main. The wingtip on the left side was tracing a path across the ground as I continued down the taxiway. I finally came to a halt—nose down, with the propeller stopped, and tail in the air at 45 degrees—in front of about 25 skydivers who were getting ready to launch off of Longmont."

Capt. Cowell continues, "The passenger I was carrying happened to be an aircraft mechanic who had worked on SNJs, the Navy equivalent of the Army Air Forces AT-6s, during WWII. We evacuated the airplane, and neither one of us had a scratch, but people who saw me said that they had never seen anyone so mad and so sad at the same time."

Capt. Cowell then had to fight with his insurance company to fix the damage. "The insurance company wanted to total the airplane," he says. "Friends of mine who deal with AT-6 parts warned me that people wanted to immediately purchase the aircraft out of salvage," he says. "I did everything I could to retain ownership. My own insurance company refused to help me because I had already signed on with another insurance company once the original contract was supposed to expire. So, I had to arrange for everything to be done myself."

After searching for repair facilities, Capt. Cowell selected a shop in Breckenridge, Tex., that Nelson Ezell, an expert on warbirds, operates. "After contacting Nelson," Capt. Cowell says, "I went to Breckenridge, which is about 125 miles from Dallas, to allow him to view photos of the airplane’s current condition. He decided that they would take on the repair of the airplane."

Offering encouragement, Capt. Vick said, "Now is the time, and that’s the place. Nelson has one of the finest reputations in the world for restorations. You might want to have him do the work." Capt. Cowell asked for and received a cost estimate and then decided to have the work done. "I took a considerable amount of my savings and borrowed against several other reserves and even sold my watch," Capt. Cowell says. "I put everything I had into getting this airplane refurbished and restored back to the way it was—exactly the way it was when used by the Tuskegee Airmen."

Beginning about 2 months later, Capt. Cowell returned to the repair shop once a month to photograph the progress of repairs. He says, "I would complete my latest trip, jumpseat to Dallas, and rent a car. I would then drive as far as Mineral Wells, by which time I became too tired to continue. I’d spend the night in a little hotel in Mineral Wells, wake up the next morning, and drive 45 minutes to Breckenridge. I would view the airplane, spend about four to five hours at the repair shop, and then drive two and a half hours back to Dallas to jumpseat back to Denver."

He continued that monthly itinerary for 2 years, during which time he documented and watched his airplane come back to life. In addition to monitoring the repairs and flying for his airline, Capt. Cowell traveled across the country to research the Tuskegee Airmen and the markings of the airplane. "My travels took me to the National Air and Space Museum," he says, "over to the National Archives and down to Tuskegee, where I managed to pick up a few chips of the bricks from the original hangar. The airplane now always travels with those chips from Tuskegee. I spoke to the people at Boeing, where the North American Aircraft Co. records are now located. I was able to meet many individual Tuskegee Airmen who had brochures and photographs showing what the Tuskegee AT-6s looked like and how they were configured."

This effort was not easy. "I would spend two months wondering what the color of a certain knob was while I was waiting for a telephone call with the answer," Capt. Cowell declares. "And then, I would call the shop in Texas to ask them to paint it one way, only to call them back later to have them paint it another way. I became obsessed with ensuring that the restoration was done correctly. I took the attitude that if I didn’t do this that no one else would. I wanted to be sure that it was done correctly."

During the course of his research, Capt. Cowell discovered a book, The Double V, the Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen, written by Lawrence P. Scott and William M. Womack, and published by the Michigan State University Press. "The book had such a tremendous effect on me that I decided to name the airplane Double Vee," he says. "The Double V stood for not only a victory abroad against the Axis powers, but also a victory at home against [racial] prejudice." Capt. Cowell notes that the Double V was actually a campaign waged for the Tuskegee Airmen in the very early years of the war. Although an African-American newspaper did everything it could to promote this campaign—producing banners, posters, and buttons—it was never widely acknowledged. "When I initially bought the plane, I called it the Trouble Maker," Capt. Cowell said. "After reading that book and talking to individual Tuskegee Airmen, I thought the most appropriate and probably the greatest honor this airplane could have is to call it Double Vee. It stands for uncompromised victory."

Now that the airplane is fully restored, Capt. Cowell flies it to various air shows in the United States to bring attention to the Tuskegee Airmen and their accomplishments. He has created a historical pictorial display that depicts life at the Tuskegee Airfield—the lives of the pilots and the ground crew members that supported them—and even includes a personal letter that a Tuskegee Airman wrote in 1944 to his son that discusses the hardships the pilots went through at Tuskegee. The pilot’s son sent Capt. Cowell a copy of the letter. The photographs used on the displays are part of some of the slides that an individual Tuskegee Airman, Bill Holloman from Seattle, Wash., provided. The slides helped Capt. Cowell configure the airplane and restore the appropriate markings.

"My plan," Capt. Cowell adds, "is to fly the airplane to as many air shows as possible to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and to talk about their courage and their dreams." He adds, "White American males returning from World War II, found no limit to the flying jobs available. These African-American pilots, however, were immediately grounded. What I want to do is to show people that the Tuskegee Airmen are much more than the characters depicted in the 1995 movie. They are much more than a few black pilots who were allowed to fly for their country only to return to a segregated society."

Many dramatic stories tell how Tuskegee Airmen’s dreams to become airline pilots were dashed. For example, Capt. Cowell recounted one story. "It was a very personal story that was told to me by a Tuskegee Airman," Capt. Cowell says. "I was talking to a World War II combat pilot whom I met at a Tuskegee Airmen convention about three years ago. He asked me what I flew. I told him all about my restored airplane and the B-727. He was bent over on a cane, his glasses were thick, and his white beard was a little stubbled. The man was easily in his late 70s. His eyes brightened at my story, and he asked me what I did for a living. I said I was an airline pilot.

He said that he had wanted to be an airline pilot. He flew Mustangs and P-47s. And after he finished his tour in the Mustangs, he requested a transfer into the 477th Bomber Group at the Tuskegee Airfield. He trained as a bomber pilot because he knew that the multiengine flight-time would come in handy when he wanted to apply for a job as an airline pilot. He looked up at me and gave me a little wry smile and said, "And I’m still waiting for them to call."

Capt. Cowell observes that these men had to have bachelor, masters, and doctorate degrees to become Tuskegee Airmen, while the white pilots during WWII, who were often only high school graduates, were thrown into fighters or the front seats of bombers if they had good vision.

"Not one of these Tuskegee Airmen was hired by an U.S. airline," he says. "The first black airline pilot, Capt. Bill Norwood (United, Ret.), was hired in the 1950s," Capt. Cowell says.

He adds, "I met Lee Archer, a Tuskegee fighter pilot, three years ago while my AT-6 restoration was in progress. Lee and I sat down and talked about my airplane. Lee is a certified ace. He shot down five airplanes during WWII. He is the only ace of the Tuskegee Airmen."

Capt. Cowell notes, "It turns out that Lee’s advanced training was during the time my airplane was at Tuskegee. His advanced training took place in the late spring and early summer of 1943, before he went overseas. Lee and I talked about what my airplane did. During this discussion, we determined that Lee had actually flown my airplane during his training. He would take it down to Eglin Army Air Forces Base in Florida for gunnery training and air combat maneuvering training. Lee also learned close air support in that airplane.

"I was able to meet Lee Archer again, here at Oshkosh," Capt. Cowell says, "and showed him the airplane he flew 58 years ago in a fully restored condition. That was a special moment."

Capt. Cowell said his goal now is to be the last person to own this plane before it goes to a museum. "I really believe it should end up in a museum. This airplane is a unique piece of history." He notes that museums have shown some interest in the airplane. "They would like some corporation to buy the airplane from me and then donate it to them," he says.

"I would really like the airplane to be in the National Air and Space Museum or at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala.," he says, adding that "the U.S. government has provided $29 million in a grant to refurbish the airfield, but it is releasing only some of the funds. In the three years since the grant was approved, the federal government continues to conduct studies."

In conclusion, Capt. Cowell says, "This has been a wonderful experience for me, but certainly has not been easy. This restoration and air show display has taken a lot of time and energy. In addition to the monetary costs, I’ve had to sacrifice friends and personal relationships. But in the end, I feel very fortunate for the opportunity to bring something this important back to life—to make sure that this history is not forgotten. I am very thankful for the tremendous support not only from the people directly involved but also from those indirectly involved in the restoration of this historic airplane, including the captains who granted me a jumpseat while in pursuit of this goal. I couldn’t have done it without them."