Air Fiesta marking half-century of aerial expositions in Valley

By STEVE CLARK | The Brownsville Herald, Texas | Published: February 27, 2013

BROWNSVILLE - March 10 will mark 50 years to the day that the Confederate Air Force - in those days a rag-tag band of "warbird" enthusiasts based in Mercedes - held its first air show at Old Rebel Field, formerly Central Valley Airport.

"It created the largest traffic jam in Valley history to that point," said Air Fiesta Chairman David Hughston. "In fact, they had to turn people away, which is unheard of in the air show business."

The air show and eventually CAF's headquarters were moved to Harlingen's freshly decommissioned air force base, now Valley International Airport. In 1990, the CAF moved its headquarters to Midland. The Rio Grande Valley Wing was relocated to Brownsville. In 2004, the group changed its name to the "Commemorative Air Force."

Starting in 1957 with a single P-51 "Mustang" fighter plane - purchased for $2,500 by CAF founder Lloyd Nolen and three friends through a government surplus sale in San Antonio - the non-profit organization today boasts a fleet of more than 150 aircraft distributed among 70 wings in 27 states and four countries.

The original CAF P-51, known affectionately as "Old Red Nose," is still part of the fleet and based in Atlanta. The RGV Wing hangar in Brownsville contains several CAF planes from the fleet, which Nolen dubbed the "Ghost Squadron" in the early 1960s.

In a nod to the CAF's original charter - to preserve and restore World War II combat aircraft - Air Fiesta 2013 will focus primarily on warbirds from that era, Hughston said. Air show fans can expect a B-17 "Flying Fortress" four-engine heavy bomber, two B-25 "Mitchell" twin-engine medium bombers, a SB2C "Helldiver" dive bomber and possibly a P-63 Kingcobra fighter, he said.

"We're looking for a P-51," Hughston said. "We haven't found one yet, but we'll get one. ... We've got a bead on one in Monterrey, surprisingly enough."

CAF replicas of Japanese combat aircraft - a "Zero" fighter, "Val" dive bomber and "Kate" torpedo bomber - will simulate aerial mayhem as the CAF's pyrotechnics team creates crowd-pleasing fire balls.

"It's going to be a really neat show - literally a lot of bang for the buck," Hughston said.

This year's aerobatic performers will be longtime CAF air show performer Paul Fiala in his Great Lakes biplane; Jeff Southern in a Pitts Special biplane or possibly a World War II-era AT-6; and Mike "Spanky" Galloway in the 300-horsepower Extra 300 monoplane.

The show will also feature skydivers, local Corvette and Mustang clubs, a trade show, children's activities and food and beverage vendors.

Advance tickets are $15 and available online at www.airfiesta.org, at Cameron County Stripes stores, the Brownsville Convention & Visitors Bureau and the CAF Museum at the airport. Kids under 12 get in free. Tickets at the gate are $20. Gates open at 9 a.m. and the flying starts at noon both days. Parking is $5 per car.

"While we never sell out, we do have limited space available in our Flightline Club, so if people want to get the tent and the chair and all that stuff it would be good to get tickets online ahead of time," Hughston said.


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