From the Stars and Stripes archives

The Skyblazers: USAFE's aerial ambassadors

Skyblazers team leader Capt. Francis "Pat" Kramer Jr. prepares to take to the air.


By JOE MCBRIDE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 8, 1960

"ALTHOUGH I'VE seen them many times, I never fail to get a thrill each time I watch them."

The speaker, a German girl who works as a secretary at Bitburg Air Base, was referring to the Skyblazers, USAFE's aerial precision team based at Bitburg.

The secretary is not alone in praise of the team. Millions of Europeans who have seen the aerial ambassadors at air shows all over the Continent echo her sentiments. Since the team was organized in 1949, it has given almost 300 demonstrations.

"This is the ultimate in fighter-type flying today," says Capt Gordon L. Eells of Columbus, Miss., who flies right wing in the diamond and has been with the Skyblazers for four years, "Every aggressive pilot, and I mean aggressive, would give his right arm to fly with the team," Eells added.

The Skyblazers pride themselves on their precision flying. Executing their tricky maneuvers, planes are often only three feet apart.

"We fly closer than any other acrobatic team in the world," Eells said, "and when the weather is smooth, we can really sock in."

Eells was standing by his F100C, after checking it out prior to a morning show, when Capt Francis (Pat) Kramer, Jr., leader of the team who took over two months ago, came by and said "we're starting earlier, we're souping in."

Kramer, of Mobile, Ala., said "we're restricted to a 3,000-foot ceiling and 3 miles visibility."

On this particular morning, a ceremony was cut short so the Skyblazers could put on their show. However, the overcast set in so fast they just performed a few simple maneuvers, trailing their red, white and blue smoke, and landed one after the other releasing their colored drag chutes.

"You know, we don't have any flaps for landing and takeoff on our planes — that's why we come in so fast," Kramer pointed out. "Generally, we wouldn't go up in this weather, but since this is our home base and we know the area, we didn't want to disappoint the crowd."

Naturally, the men are keyed up just before a show, but when it ends it's a coffee and chatter session.

"We couldn't really shoot the works today ... weather." "That red smoke looked muddy, we'll have to work on it" are typical remarks made in the after-the-show critique.

How do the wives feel about this sort of flying?

"Oh, they're nonchalant about it," one Skyblazer said. "My wife didn't see the show ... had an appointment with the hairdresser."

Another said "my wife is home minding the kids," while another added, "my wife said she'll watch it from the window."

If any of the Skyblazers has a new idea for a maneuver, he takes it to Kramer and the whole team discusses it. If it sounds workable, Kramer and Eells go up and give it a try. One of the newer maneuvers is the slow speed pass with gear down. They look like low-flying birds in easy formation.

A thorny problem for awhile was the effect on the tail (slot) plane flying in tight formation when the leader kicked in the afterburner. Not only did the pilot get jolted, but the plane jumped back a few feet, spoiling the formation.

"Instead of going to AB (after burner), I go to full power," Kramer, the leader, said. "I just use full power long enough for the others to use AB and this is the compensating factor."

Flying the slot position in the diamond is Capt John F. Clayton, of Comanche, Tex., the only bachelor in the party and the man who gets to "eat" the most smoke. Clayton's tail assembly on the plane is completely black from a combination of AB kicks and the varicolored smoke.

Completing the diamond is Capt Carl F. Funk, of Des Plaines, Ill., who flies left wing. He and the other wingman (Eells) have the hardest time during the maneuvers, particularly on the turns.

However, none of the positions are a cinch when you consider the tight flying formations.

"Each man knows what he's doing at all times," Kramer said, "and I'm talking to them all the time. We work as a team and if one plane malfunctions the whole operation is fouled up.

"So I talk all the time. If I want a particular maneuver, I just call out 'bomb-burst,' 'loop,' or whatever it is."

The Skyblazers like to have a little fun and they work at surprising the crowd. This is where Capt William S. Gordon, of Fresno, Calif., comes in. Gordon, flies the solo position, or chase plane.

While the four Skyblazers are operating out of their diamond and the crowd is intently watching the action, Gordon is off somewhere in the wild blue thinking out a way to throw a little surprise into things. Before anyone knows what is happening, Gordon comes streaking in over the crowd in a high-speed, low-level pass and kicks in his afterburner. The resulting din rattles every window at the base and leaves the spectators a bit shaky for the next few minutes.

Besides flying shows and training, each Skyblazer has another job. For example, Gordon handles publicity and usually goes an ahead of the others to check with officials of the different countries where the team performs. Each of the Skyblazers has "open" orders that covers him anywhere in Europe.

In their red, white and blue F100Cs, with stars on the tails, the Skyblazers perform at speeds ranging from 150 to 750 mph and about a mile away from spectators. Perhaps their most spectacular maneuver is the bomb-burst. The four separate to the points of the compass, then each plane dives toward the field at 750 mph from opposite directions to cross head-on simultaneously at a selected point in front of the crowd.

This invariably astonishes spectators and calls for the utmost in pilot skill and timing.

The view from the ground.