In the summer of 2008, on a lush grass field in Bealeton, Virginia, Sue Tucker Brander approached the blue and yellow plane of her new friend, civilian pilot and Air Force Reservist David Brown. In her hand was a framed black and white photograph.
The photo showed a young man wearing a leather helmet and goggles in the rear cockpit of a biplane, his head down performing his preflight checks. At the bottom of the frame was written “Al Tucker, First Solo -1942.”
Brander pointed to Brown’s plane and said, “You know, my Daddy used to fly a plane just like that.”
David Brown had been enthralled with airplanes since he was a kid in the 1960s and 70s being driven around Fauquier County, Virginia in his parents’ Buick LeSabre. He cannot remember a time when he was not dreaming of following his father into the U.S. Air Force and becoming a pilot.
However, the aircraft that originally lifted his head into the clouds were not sleek jet fighters making vertical takeoffs in full afterburner or even the airliners he saw arriving or departing from nearby Dulles International Airport.
The planes that first caught his eye from the back seat of that Buick were just pictures on a roadside billboard firmly attached to the ground along Route 29. It was a scene of planes made of wood and cloth, no hydraulics, no canopies, no missiles, no computer chips.
French Nieuport biplanes tangled in mortal combat with German Fokker tri-planes at ranges so close the pilots could shoot at each other with pistols from the cockpit. These aircraft were designed at a time when most people in the U.S. still did not own a car and television was something in a science fiction tale.
The billboard was promoting performances of The Flying Circus Airshow at a grass-field aerodrome in nearby Bealeton, Virginia.
At the age of 14, Brown’s Boy Scout Troop had a campout in a field adjacent to the aerodrome. It was on that weekend in 1974 that he paid $12 to a World War II veteran, Norm Moore, to go for a ride in Moore’s blue and yellow PT-17 Stearman biplane.
Brown lifted skyward and never came back down.
He began hanging around the field at age 15 and was put to work on the ground crew, selling tickets, cutting the grass or whatever else needed to be done.
Little did Brown know that his first ride in a Stearman was not a steppingstone to future fighter-jock glory, but the first glimpse of his destiny.
The PT-17 Stearman would have a pivotal role in the life of another Airman, decades before Brown was even born. Albert Tucker Jr. was the son of an infantry officer stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia in the 1930s.
As an officer’s son, the young boy had the run of the base, including the small grass airfield lined with U.S. Army Air Corps biplanes. Tucker would hang around the field like a squadron mascot until one of the pilots gave him a ride.
Tucker too, would never come back down.
As a teenager, he pestered his father endlessly about learning to fly, but was rebuffed each time.
“He said, ‘It’s all right son. You can do any darn thing you want. Any crazy thing you want to do, but only when you’re old enough to make your own decision. We won’t talk about it now.’ It was a requirement that I go to college first,” said Tucker. “That being the case, I said I might as well make it the army college, West Point.”
Al Jr. would follow his father into the Army in 1940, but not in his exact footsteps. For Tucker, soldiering in the mud with the infantry was not nearly as attractive as flying above them.
“West Point taught me a lot of drill, stand up straight, don’t look around, right face, left face, to the rear, march, all this stuff. I didn’t enjoy that at all,” said Tucker. “I sailed through flight training because I had been flying and sailing my whole life; it’s the same science. It was ordinarily a four-year course. We made it in three. I graduated in 1943 and I flew over my graduation parade, looking down on it. I did not have to march… that was great.”
The plane he flew over that parade was a PT-17 Stearman.
For Tucker, the biplane would be a steppingstone to fighter-jock glory, but he too was destined to loop back to where he began.
In 1978, Brown entered the Air Force ROTC program at East Carolina University with dreams of taking the stick of the new F-15 or F-16. He was already well into private pilot training, having soloed in a Cessna 150 the previous year. He would get his private pilot’s license in 1979.
Now a pilot in the civilian world, the 20-year-old cadet began studying in 1980 to achieve the same goal in the military. Unfortunately, no amount of desire, determination or cramming could prepare him for his first exam.
That test did not involve rudders, ailerons and aerodynamics, but retinas, corneas and lenses. It was taken not in the schoolhouse, but in an optometrist’s office.
It was a test he would fail.
“When I went for my flight physical in 1980, I did not have the 20/20 vision required. I also missed a navigator’s slot because I could not see 20/70 uncorrected,” said Brown.
While his fighter-jock dream was gone, he still wanted to serve his country and accepted a two-year scholarship from Strategic Air Command to serve his four years as a nuclear missileer.
Yet the desire to fly for a living was too strong and Brown left active duty in 1986 to accumulate flight hours and ratings in more advanced civilian aircraft as well as become a certified flight instructor. He hoped to become a full-time commercial pilot.
That dream too died; not the victim of less-than-perfect eyesight, but rather less-than-perfect economics.
“I had gotten a job managing highway inspections for (the Virginia Department of Transportation) and was going to do that until I could crack the airlines, but the only flight hours I could get were part time with no benefits. I had a wife and kids and a mortgage to pay,” said Brown. “So we talked it over and I decided to finish out my career with VDOT and that would give me time on the weekends to do flight instruction and start giving rides at the Flying Circus and try to build up that business.”
In the 1987, Brown returned to the grass field in Bealeton, got checked out in another pilot’s PT-17 Stearman and began performing in Flying Circus shows and giving rides to paying customers. For all his dreams of a career in the cockpits of modern jets, his aviation destiny echoed the very beginnings of manned flight.
In the 1920s and 1930s, pilots, many veterans of World War I, would buy surplus military biplanes and fly them over small towns, performing aerobatics, until they drew a crowd below. Then they would land on a farm field and sell rides in their flying machines to the swarm of locals. Those pilots were called Barnstormers.
The loop Brown had begun as a teenager in the 1970s with his first ride in a Stearman closed in 2002 when he bought his own PT-17, painted in the blue and yellow of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and began giving rides to paying customers.
The barnstormer’s customer was now a barnstormer himself, flying from the very same airfield.
The same airfield where Sue Tucker Brander would show him that black and white photograph.
With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, Lt. Al Tucker Jr. spent 1943 bouncing around different U.S. Army airfields in California training in fighter aircraft alongside his West Point classmate Lt. Robin Olds. When not in the cockpits of their sleek new P-38 twin-engine fighters, the two were inseparable.
After months of training, and 1944 fast approaching, Tucker and Olds had seen just about enough of southern California.
“We had gone through training in the P-38 four times and we were still not able to get overseas. There was a war on!” said Tucker. “So Robin and I decided to go to headquarters and find a sergeant who could get our squadron out of there and into the war. We found a nice old sergeant, he could have been our dad. We told him our trouble. He said, ‘you gentlemen just sit here.’ When he came back, he had orders for myself and my friend Robin Olds and 10 other names in our squadron. So 12 of us got overseas orders right there from that sergeant.”
Olds and Tucker would fly their P-38s on escort missions for bombers over Europe, including raids on Berlin, with the 434th Fighter Squadron. They would also patrol the skies over Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in June 1944.
Having survived Nazi flak and fighters for 22 missions, Tucker’s war would end on mission 23. With Eighth Air Force bombers grounded due to bad weather over the English airfields, the P-38s of the 434th FS were loaned out to the Ninth Air Force for a tactical bombing raid on a railroad bridge about 50 miles northeast of Paris.
“We had not trained to drop bombs, but it didn’t worry me, because I’d seen it in the newsreels. Looked easy to me,” said Tucker. “But, I got hit on my run. The shot went right through the front of the right engine, but I still had a good left engine. I finished my dive, and just let my bombs go.”
With the prop of his right engine bent forward, the drag made steering the P-38 nearly impossible. At low altitude Tucker managed to get the fighter pointed roughly towards England. As he approached the French coast he noticed a ridgeline before him that seemed to be covered with a line of fence posts. As he neared, he discovered the fence posts were actually more German anti-aircraft guns.
“I had all the power the left engine would give me, but the torque was causing the airplane to go sideways. I couldn’t really steer it. I could just go forward that way, but I kept it going as best I could. Unfortunately, I slid right up over top of one of those gun positions,” said Tucker. “They shot a hole right up through the fuel tank on my right side. That was the fuel I was saving to get me over the English Channel. Anyway, that set the airplane on fire. I felt the heat. I could see the glare. So I thought I’d better get out of the airplane before it burns up. But I was too low to bail out. All I could do was take all the power off, land straight ahead as best I could.
“When I got down, I ran where I saw a bunch of bushes, but just in a couple minutes, a platoon of Germans found me. They pointed their guns at me. One of them said, ‘For you, the war is over. Put up your hands’. So, I put up my hands.”
After spending a week in a jail in Lilles, France, Tucker was moved by train to Frankfurt, Germany and then on to Stalag Luft 1, a German Luftwaffe (Air Force) prison near Hamburg. It was one of the last prison camps to be liberated by the Russian Army after Germany’s surrender in the spring of 1945.
Tucker spent the next few months in Europe ferrying P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs to collection areas for decommissioning, before boarding a ship back to the U.S. Waiting for him when he disembarked near New York was a message from his squadron-mate Robin Olds.
“I landed where all of us would be reentering the United States. There was a message for me there from Robin Olds telling me to hurry and come to meet him in Philadelphia because he had tickets for me for the Army-Navy game,” said Tucker. “I was delighted, and that’s the first time I ever saw Army beat Navy. Three years I’d been in West Point and in three years, I never saw Army win.”
The next year, 1946, Olds, who claimed 12 aerial victories during World War II, saw to it that his friend Tucker joined him at March Field in Riverside, California as a member of the first squadron to fly the USAAF’s first jet-powered fighter, the P-80 Shooting Star.
The two immediately began flying formation aerobatics together in the new powerful aircraft.
“Oh boy, the first jet! Man, that was fun,” said Tucker. “Well, he and I had often flown formation aerobatics together, the two of us, in whatever we were flying at the time. But with this jet, man, what you could do. The general came out and watched Olds and me and this third classmate do the formation aerobatics that we had just been having fun with. That did it. The whole brand new fighter wing was ordered to fly out to the Cleveland Air Races that year.”
It was there that Olds and Tucker performed their aerobatic routine before an awestruck crowd that included more than a few generals from Washington, D.C.
It was a performance that would ignite interest in the creation of a flight demonstration team when the fledgling U.S. Air Force separated from the U.S. Army in 1947 as its own branch of the military.
It was an idea that came to fruition in 1953 with the formation of the 3600th Air Demonstration Team, which would come to be known as the “Thunderbirds.”
Olds and Tucker would remain in tight formation as members of the first USAF-Royal Air Force Exchange Program flying Gloster Meteor jet fighters in the RAF’s flight demonstration team.
Then they both went on to fly F-86 Sabres before Tucker went on to posts that included command of an air defense radar squadron and chief of manpower, Tactical Air Command, before retiring from the Air Force as a colonel.
Olds would remain in the cockpit and continue a storied combat career culminating in four more air-to-air victories during the Vietnam War. He would retire a brigadier general.
While the two pilots remained fast friends, it was not without some good-natured needling.
After a squadron reunion, Olds invited Tucker’s daughter Sue to come skiing at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Upon her return home, Tucker received a beautifully worded letter in which Olds jokingly asked for Tucker’s blessing to marry his daughter. Tucker politely refused stating that he was sure Olds would make a great husband for his daughter, but he could not stand the thought of Olds calling him “Daddy.”
Sue Tucker Brander began volunteering at the Flying Circus in 2008, working in the snack bar. There she met David Brown with his PT-17 and immediately knew that he had to meet her 86-year-old dad, Al Tucker Jr.
“I had a photo of Dad in a Stearman, checking the magnetos before his first solo at West Point in 1942,” said Brander. “I showed it to Dave Brown and he was eager to meet Dad. When I told Dad he should come up to see the show… he wasn’t eager to come. He had seen all those planes before, but he accepted my invitation to humor me, I think. When the planes taxied to the fence wing tip to wing tip, it was all over for Dad.”
Brown invited the 86-year-old Tucker, who had not been in a cockpit for years, for a ride in his Stearman. Tucker climbed unaided into the front cockpit and strapped on his helmet and goggles just like in 1942. Brown taxied the plane onto the field. Then told Tucker the aircraft was his.
“Golly man, Dave let me take it off. Do anything you like. Fly it around. Flew it around. Do aerobatics. Did aerobatics,” said Tucker. “I got in a flight pattern (for landing) the way I saw him do it. I figured he was going to take over when the time came, but he didn’t say a thing. I carefully flew over the trees and pulled back the throttle and dove down, but he didn’t get on the controls. I figured I’m going to land it if he doesn’t take over. So, I landed it. I made a perfect landing.”
Tucker was hooked all over again. After a military career that had taken him from combat in the skies over Europe during World War II, to flying the Air Force’s first jets and giving birth to the idea of an Air Force flight demonstration team, Tucker completed his own loop back to where it all started; the cockpit of a PT-17 Stearman. It also was the beginning of another friendship with a talented Airman.
“We started scheduling flights outside of the Flying Circus,” said Brown. “He would come over to Warrenton Airport. We’d go up for half hour, 45 minutes, or an hour. We’d go out and shoot some landings, we would go fly some aerobatics and he just fell in love with flying the airplane again.”
For Brown, developing a friendship with a fellow Airman who helped write the history of the U.S. Air Force has become one of the greatest gifts from flying the Stearman.
“The fact that I can now speak with a veteran who flew this plane in World War II and gain his perspective on things is just priceless… When I met Al he was very humble, very calm guy and we really didn’t talk a lot about what he did in World War II until, as we were flying, the stories started coming out,” said Brown.
“We would go to lunch or we would have time afterwards and he would tell me a little bit more about it. Then I found out how fascinating his story really is. He started coming out and flying with me on every birthday. Now that’s become a tradition. We commemorate Al’s birthday flying the Stearman.”
Tucker has his own locker in Brown’s hangar at Warrenton Airport where Brown, a certified flight instructor, enters each flight in Tucker’s extensive flight log. The latest aircraft entry in that logbook for 2017 is the same as the very first entry in Tucker’s logbook from 1942: PT-17.
“I’m very happy that I can bring Al back to flying again. He had all but given it up,” said Brown. “It’s been eight years that we’ve been flying together, this has really been rejuvenating for Al, keeping him excited. Flying the same aircraft that he learned to fly in and soloed in 1942. That’s the joy of this aircraft; reuniting pilots.”
Brown has also taken the opportunity to expose young Airmen he supervises to a man that embodies the very beginnings of the Air Force story.
“We recently had a young lady come to the Flying Circus who was an Airman. She got a ride in my airplane and I took her over and introduced her to Al,” said Brown. “She got to talk to him. Most everyone has the same reaction when they talk to Al. They just talk about how wonderful and genuine he is and what a great experience it is talking to someone with his history. I just think we’re very lucky to have guys like him who are still with us and telling these stories.”
Those young Airmen, and the Airmen he supervises at the 459th Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, also benefit from hearing the story of perseverance by another Airman.
When the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia was completed in 2006, generals wanted the flyover at the dedication ceremony to reflect the full history of the U.S. Air Force.
They wanted the flyover led by a PT-17 Stearman. And so, on Oct. 14, 2006, First Sergeant David Brown, U.S. Air Force Reserve, finally flew his first official mission as an Air Force pilot and helped write a small piece of Air Force history.