In 1962, former World War II fighter pilot Richard Sykes and his friends started the Condor Squadron, a group that today still flies WWII AT-6 planes for various community events and celebrations.
Sykes, who was shot down over Hungary during the war but lived to tell the tale, has since died, but a new cadre of pilots has taken up his mantle to share the wonders of this plane and era with residents.
“We have the honor and privilege of flying them,” said the non-profit’s president Chris Rushing, 61. “All of the first generation of pilots are gone. We are just carrying on Richard Sykes’ legacy.”
The Condor Squadron owns and maintains a cadre of six vintage WWII planes that fly out of the Van Nuys Airport. Its 50 active members meet each Wednesday to connect about upcoming events and sometimes fly together, Rushing said. They regularly perform at events, such as recent Memorial Day flyovers in Los Angeles and Santa Clarita.
On the Fourth of July, Pacific Palisades will benefit from their expertise for the first time. Beginning at the traditional parade start time of 2 p.m., five Condor Squadron planes will fly over the Palisades for about thirty minutes. The pilots will make repeated passes through town, beginning at Mandeville Canyon, venturing along Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Ocean, and then traveling up Palisades Drive to the Highlands.
The flights should be visible from almost everywhere in town to create a coronavirus-safe display for the holiday. (Organizers request that people refrain from congregating on Sunset to view the flights, but instead remain at their homes.)
During the flyover, Rushing will be piloting one of two North American AT-6 planes that he owns. The remaining four planes are owned by the Condor Squadron, which incurs about $700 per hour in operating expenses (gas, insurance, and maintenance) per plane to fly at events. Part of the club’s appeal is that its members, who include many seasoned corporate and commercial pilots, get the chance to fly these unique, hard-to-handle historical planes.
“This airplane—it’s built somewhat peculiar,” Rushing said. “It’s real hard to land. You have to have real good pilot skills.” During WWII, the plane was used for formation pilot training, “and it made real good pilots. It was called the pilot maker.”
Some of the plane’s challenges, Rushing said, include narrow landing gear, a center of gravity that “kind of moves around,” and a single wheel under the tail, which requires special care on landing. For pilots with “tail wheel experience,” flying the plane comes fairly easily, but typically planes today have a single wheel under the nose, which requires a different landing strategy.
Rushing, a former Air Force mechanic and three-decade member of the California Air National Guard, learned to fly on his own by taking lessons and gathering miles. He had first flown as a kid, and when he moved to California from Tennessee in 1987, he soon joined the Condor Squadron to connect with other pilots.
His skills have since reached the point that last year he won gold for the second time at Reno’s National Air Races in the T-6 category, an event in which Sykes had also previously triumphed. To begin competition 15 years ago, Rushing adapted one of his AT-6s with a lighter frame and a “newer, fresher, peppier engine.” Instead of flying at typical cruising speeds of about 138 mph, his racing plane has charted speeds at the National Air Race of up to 241 mph.
“You want the strongest engine and the least heavy airplane; the whole idea is to go fast,” Rushing said, noting that the race features 15 airplanes flying five laps on a five-mile track over repeated heats. Each heat, “We come out of the chute, balls out.”
By contrast, the flights over Pacific Palisades on the Fourth will be more sedate. The formations will be flown in a diamond, line, or two variations of a fingertip formation. The name of the latter is inspired by the spread of the tips of one’s fingers. Later in the day, they will also fly over four beach cities, including San Clemente.