Saturday, November 19, 2011

Flying Tigers, Flying Legends Inspire Young Aviators

The 2011 Flying Tigers reunion at MacDill AFB (Florida) brought together pilots who have flown attack and rescue aircraft bearing the infamous shark's teeth for the past 70 years.

The remaining original Flying Tigers, made up of American Volunteer Group pilots and supporters who defended China in World War II, met Nov. 10 through 13 with pilots who have flown in conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

"It's an honor to meet with these generations of warriors," said Col. Ronald Stuewe, the commander of the 23rd Fighter Group at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. "We stand on the shoulders of giants, and it is distinctly humbling to be with them on Veterans Day. The legacy and heritage of the original Flying Tigers aren't lost on those currently serving."

The group's aircraft have evolved from the P-40 Warhawk, which lacked gun sights or bomb racks, to the current A-10C Thunderbolt II, which is the most-requested and sought-after air-to-ground support aircraft downrange.

Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, who formed and led the legendary Flying Tigers, gave a breakdown of the AVG's accomplishments in his book "The Way of a Fighter":

"The group that military experts predicted would not last three weeks in combat had fought for seven months over Burma, China, Thailand, and French Indo-China, destroying 299 Japanese planes with another 153 probably destroyed. All of this with a loss of 12 P-40s in combat and 61 on the ground."

The Flying Tigers have conducted these reunions since 1947, giving veterans the chance to share war stories with current Flying Tiger pilots.

"I've looked up to these guys since I was a little boy, so to actually meet them and hear their stories is truly, truly humbling," said Capt. Matthew Cichowski, a 75th Fighter Squadron pilot from Moody AFB. "As soon as I heard about this reunion, I said, 'Sign me up.'

"I've always wanted to be an A-10 pilot, and my first time flying one with the shark's teeth is something I won't forget," he added. "It's something I had been waiting decades for, and to be a part of the Flying Tigers now is an honor."

There were five original Flying Tiger pilots in attendance, and another handful are thought to still be alive. Also in attendance were original supporters of the Flying Tigers, such as maintainers, intelligence and medical staff.

This year, there were two guest speakers. Retired Lt. Col. Dale Storr, an A-10 pilot, spoke about his experiences as a prisoner of war when he was shot down during Desert Storm. The other speaker was retired Chinese air force Maj. Gen. Fred Wu-O Chiao, who trained and flew with Chennault. Like many of the other remaining Tigers, he is in his mid-90s.

"It almost made me cry to see how proud you all are," he said during his address. "There aren't a lot of us left. We don't have much time left, and we hope through your efforts to make the world a better place to live."

The spirit of camaraderie runs deep between the current and veteran Flying Tigers. In June, a group of 75th FS (Attack) members, led by current squadron commander Lt. Col. David Trucksa, rented a recreational vehicle and traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to attend the funeral of Maj. Gen. John Alison. A World War II ace, Alison was hand-picked to demonstrate the P-40's abilities to Chennault and Chinese officials. He was also a former 75th FS commander and the father of Air Force Special Operations.