A faint buzzing off in the distance was the only warning. We turned to the west and saw fighters, dive and torpedo bombers with the angry red meatball on their sides rolling towards us. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of strafing bullets peppered their approach.
The ground trembled ever so slightly underfoot and you could feel the vibration in your chest, then despite the 90+ degree temperature, absorb the wave of heat from the simulated bombs dropped by the Val and Kates. It was controlled chaos as the Zeros barreled out of the sky and led the attack with strafing bursts, smoke on, followed closely by the Val and Kates. A siren blared, smoke choked the heavy air, the propellers whined as they whizzed past only to loop back around and dive again and again and again, then dance up towards the heavens.
"They don't teach this in history class," one of the TORA TORA TORA members told me.
TORA TORA TORA is a fabulous group of guys who simulate the attack on Pearl Harbor at air shows throughout the nation, using pyrotechnics, a carefully choreographed flying ballet, and rousing narration.
TORA performed at the Vectren Dayton Air Show 2011 and gave the crowd an impressive glimpse of a fraction of the chaos that the surprise attack created that fateful day, December 7, 1941. They're more than a great air show guest; they relay an important element of our past. It's easy to see why history might be a boring part of a child's education- we all remember sitting behind a desk regurgitating facts that didn't engage us. But the men of TORA connect with the audience and invite them to understand what the men and women of Pearl lived through; a sneak attack on American soil by an underestimated enemy.
Gordon Webb, the resident pyro master was kind enough to explain that "less is more" when setting the scene for a bombing run. The aim is to get the feel for the experience, instead of setting off car alarms. They use commercial explosives, not fireworks, and as such, their show is "very Hollywood" and a truly impressive sight to experience both visually and physically. You'll feel the ground shudder a bit, the wave of heat will blow the bangs from your forehead, and the stench of fuel will tickle your nose. It's that good.
Gordon also told me how they do it, but I'm not allowed to tell the story. It's not that we don't trust you, but… you never know who's reading this who might feel like they need a project, you know what I mean?
Gordy has an impressive resume; his team set the Guinness World Record for the longest Wall of Fire in 2009 at Yuma, Arizona. 10,178.3 feet. Don't try that at home kids. But stick around; they're planning to break that record soon.
The men and women of TORA are all volunteers who donate their time, education, experience, and in some cases personal finances, to bring the superb performance to air shows as often as possible throughout the year. I was lucky enough to take a spin in a Zero [a Zero!] with pilot Dan Reedy. My only complaint sitting in the back seat was that I needed a phone book to sit on. Short people and tail draggers don't work well together. I have to say it was great fun to fly above Dayton and hear over my headset, "Two Jap Zeros in Dayton airspace…"
The accompanying Zero flew over top of us three times, turned smoke on. It was hot beneath the canopy and loud within the plane, but a better afternoon I can't imagine. I should've paid better attention to the landmarks beneath me, but I couldn't take my eyes off the Zero flying so close I could throw a tennis ball and hit that meatball. Something about a replica warbird that's just irresistible.
After climbing out, I stood back and absorbed the hustle of men. I got the impression that they all genuinely enjoyed working together; I caught wind of lots of ribbing and camaraderie. I was proved right when Gordy admitted that this group of guys was their own party wherever they go. He likened them to barnstormers and gypsies, good friends who hook up whenever they can and have great fun with each other doing something they all love. And luckily for us, we get to share in that; their message of never forgetting the elements of history that shaped our nation, the love of flight, the intrigue of pyrotechnics (or maybe that's just me?), the value of our armed forces, and a commitment to excellence shows how truly committed they are. They insist they're not professionals, just volunteers, which still has me a bit bemused. You can't get more professional and top notch than these guys.
Their planes could be considered stars; you might've seen them in the movies Tora Tora Tora, Pearl Harbor and the TV series Black Sheep Squadron. After the war ended, it was decreed that all Japanese planes were to be destroyed, so Hollywood had to create their own. The Mitsubishi A6M "Zero"s, Nakajima B5N "Kate"s and Aichi D3A "Val"s were assembled with AT-6 bodies, and for the bombers, added Vaultee BT-13 to lengthen the fuselage.
The Commemorative Air Force members work hard to provide an informative, interactive reenactment of the Pearl Harbor experience. Please visit their website at www.toratoratora.com to find where they'll be bombing next and be sure to catch one of their shows; you won't regret it.
A few days before the flight, I had to ask my Grandma Arnold if she thought Grandpa would be honked off at me for flying with "the bad guys"; the Zero, Kate and Val helped put down the aircraft carrier USS Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 8, 1942. Grandpa served aboard the next version of the Lex from 45-46. She thought about it for a moment then replied, "No, he'd be absolutely tickled that you're doing this." Relief. Then she laughed at me for asking. "Besides, they're not the bad guys anymore, and these people are helping teach history."
My thanks to Dan Reedy for a fabulous flight over Dayton; Gordy Webb for teaching me things I have no business knowing (I will use my new found knowledge for good, not evil, I promise) and Sheila Wallace and her staff of super air show volunteers. You all did a wonderful job with the 2011 Dayton Air Show.
First and last photos courtesy of TORA TORA TORA