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Warbird Pilots Step in to Honor Fallen Airmen

Arlington
Retired naval aviator Lt. Cmdr. Sean "Flopper" Cushing pulls up in his L-39 during Monday's missing man flight over Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington
Fallen airmen Maj. James Sizemore and Maj. Howard Andre received full military honors 44 years after their Invader was shot down in Laos.

Arlington
The Douglas A-26 Invader Spirit of North Carolina prior to the mission September 24.

Arlington
The A-26 flanked by a pair of P-51s flies over Arlington.

September 26, 2013 - On Monday, September 23, the remains of United States Air Force Majs. James Sizemore and Howard Andre were laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. More than 40 years ago, they were killed when their Douglas A-26 Invader was shot down over Laos in July 1969, but their bodies were never recovered.

The crash site was found several years ago and remains were positively identified in April this year by the Pentagon's POW/MIA Accounting Command Task Force. After notification of the families, burial was authorized at Arlington; however, a request for an Air Force flyby was denied due to sequestration budget cuts. That's when the warbird community stepped up to fill the void.

In late May/early June, Pat Marsh, co-founder of Warrior Aviation and the Warrior Flight Team, received a request via social media asking if the team could perform the flyover, and he committed to do so. Marsh, an L-39 pilot carrying the call sign VILLAIN, took the lead in organizing the special flyover.

Warrior Aviation is a nonprofit, all-volunteer charity that brings rewarding life opportunities to wounded vets from Afghanistan and Iraq, allowing them to return to a productive work life and solid economic citizenship.

First order of business was to reach out to the warbird community seeking pilots to participate in the tribute flight. He was overwhelmed by the reaction.

"Within 24 hours I had the lineup set," he said. "The response I received was overwhelming - I had to turn several pilots down."

Originally 10 aircraft were planned to take part - the B-25 Mitchell bomber Panchito, five L-39 jets, two P-51 Mustangs, a P-40 Warhawk, and an A-26 representing the ship in which Majs. Sizemore and Andre were shot down, the Spirit of North Carolina. Ultimately, however, eight planes flew the ceremony when one of the L-39s and the P-40 were grounded by a presidential TFR that included the American Air Power Museum on Republic/Farmingdale Airport, Long Island, New York.

Getting commitments from former military pilots to honor two of their fallen comrades was the easy part. It was much more challenging to wade through the bureaucracy and red tape required to obtain authorization for the flight that would take place well within the Washington, D.C., Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ). Sensitive areas including the Pentagon lay underneath the planned flight path, and airplanes would fly just a mile from the White House. Pilots and aircraft had to clear security requirements from the TSA, Secret Service, FAA, and Department of Defense.

It took nearly the entire three months prior to the scheduled ceremony to gain approvals from the various agencies and authorities, with final flight waivers issued just four days before the dual funeral ceremonies. Waivers were needed to allow the jets to exceed 180 kts to 250 kts in the FRZ, and allow the experimental exhibition category warbird aircraft to fly over populated areas. Aircraft and pilots were also vetted by the TSA.

Marsh kept Maj. Sizemore's family informed throughout, and in the process discovered just how small the world is regarding military pilots.

"I learned that my father had flown F4U Corsairs in the same group as Adm. Gene Sizemore (Maj. Sizemore’s brother), who flew ADs on the USS Valley Forge and USS Princeton," he said. "Everyone seems to know each other."

The waivers came through last Thursday evening, September 16, Marsh said. He credits James Johnston, manager of the National Capital Regional Coordinating Center-National Tactical Security Ops, and Natalie Smith with Potomac TRACON with providing tremendous assistance.

And although the Air Force had to deny the flight request, it did step up by providing a forward air control team on the ground.

Monday's awe-inspiring tribute flight began with a single aircraft, the B-25 Panchito piloted by Larry Kelly and Lt. Col Dane "Danish" Nielsen, USAF. Following in the second flight were three warbirds: the A-26 Invader Spirit of North Carolina piloted by George Lancaster, Alan Maxwell, and Naomi Wadsworth, with Erik Hildebrandt NTWL photo chase on board. To its right was the P-51 Mustang Quick Silver flown by Scott "Scooter" Yoak, and on the left a P-51 flown by Andrew McKenna.

The third missing man formation flight consisted of four L-39 jets, led by L-39C Vandy 1, pilot retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mark "Crunchy" Burgess (overall mission commander), and retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Jeff "Tuff" Johnson in back. Flying the left wing L-39C Heavy Metal was retired Air Force Maj. Geoff "Hak" Hickman, with Mike Girardi. The right wing L-39C - the missing man pull aircraft - was flown by retired Navy Cmdr. Sean "Flopper" Cushing, with retired Navy Cmdr. Bill "Pinch" Paisley. The far right wing L-39C was piloted by retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Art "KAOS" Nalls, along with Air Force Maj. Doug "Pecker" Woodley.

Taps played as the airplanes flew overhead, providing both families with the needed closure for their fallen airmen who died together. Their caskets were interred as they flew during the war - side by side.

"It was an incredible honor for me to be asked to help render final respects to two fellow aviators who gave their lives for their country," said missing man formation lead Burgess. "The warbird community leapt at the chance to participate in the event and did an outstanding job. It was great to see so many pilots/owners giving of their time, efforts, planes, and money to support this."

It was also heartwarming for aviators everywhere to see the outpouring of support from all over the nation, with prominent mention of the warbird community in numerous news reports.

"I truly feel we as a nation do a much better job of honoring the men and women who protect us everyday than we did 40 years ago," Burgess added. "It was our privilege to do it right for these returning Vietnam heroes. My hope was that it finally gives some closure and comfort to the families that waited 44 years for their return."

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