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A wild ride into war history

By CHUIN-WEI YAP, Times Staff Writer
Published February 9, 2008


ZEPHYRHILLS - There are many reasons why I sometimes have just a banana for breakfast.

Friday morning with John Mackinson is one of them.

Mackinson flies Barnstormer tours with restored Second World War planes for History Flight, a nonprofit that raises funds to recover the remains of American servicemen who went missing in action.

The Barnstormers are in town until Feb. 17, trading flights at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport for funds and fun.

Mackinson's biographical write-up begins this way: "John started flying on the family farm in Manitoba at the age of 10."

Sounds innocent, doesn't it?

I get into the gleaming 1955 T-6 Texan. It looks like a ramshackle assortment of metal plates, but feels taut and confident in motion.

Nearby, Times photographer Brendan Fitterer is aboard a bright yellow 1941 Stearman biplane, piloted by Marc Hightower.

Seventeen minutes, 60 miles, and an eternity of 360-degree rolls later, Fitterer recounts this little conversation he had with Hightower as they watched our T-6 from the Stearman.

"He's either loving it or he's ready to have a heart attack," Fitterer told Hightower, referring to me.

Then Hightower shares this little tidbit about Mackinson, my captain:

"They call him the Pukemaster," Hightower quipped.

I wonder why I didn't hear this exchange over the intercom as we were flying.

Oh that's right.

I was engaged in a pitched battle with the banana in my stomach, which was sending all kinds of warnings about what happens when you do a twister at 200 mph.

I didn't duel with the banana for all 17 minutes.

For a few seconds, I actually got to admire Florida in February - so much land! - as it unfolded into view. As the T-6 twirled, Hightower's biplane looked like it was just hanging in the air, a bumble bee suspended against the piercing blue sky.

But I quickly forget which way is up.

Mackinson stayed solicitous throughout, often inquiring after my well-being just after we make another beeline for hell.

Then he tells me to take the stick.

"Your turn to fly," he said.

My first thought was to politely decline, maybe in the form of a stream of vomit.

But I take the stick anyway. I was flying!

Well, to be accurate, I was wimpily nudging something that was already in flight.

And then Mackinson was back in control, and we were gliding back to earth.

His landing, like his takeoff, is a work of art, a feathery kiss of 6,000 pounds on tarmac.

A small group of people had gathered to watch.

Charlie Walker, 88, of Zephyrhills, is wearing a black cap with "WORLD WAR II VETERAN" emblazoned in yellow. He worked on bases in Alaska during the war, refueling P-38 planes en route to Russia.

He remembers the cold and he isn't censoring his memories.

"I got pictures of us in tents, way below zero," he said. "We had - you know what those were called? You zip them up. It was called a fart sack."

The Barnstormer History Flights are for his fallen brethren.

Last year, someone came in to the Tour and said he still had a great uncle missing in action from the Second World War.

Nelson Price, a Barnstormer pilot, said the History Flight folks got to work. They found the dead man and his dog tags in a mass grave at Tarawa, a South Pacific island. They sent his remains home.

"It's a cool closure, just to know what happened and where he's at," Price said.

John Mackinson's short biographical write-up ends this way:

"John flies in the memory of those who fought and died for us all."

When I turned to look, the Pukemaster was in the air again, working for the closure of strangers in the service of the Good War.

The banana? It never came up.

The Pukemaster knew what he was doing.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at or 813909-4613.

If you go

The 2008 Barnstormer Tour is at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, 39450 South Ave., Zephyrhills, until Feb. 17.

Proceeds go to History Flight, a nonprofit organization that preserves and honors World War II, Vietnam and Gulf War aviation history and air crew veterans.

You can request the type of flight you want: smooth, aerobatics, or combat maneuvers.

[Last modified February 9, 2008, 01:04:52]

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