TYLER – The inaugural Rose City Airfest Friday night featured acrobatic and patriotic flight demonstrations by jets and warplanes at the Tyler Pounds Regional Airport.
On Saturday, the pilots and crew who spent the weekend taking the public aboard World War II B-17 bomber planes such as the Devil Dog and the Texas Raiders had an unusual task.
During the pre-flight briefing, they continued to lose track of their thoughts as they told two passengers where to sit and how to buckle up. These passengers, World War II veterans Ralph Coleman Graham and Joe McPhail, are both 99 years old.
They fastened those same seat belts, sat in the radio operator and pilot seats almost 80 years ago on missions.
Neither of them needed help getting into the B-17. They were both smiling like kids taking off the plane. Between them, they carried out nearly 300 missions.
Graham admits that “not all memories are good”. As he gripped the machine gun pointing at the side window, he recalled, “I shot down a hell of a lot of planes with that.”
The pair flew over Tyler and Smith County for nearly 40 minutes.
“It was a little different from the fighters I’m used to,” McPhail said. “The flight I did in the army, I was the only one there.
“It was great, it was a little difficult. We had a little trouble getting up during the warm-up procedure, but we had a good flight. You bet I really enjoyed it,” added McPhail.
Garrett Bragg of the Gulf Coast Wing Commemorative Air Force asked Graham as he sat in his old radio operator seat, “Is something missing?”
Graham replied, “No, I think it’s all about that.”
Between World War II and the Korean War, McPhail flew 242 missions. He moved from Grand Saline to Tyler in 1937 and graduated from Tyler High, the only school in town. Graham, who lives in Henderson County, flew 33 missions over Germany as a member of the 8th Air Force.
Bragg put it in perspective.
“Every time we get on these flights, we tell passengers, ‘We are preserving their heritage. “But that’s really what it is,” he said. “To go up with guys who were there and who served on those planes? Looking at Ralph sitting in his old radio set doesn’t get any better than that.
“We are honored that you want to come fly with us. We appreciate what you have done for us,” Bragg told the two veterans, becoming moved.
Graham put his hand on his shoulder so Bragg could finish. “What you’ve done allows us to be here today to do what we’re doing, so we really appreciate you and the other veterans.”
McPhail turned to Bragg and said, “It was awesome, a great flight. I was happy I was able to be involved.”
Proceeds from the first Friday night air show benefited CampV in Tyler, a 20-acre facility for veterans, serving military personnel and their families to receive useful resources, such as employment information, assistance on mental health issues and answers on veterans benefits.