On Sunday, July 22, I was one of the thousands of pilots with intent of reaching Oshkosh or one of its reliever airports. Marginal weather in Wisconsin prevailed, but with an IFR slot secured for Appleton we felt confident we’d be pounding tie-down stakes by mid-afternoon. As my husband and I hurriedly loaded our plane, I couldn’t help but notice a strikingly painted Beechcraft Baron parked nearby on the ramp of our home airport (KIXD). In spite of our tight schedule, I trotted over to the plane to take a closer look. Standing nearby were the aircraft’s owner Rob Bowen and friend Jim Kaiser. Both retired career American Airlines pilots, Rob and Jim were also Oshkosh-bound, but their mission was much different.
Rob and Jim were bringing the Baron to AirVenture 2018 for the kickoff of the “We Remember Tour” honoring America’s fallen military members since 9/11. As Jim explained it, Rob initially came up with the bucket-list idea of flying the Baron around the perimeter of the lower 48 states. Jim, a retired Navy officer, upped the ante and suggested they dedicate the aircraft to fallen military servicemen and women and tie it into Snowball Express, a charity that serves the children and families they left behind. Now a permanent program of the Gary Sinise Foundation, Snowball Express’s stated mission is to provide hope, healing and new happy memories to children through events, trips and connecting them with other Gold Star families. (I urge you to read more about the organization’s purpose and genesis at snowballexpress.org.)
That led to the decision to repaint the Baron in a unique way. What’s most stunning about the Baron is not its prominent patriotic red-white-blue paint scheme or its homage to donor American Airlines on its vertical stabilizer. On the plane is the name of every active duty U.S. military member who lost his or her life since Sept. 11, 2001. As a result, there are nearly 7,700 names listed in neat columns covering the entire fuselage.
Rob and Jim also carry special cargo on board. Last year, the Baron was featured at a Snowball Express event at the Carswell Joint Reserve Base for Gold
Star families. During their preflight afterward, they discovered a small painted rock sitting on the wingtip of the plane. The rock was meant to honor a fallen hero and asked that pictures be posted on Facebook of its travels with the Baron. After
faithfully posting pictures of the rock at various airshows and events, the mother of a young girl named Kiley Weaver saw the posts and contacted them. Kiley’s mother told them that following the travels of the rock helps the girl deal with the loss of her dad, who was killed in action in 2010.
Two days later I found myself standing next to the “We Remember” Baron again, this time at a prominent spot on Boeing Plaza at EAA AirVenture. According to Jim, the response to the Baron’s presence at Oshkosh fell into two categories. “If you were a member of the general public without any connection to a fallen hero, the response was one of shock that so many had been killed over the years. When we are experiencing only a few losses a month it does not really hit you, but when you see all those names on the airplane at once it really impacts you.
“If you were a friend or family member, the reaction was quite different because the loss of just one hero was someone’s husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, friend. They all have stories to tell, and each one is deeply personal. Their responses were of deep gratitude and appreciation for not letting their loved ones’ losses be forgotten.”
When asked to recount a particularly poignant moment, Jim answered, “I’m not sure where to start. We’ve had military members who had a list of names, sometimes more than 10 names. Many times, their fallen heroes had died in a group from a helicopter crash or an IED explosion, and their names would all be together on the airplane. We rarely made it through an entire list before they had to stop looking; it was just too intense for them. I had a man come up to the airplane and he was obviously looking for a name. After I helped him find it, he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘That was my son.’ I could not comprehend what it must be like to bury a child, but he thanked me for doing what we did.”
Jim continued, “We started out with a simple plan to honor one individual at a time on each leg around the United States. We were just planning on hitting some of the military bases and keeping it kind of low key. That plan went out to the window as we realized we needed to take the stories of our fallen heroes to as many people as possible.
“I think what has surprised us the most is the reaction of the families and friends. We were not prepared for the impact the airplane would have on them and in return what they would have on us. The mere fact that we have not forgotten our heroes means the world to them, thus the name ‘We Remember Tour.’ We are honored to be able to do this for our Gold Star families.”
To follow or catch up with the Tour at an airshow near you, go to www.facebook.com/WeRememberTour.