History of the Gulf Coast Wing (GCW)


The Gulf Coast Wing was chartered by the CAF on September 19, 1971, with the original document displaying the signatures of Lloyd Nolan, the founder of the CAF and Deputy Commander Van Skiles. Skiles and Eddie Burke were the first Unit Leader and Executive Officer of the unit, and Eddie, Van, and wife Betty Skiles were the cornerstones of the fledgling CAF unit.

Right from the start, the group had a tight-knit dynamic punctuated with lots of energy, excitement, and camaraderie. The first aircraft assigned to the GCW was not a B-17. In fact, the GCW had been created to make a home for six movie prop aircraft that had been purchased from 20th Century Fox in 1970, then donated to the CAF by Gerald Weeks the following year. These weren’t just any movie props, however, they were six of the 35 Zeroes, Kates, and Val replicas made for the blockbuster 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora!

These aircraft had been treated as castoffs by the studio, which is how Gerald Weeks came by them. The CAF in turn, was not sure what to do with “replica” aircraft since the organization was a stickler for authenticity. The savvy and motivated group that founded the GCW quickly saw the potential for an airshow act.

The GCW’s first operational year of 1972 also saw the unit take over the Galveston Air Show, previously hosted by CAF Headquarters. GCW had been hard at work choreographing an airshow non-aerobatic routine that would include the former Tora! Tora! Tora! aircraft.

2Tom Reedy came up with the original overall concept while Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise is credited with the Val portion of the act. Unrelated to the GCW at the time, Eddie Burke and Van Skiles were also the primary flight crew for the CAF Headquarters B-17 N7227C (not yet named Texas Raiders) based in Harlingen. As such, they were able to work the B-17 into the first Galveston Air Show and into the TORA act as well. In addition to some amazing choreography for the Tora act, the Wing also added smoke generators to one of the Zeros and to the B-17’s #3 engine.

The very first Tora Tora Tora airshow performance may have been the most memorable for those who flew and witnessed it on June 25, 1972. The crews that day were: Bob Garrett, Kent Ross, Bob Bunton and Tora Lead Tom Reedy flying the Zeroes. The Val dive bomber was flown by Fred Haise. The Kate torpedo bomber was flown by C.A. Skiles. The two Wildcat pilots flying defense were Joe Engel and Gerald Martin. The B-17 was flown by Van Skiles & Eddie Burke with Raymond Perry serving as Flight Engineer.

Though it would be unthinkable today, in 1972 the TORA aircraft lacked radios. As such, the airshow planners had set everything up on a very specific timetable that including introductions, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the first act which was TORA.

3The aircraft dutifully showed up at exactly 12:10 as scheduled. However, everything else was running a few minutes behind. Thus, at 12:10 the Star-Spangled Banner was still playing while the first “Japanese” aircraft came in (just like on December 7th!). At first, the announcer and pyro team were just as shocked as the audience. Both quickly overcame their initial surprise and joined right in with the Tora planes. B-17 pilot Van Skiles performed a one-wheel touchdown with the B-17 while Japanese aircraft and Wildcats swirled all around.

After it was all over the TORA aircraft faded away, and several minutes of silence fell over the crowd while the significance of what had just happened sank in. The performance was truly a big splash to begin the GCW’s operations and the Tora Tora Tora airshow act! The performance was refined throughout the year as it was repeated at additional Texas airshows in Fort Worth, San Marcos, Wharton, Brownwood, and CAF AIRSHO in Harlingen.

Photo Credits

A tremendously skilled pilot, Van Skiles repeatedly wowed the crowd by performing a one-wheel touchdown of the B-17 during most TORA airshows. However, in 1983 Boeing put out a communique warning about the undue stresses on the aircraft that such a maneuver caused, and CAF Chief Pilot J.K. West disallowed it after that season.


In 1974, HQ officially assigned Texas Raiders to the Gulf Coast Wing, joining the TORA aircraft. In those early days, TR spent the airshow season at the Galveston airport just ½ mile from the beach and unprotected from the salt air. October-April generally saw the B-17 returned to a hangar at CAF HQ in Harlingen. It is important to note that until about 1978, the GCW focus was solidly on the Tora airplanes. B-17 Texas Raiders was just a sidelight until after she was repainted in 381st Bomb Group colors and had turret shells installed mimicking the look of a top turret and ball turret.

The 1970’s were a golden time for the CAF and GCW. By all accounts from those who were there, the unit was hard-working, tight-knit, and fun-loving. In addition to a long line of tenured CAF legends, the GCW’s TORA aircraft were often flown by men who were legends in their own right, such as WWII Marine ace Archie Donahue and NASA astronauts Deke Slayton, Teddy Mendenhall, Fred Haise, Joe Engle, and NASA’s chief pilot Joe Algranti (who reportedly could fly anything).

Tragically, one of the Val’s engine quit on a cross-country flight that resulted in a total loss of the aircraft and significant injuries to Fred Haise. After that, NASA put out a communique forbidding astronauts from further such activity. Considering their incredible investment into the training of these men, NASA’s insistence is perhaps understandable.


One of many tremendous assets to the GCW in the early days was former B-17 & B-29 combat pilot Carter McGregor. Retired Navy fighter pilot Jack Holden was also an instrumental contributor in the early days purchasing and donating aircraft for the Tora airshow act as well as financing many of the Wing’s activities. In 1979, retired General Ira C. Eaker flew with Texas Raiders and even took the controls for twenty minutes enroute to San Antonio.

Retired General Curtis LeMay was instrumental in critical early decisions made by the CAF & GCW regarding their B-17 and in 1983 he was given a tour of TR after being given the honorary title of Chairman of the Board of the Foundation by the CAF in a Headquarters ceremony.

Can you imagine a time when Texas Raiders, or any warbird for that matter did not tour? Well, amazingly enough, prior to the late 1970’s it just wasn’t done. The GCW literally invented what is now ubiquitous among flyable warbirds. Indeed, Texas Raiders was the first warbird to go on tour in 1978.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, touring and airshows were not at all like they are today. CAF aircraft performed in two CAF sponsored airshows per year, AIRSHO (Oct) and WINTERSHO (Jan/Feb) and by invitation to military and civilian airshows. Additionally, GCW Tora aircraft and TR performed in their own Galveston Airshow until it was superseded in 1984 by Wings Over Houston. In 1972, N7227C led the entire CAF flight during TRANSPO 72 in Washington DC, flying over the Pentagon, down the Potomac River, and past the capitol. In between airshows, open houses were held wherever GCW called home that year, where people could take a ground tour of the aircraft for $2. In 1977 TR was invited to and Osh-Kosh Air Venture and in 1978 she attended the Reno Air Races.

6When Texas Raiders launched the concept of touring, the aircraft stopped at airports in cities and towns convenient to her path and gave ground tours to the local population, charging $2 for adults, and $1 for kids. Paid public flights, unfortunately, were not yet allowed by the FAA.

In 1981, Charles Hutchens, then TORA leader, was instrumental in marketing the TORA act to airshows across the country. The incredible Tora Tora Tora airshow is the longest running airshow act in America and has been performed for nearly 50 years to millions of spectators.

There are now three 2nd Generation Tora pilots flying today: Mike Burke (son of GCW co-founder Eddie Burke), Pat Hutchins (son of Charles Hutchins), and Dan Reedy (son of Tora airshow concept originator Tom Reedy). Original Tora members Buddy Cooksey and Mike Burke are still with the unit today. Mike is now TORA Lead and Buddy flies TR in the TORA act. We could not be prouder of them.

In 1980, a new generation of leadership came to the GCW. Van Skiles, who can rightly be called the father of the GCW, stepped down and was succeeded by Skip Bailey as Wing Leader. A few years later Skip was succeeded by Platt Thompson. In 1989 the Wing Leader torch was passed to Pat Elliott. Whereas this was the end of a great era for the GCW, some significant changes were made possible under these new Wing Leaders. Texas Raiders began receiving the restoration attention necessary to restore the look and feel of the combat-configured B-17G we recognize today. Just as important, the first of a long line of additional pilots such as the now legendary Buddy Cooksey and Pat Elliott were first checked out on TR in 1982 by CAF Chief Pilot J.K. West. As amazing as it sounds today Van Skiles and Eddie Burke were TR’s only regular flight crew prior to 1982 (J.K. West and Dellon Bumgardner also flew TR occasionally).

While the TORA aircraft continued performing their increasingly popular airshow from 1983 to 1986, Texas Raiders relocated to Hobby airport and underwent a nose-to-tail, wingtip-to-wingtip restoration under the supervision and leadership of Pat Elliott. Known as “Col. Cool”, he led a team of undaunted and tremendously hard working contributors such as Gary Judkins, Tommy Garcia, Scott Royce, Richard Black, Buddy Cooksey, and Maintenance Officer Dellon Bumgardner (a WWII combat vet that flew B-17 “Beguin the Beguine”).

7After untold thousands of volunteer hours and ~$300,000, TR emerged in June 1986 in perhaps the best condition of her 41-year life. Fully and accurately configured inside and out, TR received a well-deserved award from AIR CLASSICS magazine as the “best restored B-17G bomber currently flying in the world.” In the middle of TR’s major restoration during the Fall of 1984, the inaugural Wings Over Houston airshow was held. It was jointly run and operated by Houston Wing and Gulf Coast Wing of the CAF.

Today it is one of the country’s most highly attended airshows. Each year the airshow is anchored by a jet team, usually the Navy’s Blue Angels or the USAF Thunderbirds. In 1986, the Gulf Coast Wing moved TR to Ellington Field, 4-1/2 miles further away from the corrosive salt air of Galveston Bay. The Tora aircraft were hangered at nearby Pearland’s Clover Field, now known as Pearland Regional Airport. The Gulf Coast Wing has sent Texas Raiders on several international tours as well.

From 1988 to 1991 the GCW sent Texas Raiders to Mexico three times. First was Cuernavaca in November 1988, then Guadalajara, and finally to Monterey in September 1991. In the summer of 1997 TR set out for our northern neighbor, Canada, with stops in six mid-size cities across Alberta & British Columbia plus Calgary, as well as two Canadian air show appearances. In the middle of that Canadian tour, TR also stopped in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau, Alaska. Over twenty years later the crews are still talking about that trip! International visas have proven tricky in the post-9/11 world, however. Between that and the sharp increase in the price of AvGas, duplicating those tours would be difficult to attempt today.

In 2001, Texas Raiders was moved to Hobby Airport for the FAA mandated Wing Spar Airworthiness Directive inspection and associated corrosion repairs. This huge effort kept TR grounded for eight years while simultaneously consuming vast sums of effort and capital while preventing her from doing much in the way of fundraising. Bringing TR back to airworthiness nearly bankrupted the GCW. However, in 2009, the GCW successfully returned Texas Raiders to flight with corrosion abated, brand new wing spar terminal ends installed, and a clean bill of health from the FAA.

2002 Restoration Gallery
2003 Restoration Gallery
2004 Restoration Gallery
2005 Restoration Gallery
2006 Restoration Gallery
2007 Restoration Gallery
2008 Restoration Gallery
2009 Restoration Gallery

At nearly the same time a directive from CAF Headquarters came down requiring that Texas Raiders be kept inside a hangar. As such, the GCW found a new home at Hooks Field in Tomball, TX. This was perhaps the first permanent hangar home TR had ever known. The GCW had become a large and important unit of the CAF, but there were two sides to the house. For many years TORA and TR with their different aircraft, crews, maintenance needs and sometimes conflicting priorities coexisted quite well. By the late 1980’s however, the two sides started to become less aligned and those sometimes-conflicting priorities started to create friction. Indeed, just the fact that the aircraft were kept at different airports made things as simple as Wing meetings difficult to schedule. 

By 2011, it had become clear that TORA and TR would be better served belonging to separate units. After much deliberation about how to do this while maintaining a solid working relationship, the Tora group created their own unit under their own name. As before, TORA and TR continue to perform together at airshows whenever possible and both the GCW and Tora units continued to run and operate the Wings Over Houston Airshow in conjunction with the Houston Wing.

Today the CAF B-17 Flying Fortress Texas Raiders performs in multiple airshows every year and has visited hundreds of cities and towns across America fulfilling the CAF’s core mission to educate, inspire and honor. She is flown, maintained, and operated as she always has been, through the efforts of unpaid but highly motivated volunteers and is funded by donations, tour receipts, and airshow appearance fees. Since the cost of operating these types of aircraft has increased so much in the last twenty years, the most important funding source today is the relatively recent addition of the Living History Flight Experience.

2018 Repaint of Texas Raiders with new nose art

If you have ever taken a Living History Flight with Texas Raiders or with one of the CAF’s other 171 aircraft, then you know what an amazing experience it is. What you may not know is that the FAA has only allowed such flights since 1998. Each year the FAA reviews and renews her permission to operate these public flights, one year at a time. Today the revenue from Living History Flights quite literally represents our ability to continue operating the aircraft.

9In 2017 the Gulf Coast Wing and Texas Raiders relocated once again, moving to a hangar at General Aviation Services at Conroe – North Houston Regional Airport in Conroe, Texas. Just prior to the Conroe move, the Gulf Coast Wing welcomed a 1947-built Navy JRB-6 transport, commonly known as a “Twin Beech” to the family. The JRB-6 soon gained her name, Little Raider, and joined the Living History Flight Experience program. Both aircraft now tour together, perform in airshows, and offer flights to the public.

At their current home in Conroe there is room for our amazing group of volunteers to congregate, work on their labors of love, and make Texas Raiders and Little Raider available to the public for tours and flights. If you would like to come tour or take a flight, please look at our schedule page to find the next public event. Also, we are always looking for motivated volunteers from every background. No matter what your skillset is, the Gulf Coast Wing can use your help!

Either way, come see us at:

General Aviation 5260 Central Parkway Conroe, TX 77303

This article is one of a series called:

Setting The Record Straight

Compiled by Col. Kevin “K5” Michels

Special thanks to LC “Buddy” Cooksey, Pat Elliott, Brad Pilgrim, Ken English, Curt Rowe, and Everett Gibson for their invaluable input