News>Feature - 'Guardian Angels' Earned Their Air Show Wings
(Left to right) Guardian Angels pilots Capt. John F.R. Scott, 1st Lt. Malcolm Henry, 1st Lt. Bill Marriott and Capt. Jesse Mitchell on the flight line at Spaatz Field in Reading, Pa., following an airshow at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., in 1952. The Guardian Angels, a Maryland Air National Guard aerial demonstration team, flew from 1952 to 1953. (Released)
3/14/2010 - Baltimore -- You've heard of the Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, but how about the Guardian Angels?
From 1952 until 1953, the Maryland Air National Guard had an acrobatic aerial demonstration team of its own named The Guardian Angels. Composed of traditional Guardsman pilots from the 104th Fighter Squadron, the team was led Capt. John F. R. Scott Jr. Other team members were Capt. Jesse D. Mitchell Jr., the slot pilot; 1st Lt. William Marriott, right wing; and 1st Lt. Malcolm Henry, left wing.
The team was Scott's brain child, according to Mitchell, who later rose to the rank of colonel and became the first commander of the 175th Tactical Fighter Group.
"Scottie's idea was that if the other Guard units, particularly Colorado [whose team, the Minute Men, went on to become the official Air National Guard aerial demonstration team], can have a team, why can't we?" Mitchell said.
"So we talked about it a little bit and we decided we would go try it."
The team's first flight wasn't easy, according to Mitchell.
"When we first started with it, I thought 'I don't think we're gonna get through this... this is tough,' " he said. But the team quickly improved and became very adept at flying tight diamond formations. "We reached the point where we were more comfortable sitting close in than we were sitting out. We had I think maybe three practices and we were in the middle of the air show circuit."
A typical Guardian Angels show consisted of flying diamond-formation barrel rolls and loops in their F-51H Mustangs. Aerial acrobatics in the piston-engine, propeller-driven fighters was especially difficult given the need to constantly compensate for propeller torque as the aircraft worked its way through various stages of a particular maneuver.
With a lateral separation of as little as five to 10 feet, wingtip to wingtip, the pilots had to pay absolute attention to maintaining their place in formation. Each wing pilot and the slot pilot selected a reference point on the lead aircraft and maintained his position relative to that reference point while the lead pilot guided the formation through its maneuvers.
"In my particular case, my reference was looking up the tail [jack point]," Mitchell said.
The importance of such rigid formation discipline became especially apparent during one of the team's first air shows, an aerial demonstration at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., for the 29th Infantry Division in August 1952.
"We were called in to do the show and we didn't realize that the last participant ahead of us was to be a T-6 from the Pennsylvania Air Guard towing a banner," Mitchell said. "So as we came in to make our pass, coming in the opposite direction at the same altitude was the T-6 with the banner behind it.
"I heard Scottie say, 'Uh-oh' and I remember what we did from there on was to do a gigantic barrel roll, and roll over top of the T-6 and banner and went out the other side.... I had no idea what was happening because I didn't see anything but [Scott's] tail assembly and the jack point and the static ground wire and that was it. That's all I saw."
But despite such unexpected events and the demanding nature of the flying, the Guardian Angels never suffered a flight mishap.
In addition to Indiantown Gap, the team performed at the Frederick Air Show, at the Martin Company show, and at the White Oak Armory dedication. But as time went on, other demands drew upon the team members' time and by the end of 1953 the Guardian Angels were no longer performing.
John F. R. Scott went on to command the 104th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and later wrote a book about aviation in Maryland. Bill Marriott briefly left the unit to fly with the D.C. Air Guard, but later returned. Malcolm Henry ultimately rose to the rank of brigadier general within the Maryland Air Guard. Jesse Mitchell went on to command the 104th Tactical Fighter Squadron, and in 1962 became the first commander of the 175th Tactical Fighter Group, ancestor of today's 175th Wing. Mitchell retired from the Air Guard in August 1978.
Although never officially sanctioned by the Air Force, the Guardian Angels earned their place beside the Thunderbirds and 11 other acrobatic flying teams on the U.S. Air Force Museum's roster of Air Force aerial demonstration teams.