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Red Baron squadron barnstorming AMS

By Ed Brock

Flying wing to wing, the Red Baron Pizza Squadron drifts in widening circles around the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The four World War II vintage Boeing Stearman biplanes that make up the squadron then break into a series of loops and rolls, sometimes together and sometimes in pairs.

On the ground, James Johnson of Tallahassee, Fla. was camping out near the AMS in preparation for this weekend's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 when he looked up to see the show.

"I said you guys get away from here you might fall," Johnson said.

But the pilots at the controls of the planes, Jeff Randall, Jim Keller, Travis Aukes and Erick Nodland, are not about to fall down or crash into each other. They are very good at their jobs, and as Randall put it, "Every day is fun on this job."

The Red Baron Squadron is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, making them the oldest civilian air show team in the country. Randall, 44, of Phoenix, Ariz. has been with the squad since the mid-1980s, but he's been flying since he was 14.

One of the initial members of the Red Baron Squadron taught Randall, originally from South Dakota, how to fly.

"He was the very first guy to go around the country to sell pizzas with an airplane," Randall said.

The Stearman airplanes that the team flies were built in the late 1930s and early 1940s and were used to train pilots in World War II. While the engines and most of the exterior parts have been replaced the aluminum frames are still original.

"At a show a man came up to me and said, ?I trained in that airplane.' I said, ?Yeah, that's great, you know, I hear that all the time,'" Randall said. "But then he said no, I trained in that airplane with that tail number!"

The planes may be part of history, Randall said, but that doesn't mean they belong in a museum.

"We've got it right where it belongs, up in the playground," Randall said.

For 52-year-old Keller of Canton, Ohio, the open-cockpit of planes like the Stearman is far preferable to flying a "boring" more modern plane.

"It's very challenging and also very rewarding," Keller said.

Keller worked as a certified public accountant before joining the team six years ago.

"I flew in the evening to keep my sanity," said Keller, who has been flying planes in general since Nov. 13 (a Friday) 1987.

"I'm just tickled to death that Red Baron has this program," Keller said.

There are only around 1,000 Steadman biplanes still flying today, Keller said. Red Baron has eight of them, flying in the "four-ship" team that is at the AMS this weekend and two "two-ship" teams.

In honor of the team's anniversary the Schwan Food Company has changed the colors of its No. 49 Schwan's Home Service Dodge, to be driven in this weekend's race by Ken Schrader, to red and black.

Meanwhile, Johnson said he wasn't really worried about the planes crashing, and in fact he enjoyed the show. His wife Joanne Johnson missed the flight on Wednesday but she's hoping to see the team as they fly over the track this week.

"Those things fascinate me," Joanne Johnson said.