Retired USAF Colonels Blake and Sandy Thomas met at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. On their first date Blake took Sandy on a ride in a 1944 BT-13, a two-seat military trainer with a radial engine.
“It was love at first flight,” Sandy said.
In December 2017, they will celebrate their 23rd anniversary. Their shared love of aviation led to flying offspring. Their first-born homebuilt was an RV-7, their third, a Sopwith Schneider. This is the story of their middle offspring, a replica World War I fighter, the 1917 Nieuport-28.
Named “Sandy,” the Nieuport-28 (N128FF), took Blake and Sandy 950 hours over nine months to build in 2007.
In 2017, the plane won the Reserve Grand Champion Plans Homebuilt Award at SUN ‘n FUN.
Blake had two reasons to build the Nieuport 28.
The first was the plane’s historical significance.
“It was the first aircraft flown by the Army Air Service,” he said. “Eddie Rickenbacker flew this kind of plane originally.”
According the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, “It was the first fighter aircraft to serve with an American fighter unit under American command and in support of U.S. troops. It was also the first type to score an aerial victory with an American unit. The Nieuport 28 also made its mark in U.S. aviation history after the war. Twelve were employed by the U.S. Navy for shipboard launching trials from 1919 to 1921.”The second reason was that the Nieuport 28 was flown by the 27th Aero Squadron in World War I. Blake served in the 27th Squadron flying the F-15 during the Gulf War. “Now,” Blake said, “the squadron flies the F-22 Raptor.”
Though they had built an RV-7, the fabric work and painting of the Nieuport offered a new learning experience.
The basic Nieuport 28 replica kit was designed by Robert Baslee of Airdrome Aeroplanes. Baslee’s company built the planes used in the movies “Fly Boys,” “Amelia,” and “Game of Aces.”
According to Baslee, his Nieuport 28 kit “is considered a replica because it was not a restoration, but was designed with modern materials.” Baslee did a “builder’s assist” to coach the couple through the completion of the plane.
As career Air Force, Blake and Sandy researched paint schemes for authenticity. They consulted Theodore Hamady, who works in the warbird section of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and wrote the book “The Nieuport-28: America’s First Fighter.”
They also visited the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where they took 200 photos of the Nieuport-28. The curator of the museum at that time was Major General Charles Metcalf.
“He was my old boss,” Sandy said. “His love was airplanes, not money. He retired as Commander of the Air Force Accounting and Finance Center.”
“We put more time into research to make the paint scheme fit the original,” Blake explained. “The eagle on the side is a variation of the Anheuser-Busch eagle. A young corporal in the 27th painted it on the first N-28 in that squadron and it had remained ever since.”
Blake said that the two guns on the fuselage of their Nieuport-28 “are Vickers machine gun replicas made of aluminum because the real guns weigh 33 pounds each. We have a propane tank so we can produce smoke and the sound of the real machine guns.”
Sandy retired in 1999 after 23 years in the Air Force. She served at Cannon AFB, New Mexico, RAF Upper Heyford in England, Ramstein AB in Germany, Langley AFB in Virginia, the Pentagon, Scott AFB in Illinois, The Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, and then the U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Central Command, both in Tampa, Florida.
She soloed their Luscombe 8A and flies her Cessna 150 with Blake. She has not yet completed training to get her pilot’s license.
“My punishment for not finishing my license is that I have to drive the crew truck,” Sandy quipped.
“My father, Carl Boggs, was career Air Force. He flew B-17s and P-51s in World War II. He helped form the Kansas Air Force National Guard,” she said. “When I was promoted to colonel, I got to pin on my father’s eagles as a colonel. We have eight family members in the military.”
It was at the Air War College where Blake and Sandy met John Leenhouts, president and CEO of SUN ‘n FUN. Sandy said the Air War College “is called the senior service school for the Air Force.”
Blake graduated from the prestigious Virginia Military Institute, in Lexington, Virginia.
“Out of my class, six of us went into the Air Force instead of the Army,” said Blake. “In my 20s, I thought about building a World War I aircraft with my buddies, but we couldn’t get it together.”
He trained at Williams AFB in Arizona for pilot training. Later he became an instructor pilot at Shepherd AFB in Texas, training foreign nationals to fly the T-37. He then flew F-15s at Luke AFB in Arizona, Langley AFB in Virginia, Soesterberg AB in the Netherlands, Kadena AB in Japan, and Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina. He flew A-37s at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, and was stationed at the U.S. Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Georgia.
He served three tours in the Gulf War flying the F-15 C/E.
“I was in my late 30s going to war,” he recalled. “It’s harder when you’re older. My father went to war at 18. You feel very responsible when you’re taking all these young people into combat. You want to bring them back home.”
“Then after 25 years in the military, I worked for Southwest Airlines for 18 years,” he continued. “I retired last August. Working at Southwest gave me time to build aircraft.”
Blake holds a number of certificates, including ATP, Commercial (airplane single and multi-engine land), Flight Instructor (airplane single and multi-engine land), Instruments and Repairman experimental aircraft builder. He holds type ratings in the B-737, L-29, T-37, MIG-15, MIG-17, MIG 21, F-86, and the T-38.
Why fly the Nieuport 28 with a top cruising speed under 120 mph after flying supersonic fighters?
“I could afford this aircraft,” Blake said with a shrug.
“In 2011, we flew this plane to the World War I Dawn Patrol at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, to the grass strip by the museum,” said Blake.
“We plan to go celebrate the 100th anniversary of World War I there in September 2018,” Sandy added. “Blake will wear his re-enactor’s fighter pilot uniform. The boot laces are 10 feet long because the boots go up to the knees. I have a volunteer driver and communications uniform. It looks like a nurse’s uniform without the red cross.”
According to officials with the Air Force Museum, the World War I Dawn Patrol Rendezvous features vintage original and reproduction World War I aircraft, radio-controlled models, era automobiles, period re-enactors, educational activities and a collector’s show.