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Commemorative Air Force recognizes Highland Lakes Squadron

2022 Bluebonnet Air Show in Burnet

The 2022 Bluebonnet Air Show in Burnet attracted more than 5,600 people, and highlighted its host, the Highland Lakes Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force. CAF recently recognized the Burnet-based squadron with the Distinguished Unit Award. Photo by Martelle Luedecke/Luedecke Photography

The national Commemorative Air Force recently gave the Highland Lakes Squadron in Burnet its Distinguished Unit Award for 2021.

“This is something that is really about what we’ve been through and accomplished in the last few years,” said Highland Lakes Squadron Leader Vincent Rodgers. “A lot of work has gone into this squadron, the museum, and just becoming more engaged with the community.”

What the squadron has “been through” over the past several years includes the July 2018 crash of the Bluebonnet Belle, a Douglas C47 Skytrain. The plane, with its silver body and wings, was synonymous with the Highland Lakes Squadron. It crashed on take-off at the Burnet Municipal Airport and was destroyed. All 13 people on board survived. 

While much of the focus was on the loss of the Belle, Rodgers said that, unbeknownst to many people outside of the unit, two of the squadron’s other aircraft — the North American SNJ-4 Texan and Ryan L17 Navion — were also inoperable. The Ryan L17 Navion was damaged during a landing when the retractable wheels weren’t extended. The North American SNF-4 Texan blew its engine in Madisonville.

Both of those occurred in the weeks prior to the Belle’s demise. 

“It was a tough time,” Rodgers said. “I think it was about two years before we got the (SNJ-4) flying again.”

With one plane destroyed and two others grounded, the squadron lost revenue because the unit is partly supported by people paying for rides in its planes. 

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 hit. The squadron had to cancel its 2020 Bluebonnet Air Show, a major fundraising event, and close its museum for a period of time.

However, the show returned in 2021, its most successful ever, only to be eclipsed by the 2022 event on March 19. The squadron counted 4,100 attendees in 2021 and more than 5,600 this year.

While the air show’s success is a big factor, Rodgers said earning the Distinguished Unit honor was due to a much broader application of the CAF motto: “Educate. Inspire. Honor.” 

The CAF and its squadrons strive to educate the public about the aircraft and those who flew and worked on the planes, inspire people, particularly youths, to consider a future in aircraft or service, and honor those who have served, Rodgers explained.

Though the mission often focuses on military aircraft, particularly World War II-era planes, the Highland Lakes Squadron decided to broaden the unit’s reach by incorporating ground force re-enactments during its air show and other events. 

Rodgers enlisted the help of Jeff Copsetta, who was the Living History coordinator at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg for several years. Copsetta became the Highland Lakes Squadron Museum director and formed Company B, a group of infantry re-enactors. 

“We know not everyone is into airplanes, so we wanted to try and include things that will appeal to more people,” Rodgers said. 

The squadron also added more events to engage the community, including Wine & Wings with live music, food, and demonstrations in June, and Pumpkins & Paratroopers in October, a Halloween event for kids that was co-hosted by the Herman Brown Free Library in Burnet. 

“We even created a cadet program for youth,” Rodgers said. “And the squadron pays for everything for the cadets, so they don’t have to worry about costs. It’s a great way for kids to come out here and learn about planes and just be involved in something.”

The squadron also revamped its museum, and more improvements are coming.

While he is proud of the recent honor, Rodgers said there’s still work to be done. The unit is preparing the C47 Douglas Skytrain Texas Zephyr be be flight-worthy before relocating it from Brady to Burnet. The C47 was donated to the squadron but needed engine and other repairs. 

“We need mechanics,” Rodgers said. “It takes a lot of time and work to keep these planes flying.”

Other help is needed, too. 

“Volunteers and members, that’s what we need,” Rodgers said. “We’re an all-volunteer unit, and we need more.”

A background in aircraft is not necessary. Volunteers can help promote the squadron and museum, run social media accounts, assist with fundraising, or work at the museum.

“If people want, they can just come out and hang out with us and see if it’s a good fit,” Rodgers said. “So just stop by.”

The Highland Lakes Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force is located at Kate Craddock Field at the Burnet Municipal Airport, 2402 S. Water St. (U.S. 281). The museum is open 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. Call 512-756-2226 or visit the squadron’s website or its Facebook page for more information. 

The squadron relies on donations and events for funding. People can also schedule a flight, for a fee, in one of the aircraft.

daniel@thepicayune.com