The early-morning sunlight shimmers off the recently polished wings of the red, white and blue colored aircraft as it taxis into place. An airman, clad in his Airman Battle Uniform, places chocks beneath the plane to lock the wheels in place while another airman assists the pilot from the cockpit.
The pilot, Finley Banks, a native of Los Angeles, wears a white long-sleeved shirt, purple head band and a beaming smile as she exits the aircraft. Standing at a height and age of approximately four feet and eight years old, respectively, Banks passes the line of other eager children and explains to her parents how she is now an Air Force pilot of a mini, F-16 Thunderbird.
The next in line is signaled to come forward by Staff Sgt. Villa Vargas, 452nd Logistics Readiness Squadron and Blue Eagles Total Force Honor Guard, March Air Reserve Base, Calif.
Vargas is one of approximately nine other reservists from March ARB who volunteer their time each year at Expo Village, a free venue that houses food, activities and entertainment as part of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Rose Parade.
He and other reservists from March ARB, and volunteers from Los Angeles and Edwards Air Force Bases, are known as the Mini Jet Team, which travels around California entertaining and educating the public with six miniature, F-16 Thunderbird aircraft and one P-51 Mustang aircraft.
“This is my first year doing this but the Honor Guard does this every year,” said Vargas. “It’s a lot of fun and we get to interact with people and put smiles on their faces.”
Vargas and his co-volunteer, Senior Airman Steven Hernandez, 452nd Civil Engineer Squadron and Blue Eagles Total Force Honor Guard, typically work an eight-hour shift one or more days during the five-day Expo Village event.
Primary duties include crowd control, upkeep of the aircraft throughout the day and assisting the public with riding the mini jet, said Hernandez.
“We fly the model; it goes up to 40 to 42 mph,’ said Hernandez, as he placed the chocks from the mini jet’s wheels for staging the next ride.
“It was just like flying!” said Zack Holden, a 10-year-old native of Fullerton, Calif.
The mini jets are not the only attraction the group offers. Across the cordoned section, marked for the mini jets and beneath camouflage tenting, sits the Ace Maker, a miniature P-51 Mustang dedicated to retelling the Tuskegee Airmen story.
“I’m here to help tell the legacy because we know the Tuskegee Airmen are passing away a lot faster, and we know there are some survivors and we’re getting all the information to hear their story,” said Tech Sgt. Daniel Stephens, 163rd Reconnaissance Wing Chaplain Corps., former Security Forces and six-year Honor Guardsman. “It’s a wonderful legacy.”
Stephens and Tech. Sgt. Paul Barone, 163rd Security Forces Squadron and Honor Guardsman with nearly 1,000 hours of community service, invite the public to take photos with the aircraft, explained the mechanics of the aircraft and answered questions regarding the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
“A lot of people may have seen movies, but they don’t know the Air Force culture and the Air Force legacy,” said Stephens. “Just to be a part of teaching people of the great history of the Tuskegee Airmen, and being a part of the World War II generation gives me a sense of pride, and I’m just overwhelmed that these people have paved the way for us.”
The miniature P-51 Mustang and F-16 Thunderbird aircraft displays celebrate their 11th appearance at the Rose Parade’s Expo Village, said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Peter Gutierrez, a 33-year veteran and founder of the Mini Jet Team.
“Well, I started this 15 years ago originally for children with disabilities and illnesses,” Gutierrez said. “We go to Children’s Hospital, City of Hope, Make a Wish Foundation, Special Olympics and other places in California.”
Gutierrez explained that all of his current aircraft were found in disrepair from various bases and he refurbished them in exchange for their use in parades and special events for children with disabilities.
He uses only volunteers and donations to keep the program running. It is not uncommon for airmen from March to use his or her own vehicle to tow the trailers housing the mini jets, make repairs on personal time or assist with any other task needed.
“It’s truly in their heart; they bleed Air Force blue,” said Gutierrez when describing the airmen volunteers. “They do it; they’re not getting paid for it.”
And since the Mini Jet Team is not an official non-profit organization, all of the donations individuals or companies make, such as the $10,000 worth of batteries or aircraft-grade tires are truly a form of generosity, said Gutierrez.
“Everyone should be thankful for where they’re at, in life and their career, and have that attitude of ‘what can I do to make the Air Force even better’?” said Gutierrez while he glanced toward the airmen operating the mini jet.
Gutierrez puts on his sunglasses and walks towards the P-51 Mustang while an airman buffs one of the wings with a yellow microfiber cloth.
He invites people behind the barricades around the P-51 Mustang to take pictures, encouraging others to follow and learn about the Tuskegee Airmen and Air Force.
“Let them know how proud you are to be in the service, especially the Air Force,” said Gutierrez. “It means a lot when you actually speak to a person, shake their hand, and [he] hears what you say. “Payment is seeing the smile on people’s faces.”