High Desert Hangar Stories: Air Show Tow? Dick Jewell and His “Tow 5”

When the owners of priceless aircraft see that Dick will be the keeper of their treasures they all breathe a sigh of relief. Dick is one of the very best at his craft. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

For those of you who have enjoyed the Los Angeles County Air Show in recent years, one aspect of that show that you never give a second thought to is a guy and his truck who, for almost 30 years, have been shuffling aircraft around flight lines like the director of a New York stage production.

Dick Jewell is a pretty cool guy. I’ve never seen him with ruffled feathers while working in an environment that is, shall we say, pretty intense and filled with many dangers. I met Dick some years ago working at the Capitol Air Show. He was working with the Airedales who make sure that, from the very first airplane in to the last one out, they are at the locations they need to be to put on a safe and well-choreographed air show with few interruptions.  

Over the years, Dick and his specially equipped Ford pickup truck have been dubbed “Tow 5.” They can be found at air shows up and down the state, doing their dance with all varieties of aircraft, from civilian to military and everything in between. One may wonder, how does a guy end up in such a specialized field of air operations? Dick was between tows when he shared a bit of his history and told me of his love of flying. After time spent in the 1960s and 1970s working some covert operations in very interesting parts of the world, he found himself back here in California, pursuing his love of flying with crop dusting and air freight, building up those hours in his log book that would lead him to a very rewarding but intense job flying for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Dick Jewell, the pro of the tarmac. (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

Flying air ops from Alaska to Florida for the Forest Service, Dick became the “tip of the sword” as they say, in his Cessna 210 or Aerostar, leading air tankers in on fire drops in canyons and mountain ranges when wildfires were ravaging the terrain. With nerves of steel and a steady hand, Dick earned the trust of those heavy air tanker crews who depended on his guidance to get the drop on target and the aircraft in and out safely.  

Somewhere around 1979, Dick had an old ‘73 Ford Bronco that was a bit of a hobby project. In a decision that would end up being a big part of his life, he made it into an airport plane tug and went looking for opportunities to get involved with moving aircraft during air show events at airports. Dick hit Reno Gold when the Reno National Air Races became his flight line home for decades, towing the planes that would become legends in the air racing communities around the world. Dick has built a very close relationship with the pilots and ground crews of those very rare and expensive aircraft. His expertise is trusted in making sure the aircraft are treated with velvet gloves, and that their travels on the tarmac mimic the air they were built to perform in.

I was watching Dick and Tow 5 move a row of old warbirds during the latest Capitol air show. When a break in the action came, I brought up the subject of the value of the aircraft he has moved over his working life. After some back and forth, we came to the conclusion that more than likely a billion dollars worth of aircraft have been attached to that Tow 5 hitch of his!

Dick, aka Tow Five, and his trusty mount doing what he does best! (Photograph by Bob Alvis)

Taking some photos of Dick Jewell doing his job and watching how he can expertly maneuver an aircraft into a tight spot, I started thinking how many times I was at Reno and never once gave a thought to the guy in the tow tug. But now after working with him at many of these air shows, I realize that so many people will just take for granted the work behind the scenes that puts airplanes in the skies. What amazing stories and skills are possessed by individuals that we don’t truly appreciate, until we think about what it means to look down a tow bar with a couple million dollars-worth of aircraft attached, with a ton of people looking on and a tight fit to navigate. I guess Dick Jewell’s experience shoe-horning fire bombers into tight canyons raging with fire served him well in his love of making sure any plane in his charge arrives at its designated spot intact and ready to perform again!

This coming March, keep an eye out at the Los Angeles County Air Show and give a tip of your cap and a wave to a great guy. We know him as Dick Jewell, but on the airwaves and behind the scenes of the show, he’ll just be good old “Tow 5” — the man and truck that dances with planes!

Until next time, Bob Out …