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April 20, 2003

Ladd Gardner Interview
by: Wayne Sagar
Images used in the presentation of this interview are the property of the photographers noted on image, and or, "the Lefty Gardner collection" and are used with the permission of either the photographer, or the Gardner collection or both.

An interview with Ladd Gardner - Introduction

For many years, fans of air racing and air shows across the nation were treated to the unique experience of seeing Lefty Gardner fly his race modified Lockheed P-38 Lightning, known as "White Lightnin'" as a competitor and show performer.

On June 25, 2001, during a return flight to Texas, after appearing at an air show in Tullahoma, Tennessee, Lefty Gardner's son, Ladd, experienced an in-flight engine fire in "White Lightnin'" forcing him to put the airplane down in a field. Though the airplane was substantially damaged, Ladd was uninjured and the airplane is repairable...

Earlier this year, we spoke at length with Ladd about the accident and his life leading up to flying one of America's great aviation treasures.

Ladd's account of the accident, his life growing up in the aviation oriented Gardner family and his family's quest to gain the necessary funding to return "White Lightnin'" to flight status chronicle both his aviation career and what has become his life's goal.

Get "White Lightnin'" flying again.

AAFO: Ladd, you grew up in a "warbird rich" environment, can you tell us some of your first memories of your dad’s "White Lightnin?"

Ladd: "I’m trying to bring to mind some memories, it’s hard to remember, specifically, when my first memory of the airplane is. I was always around it, it’s kind of just like being around the house you grew up in, hard to remember exactly my first memories of it. It was such a constant object in the whole family’s life; we were always around it."

AAFO: Did you go to a lot of Airshows with your dad?

Ladd: "I didn’t go to the one’s that were far away when I was too young, my mom kept me around the house as much as she could, but I know that I went to the CAF (Commemorative Air Force) Airshow over in Harlingen. I’d always go to that.

I had some friends from the area who also had dads, or grandfathers, or uncles who were involved with the CAF, so we’d all go out there and play on the tanks that they had set up and we were probably always poking around and doing stuff that we weren’t supposed to be doing, [laughs] like most kids do at that age..

That was always the big show that I was at that I can remember. I also have vague memories of being sneaked into the Reno Races when I was too young to be in the pits. I don’t remember what year that was, before they allowed kids. I just remember being under a blanket or something in the back of a pickup or a station wagon or something.. "

AAFO: About how old were you then?

Ladd: "I don’t really remember, I was probably seven-eight-nine, somewhere around there my first year. I didn’t go every year to Reno. I remember most years, I stayed home. I was in my teens before I got to go every year."

AAFO: Your dad ("Lefty") flew bombers in World War II and then went into crop dusting after that, so you’ve been exposed to flying most or all of your life. Do you remember when you started thinking about being a pilot yourself, or did you always feel that way?

Ladd: "I don’t know if I always thought I would be a pilot but I always had a desire to be around airplanes and around the airport. Every chance I could get, I was at the airport. Usually it was terrorizing the hangar in a go-cart or something, because I liked motorized things and making noise and going fast. Whether it be on a go-cart, or a dirt bike, or a car sometimes —if I could get hold of one— [laughs] but it always led me back to the airport so I could be around the airplanes.

You mentioned the crop dusting, that’s something that I have vivid memories of. Sitting outside of the house in the valley, when my dad would be gone for the ag-stuff, he’d go and spray mesquite in June, July and August. Over those three months, I wouldn’t see him; I’d talk with him on the phone from time to time but he was out in some pretty desolate areas of West Texas operating off of fields that were made just for them. Sometimes a guy would just go out with a plow and literally plow down a bunch of brush and trees and stuff, just to make about a two thousand foot strip for the Stearmans. So I wouldn’t hear from him sometimes, but I always remember my mom would tell me ‘yea he should be back sometime today or late this afternoon’. I can remember always asking ‘when’s he gonna be back, when’s he gonna be back?’ because I hadn’t seen him in a couple of months. I can remember just kind of hanging out around the outside of the house goofing around in the yard and I was always listening just as hard as I could for that six hundred Stearman. It sounded just like a T-6, had the same engine and prop, real loud and you could hear it coming from a long distance. I can remember always sitting and listening, waiting for that sound and then watching him fly overhead and Joe Henderson would always be in formation with him. They’d buzz the house and maybe do some rolls over the house, then they’d land and taxi up and I’d go over there and meet them at the airfield.

The house I grew up in was literally right across the highway from Old Rebel Field, which was the original home of the [then] Confederate Air Force (author’s note: The Confederate Air Force ‘CAF’ was recently renamed by its members to Commemorative Air Force) by the time that I was born, they [the CAF] had moved down to Harlingen.

Sometimes, actually my dad would taxi right across the highway, they’d wait for the sugar cane trucks to go by and they’d actually taxi across the highway and right into the front yard."

AAFO: During the time you lived across the road from "Old Rebel Field" was "White Lightnin’" based there?

Ladd: "Oh yea, it was always there. After the CAF moved their headquarters over to Harlingen, we kept the hangar, that was the original CAF hangar. I’ve got pictures before it had doors on each end, it was huge, probably one hundred feet wide, one hundred twenty-one hundred forty feet long. After they moved to Harlingen, this is all before I was born, my dad moved into that hangar and brought his ag operations there. The P-38 and the Mustang, there was an old Bearcat sitting in the hangar, Lloyd Nolan’s T-6 and a couple of his sprayers in there. We always had an extra Mustang or two in there that belonged to ‘somebody’. All the airplanes that I grew up with were always right there."
continue>>

part-I | part-II | part-III | part-IV | part-V | part VI | part-VII | part-VIII

You can help return one of America's great aviation treasures to flight status. Log into http://p38whitelightnin.com/ your tax-deductible contribution will be entered into the "Lefty Gardner White Lightnin' Aviation Museum" fund to restore "White Lightnin'" to flying condition. With the help of the fans of this airplane, the Gardner family will, once again, be seen flying this great airplane!

 

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