‘Strange Ghosts’ Once Flew North Of Mercedes In Launching CAF
Frank Cano remembers caliche runways and big skies with War World II-era airplanes crossing each other’s paths above a hanger for crop dusters.
As an 8-year-old boy he saw one of those planes, a P-51 Mustang, above him and watched as it took a sudden plunge and grew large as it took aim in his direction. He ran into the hanger to take cover. The young boy heard the plane approaching at a terrifying speed. The sound of the plane’s approach shook the hanger north of town on Mile 2 East Road.
“Still gives me goose bumps when I think of it,’’ Cano, a Mercedes native, said recently. “I got pretty scared.’’
The plane cleared the hanger with a few feet to spare. Cano ran outside in its aftermath and realized the pilot who had just engineered the daredevil act was Lloyd Nolen, a former flight instructor and current owner of the Mercedes Flying Service. It was Nolen who founded the Confederate Air Force, which would gain national acclaim flying out of Rio Grande Valley airports.
“Everybody looked up to him,’’ Cano said of Nolen. “He was the main guy.’’
Cano’s father, Trajedes Cano, was among the pilots and airplane mechanics who hung out at Nolen’s crop-dusting site at a property that had once housed the Central Valley Airport. It was the spot where Nolen would bring the first WW II-era plane, a P-51, in the late 1950s from government surplus in San Antonio. It would mark the beginning of what would become the CAF, which today is housed in Dallas and includes more than 175 aircraft.
It all began at what Nolen called the Rebel Field north of Mercedes and not far from where the Rio Grande Valley Premium Outlets stand today. A young Frank Cano saw it all get started, basking in the company of World War II-era veterans and airplane aficionados who formed a tight clutch of men who hung out together and bonded over their love of aviation.
“I lucked out,’’ Cano said of seeing the CAF’s earliest days. “I enjoyed every minute of every moment I was out there with my Dad and those men.’’
Once Nolen and his band of erstwhile pilots had acquired enough planes, they decided to put on an airshow, not knowing what to expect. The crowds they attracted were immediate and large. The first was held on March 10, 1963.
“The traffic went way back to the Expressway,’’ Cano said. “There was very little parking to speak of. People were sitting on the hoods of their cars, looking up to the sky and the planes.’’
One of America’s legendary sportswriters, Dan Jenkins, came down south in the early 1960s for Sports Illustrated to chronicle the upstart air show and its collection of war planes being gathered in the Valley.
“Mercedes is gaining a peculiar distinction,’’ Jenkins wrote in a 1963 article. “Strange ghosts are curling out of the skies above it.’’
It was an era, as Jenkins wrote, when Mid-Valley farmers could look up from their fields and see mini squadrons of World War II planes flying above them. Jenkins referred to Nolen and his crew as “a curious group of men,’’ but they were committed to their cause to preserve and restore the old planes, which at that time few had an interest in doing.
“They really loved what they did,’’ Cano said of the old pilots. “They were like a family and they had a lot of respect and admiration for each other.’’
The CAF would move from Mercedes to Harlingen in 1968 and then to Midland in 1991 before making yet another move to Dallas in 2014. Nolen, though, never forgot his old Rebel Field. When he died in 1991, an outdoor memorial service was held at his old hanger on Mile 2 East, the same place where he skimmed a P-51 over a little boy named Frank 30 years before.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos