Keepers of the planes count votes for a new name
Confederate Air Force has nothing to do with the Civil War
By DEBBIE L. JENSEN / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
MIDLAND – If longtime member Charles Hutchins has his way, the Confederate Air Force will become the Ghost Squadron at the first of next year.
"I've been campaigning for it," said Mr. Hutchins, a LaMarque businessman who holds the honorary title of colonel, as do most members of the World War II aircraft preservation group. The CAF will announce the results of an election to come up with a new name on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, at its headquarters in Midland.
The new moniker, which takes effect Jan. 1, will be a closely guarded secret until then. Absentee ballots are still arriving at the CAF headquarters.
The goal is to end a lingering controversy associated with anything Confederate. Although the group has nothing to do with the Civil War, the name was adopted in the 1950s after it was painted as a joke on one of the vintage airplanes.
Four names are in the running, but two have emerged as clear favorites, supporters say. "Ghost Squadron," which traces its origins to founder Lloyd Nolen and was copyrighted by the group years ago, might face a tough challenge from "Commemorative Air Force." The latter is a front-runner because it allows continued use of the initials CAF, popular shorthand for the organization.
The two choices less likely to emerge on top are Heritage Flying Museum and Heritage Air Force. All four were culled from more than 1,000 suggestions sent earlier this year to a committee working on the plan.
Mr. Hutchins says Ghost Squadron has the right combination of history and forward thinking.
"Some say saving the initials is important, but I look at it this way," he said, "It's going to be hard enough to change us. Ghost Squadron is a name we have had, but at the same time, it would be a total change. We need to get away from the old name completely."
Executive director Bob Rice also supports the name.
"Ghost Squadron has been associated with the CAF for many, many years," he said. "It's descriptive, although it might have to be explained how it relates to airplanes. But it does, especially airplanes of 50 years of age or more."
The CAF already uses the name to refer to its fleet of World War II-era aircraft, which the volunteer members acquire, restore, and fly, often re-enacting famous battles at airshows.
Board member Neils Agather of Dallas won't reveal which name got his vote when the group cast ballots last month but said he's hopeful the change will boost corporate support needed to keep the CAF flying. Major companies such as Texaco have said they'd like to do promotions with the group, but not with the current name.
"In 1971, the issue came up of the use of the word Confederate. Our founder recognized it was a problem," Mr. Agather said. Use of the Confederate flag as an emblem, members say, was dropped years ago with little opposition.
In the 1970s, members who included Mr. Agather's father discussed a name change, but the issue was tabled.
Two years ago, the idea surfaced again; this time, there was solid support behind it.
"We had grown to be sort of a national institution, and there was a recognition that 'Confederate' wasn't going to play well some places," Mr. Agather said.
Already some CAF units across the country have virtually shed the name, putting less controversial titles out front when they perform and raise money.
The organization is divided into "wings" that operate in 27 states and four foreign countries.
"As far as the units go," Mr. Rice said, "with [a new] name, they're not going to have to explain, 'Well, where in the world did you get a name like that?' I do believe that as units go about the business of raising money and garnering support, the new name will be a benefit to them."
Not all of the group's 7,500 voting members – most of them older, white men – agreed. Some didn't want to bow to what they considered political correctness, and a few dropped their memberships, although the CAF can't say exactly how many.
But in October 2000, when 2,201 votes were cast, 82 percent favored a change in the group's bylaws to make way for a new name.
"Our members are team players," Mr. Rice said. "They are entitled to and do have their opinions, but when all is said and done, they are team players."
"We're all volunteers," Mr. Agather pointed out. "But technically there's one drum we're all marching to. Part of me hates to see that tradition go, but it isn't what we're all about. Change is good."
Debbie L. Jensen is a free-lance writer based in Big Spring, Texas.