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Now grounded, Arbutus native led planes flying over Fourth of July parade

James Coolahan flew A-10 jets with Maryland Air National Guard

By Brian Conlin, bconlin@patuxent.com

12:43 PM EDT, June 29, 2012

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James Coolahan hasn't exactly had his wings clipped, but for the second straight year he will not have the bird's eye view of the Arbutus Fourth of July parade he once enjoyed.

As a member of the Maryland Air National Guard, for six years the Arbutus native led four A-10 jets traveling within two or three feet of each other at 270 mph over downtown Arbutus to kick off the town's parade.

A 26-year veteran of the reserves, Coolahan retired after the 2010 Fourth of July Parade.

"Flying the fighters is a lot of fun, but you're getting old and decrepit. You got to make room for the younger guys," the 51-year-old Ellicott City resident joked.

The traditional start of the annual summer celebration is scheduled to take place again this year, with the jets roaring over the area at 12:29 p.m.

"The military will generally do flyovers as long as it's a sanctioned event and obviously a Fourth of July parade is one of them," said Coolahan, who now works as a commercial airline pilot

George Kendrick, the longtime organizer of the Arbutus parade, joked he has never seen a bill for the flyover, which is good because he couldn't afford the price of the gas.

After years of flying over parades in Towson, Dundalk and Kingsville, Coolahan decided to honor the parade in his hometown.

But there was a problem.

"Physically, we couldn't stay airborne without air-to-air refueling, which wasn't an option," he said of the dilemma he faced six years ago.

Coolahan sifted through ways the planes could fly over the first three parades and still make it over Arbutus. Finally, he found the solution.

The planes would land at Glenn L. Martin State Airport, in Middle River instead of remaining aloft. Keeping their engines idling while on the ground would conserve enough fuel for them to take off at about 12:10 p.m. and fly over the Arbutus parade.

"We just had enough gas," he said. "The way the crow flies, it only took us seven minutes to get back to the air base."

Though Coolahan said the fuel situation got a "little tight," the pilots never hit "bingo fuel," the point where they would have to return to the airport.

"You can't pull over to the nearest gas station," Coolahan said. "That's where the logistics come in."

While the hundreds of people in the crowd looked up at the planes, Coolahan would look down.

His fellow pilots kept their eyes on Coolahan's plane and waited to adjust to any movement he made.

"I could take any A-10 pilot and put them on my wing," Coolahan said. "Everybody goes through some pretty intense training."

Coolahan, who served a half dozen tours in the Middle East, downplayed the skill it takes to arrive at just the right moment or fly so close together.

"That could be important in a mission in Afghanistan," said Coolahan, of arriving at a precise time. "Any of my guys could have done that."

Coolahan said he misses flying fighter planes and getting to fly over the parade route.

He always volunteered for the honor, he said, because he knew what it meant to the people in his hometown.

"I knew those people would really appreciate it," he said.

Jeff Utzinger, a longtime volunteer with the parade and its grand marshal this year, said the flyover is a great way to kick off the annual event on East Drive.

"Everybody looks forward to it every year. It's something a lot of small towns don't have," Utzinger said. "You don't see it a lot and here in our little town of Arbutus they fly over us."

Kendrick said the sight of the roaring jets above Arbutus is brief but exhilarating.

"It's the most beautiful thing in the world, seeing those airplanes coming over the center of Arbutus," Kendrick said.

"It only lasts five seconds, but is beautiful to behold."