[Read the first chapter of A Pilot's History here.]
Our class of 51 sergeants, with newly sewn stacks of chevrons on our sleeves and silver wings pinned to our shirts, arrived in Long Beach, Calif., the heart of aircraft manufacturing facilities. We were to ferry these aircraft to modification plants scattered around the country and then catch an airliner or an Army aircraft shuttle service back to Long Beach. It may have been a poor place to get a promotion, but it was a hell of a good place to learn about the latest aeronautical designs coming off the production lines! The aircraft included models from Lockheed, Douglas, North American, Consolidated, Boeing and Vultee, plus the modification factories.
Each manufacturer had its strong points and weak points. Our day-to-day work gave us a real education in aeronautical design, engineering, and craftsmanship. I had set a goal to be the best pilot I could be and to not pass up any chance to learn. We had Link Trainers for instrument flying, which I used at every opportunity. I also posted maps across the windshield when cross-country flying with a co-pilot in a twin-engine or four-engine aircraft, as I felt instrument flying might someday separate the men from the boys.
Learn from the White Hairs
I knew that, by comparison, I was a novice pilot and I searched out a few old-timers to question. I found that very little of their experience could be applied to the types of aircraft and equipment we were now flying. However, I did learn from their mental approach to aviation problems, which usually centered on remaining calm and using common-sense solutions backed up with technical knowledge, plus -- of course -- the skills needed to perform the necessary task.
One beautiful day, another pilot and I took off on a trip from Long Beach to Oakland, each of us in a P-38. These were the latest fighter planes off the production line. We took our planes into the clouds, dancing in and out at tremendous speeds and enjoying the capabilities of these high-performance machines.
After we landed at Oakland, my fellow pilot motioned me into the hangar. He pointed toward the iron beams of the ceiling where, suspended from cables, was a wood-and-fabric contraption with a wooden pusher propeller and a skimpy seat way out in front from which the foolish pilot would control this conglomeration of sticks, wires, and fabric. The pilot next to me softly said, with a whimsical smile on his face, "I used to fly one of these." I looked at my pilot friend and saw a pudgy figure with a weather-beaten face and long, white hair that had blown about in many a prop wash. I looked once more at the early bird contraption and then again at the sleek, metal fighters we had just flown. This was a man who had already lived a tremendous life through many changes in aviation history. I stood next to him and realized how I envied him and his experiences.
Reunited with Jeanne
About this time, I was missing that blonde I had left in Florida. Jeanne and I had grown up together -- being a couple through junior and senior high school -- and everyone knew that someday we'd marry. That time had come for me, and I invited her to California to get married. She agreed to forgo an elaborate wedding in Fort Lauderdale and flew out to the West Coast, where we had a simple ceremony with a few of my classmates standing by. Jeanne was a slender 5-foot 3-inches tall, with long, flowing hair and an easy smile that would always make you feel welcome in her presence.
After our wedding, my bride found a one-room apartment with a pull-down bed for us on the ocean side of town. When we were together, everything was peaceful and wonderful. But during those years, my life was hectic; I was flying on many missions and was frequently away for weeks at a time. We never had enough time to spend with each other. Eventually, Jeanne got a job in a doctor's office that always allowed her time off when I was in town. Over the following few years, the doctor lost his sons in the war.
New Planes, New Challenges
Our class of pilots was being pushed hard to cope with powerful, new aircraft, the new terrain of desert and Rocky Mountains, and long-range navigation. But the factories that built these aircraft were also under tremendous strain. The assembly lines were staffed with ex-housewives, plasterers, plumbers, and bartenders. Where did the designers and engineers come from? President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the country would build 10,000 aircraft a month, and that was close to accurate. I could not guess how many ships were built at the same time. I was constantly amazed by the number of aircraft I flew and how few problems we had. I gained a lot of respect for the men in charge of production.
I flew a Hudson Bomber from Lockheed to the Canadian border in Michigan to be delivered to the British. This plane didn't have any controls for a co-pilot, and it loved to ground loop in a crosswind. There was also the B-34 -- a larger, more powerful and faster sister ship of the Hudson -- but its hearty appetite for fuel made it suitable only as a short-range bomber for the British to use against targets across the English Channel. The B-25 was my first tricycle gear-plane and made it easy to make a good landing. (Lt. Col. James Doolittle would later use B-25s on his 1942 Tokyo raid.) We also had Boeing B-17s that were to be used for bombing German terrain, and B-24s made by Consolidated that were used to fight the enemy all around the world. We pilots would compare every aircraft against the others with our constant hangar talk, and sometimes bar talk.
As a staff sergeant pilot, I would sometimes be outranked by my co-pilot, and a couple of times by my crew chief. There was never any trouble with rank and understanding who was in command. Skill and knowledge created its own ranking system. My promotion to flight officer and later to second lieutenant helped ease the social strain for me.
Fun with Fighters
Getting into the fighters was a lot of fun. It was a great pleasure to drive the twin-boom P-38, with its service ceiling of 42,000 feet and its long-range capability, which was made possible by its wing tanks. The P-38 could carry the same bomb load as the four-engine B-17. After flying from the Pacific coast to Dallas nonstop at 38,000 feet, I was met at the modification plant by the chief pilot, who announced a celebration at the plant and also at the Lockheed plant in California for setting a new speed record. (Of course, we knew speed records of this sort indicated only how good a tailwind was blowing.) This particular time I had flown the F-5, a reconnaissance version of the P-38 without the guns and armor. It was lighter and faster than its heavier sisters. This plane also had improved engines, and I was guilty of pushing it a little bit.
The marvelous P-51 single-engine fighter was another craft in our fleet. In 1943 I was flying one of these when I bounced it against the compressibility of the sound barrier by going to high altitude, rolling it over onto its back, and pointing the nose down. I really had no knowledge of what could or might happen, but I figured I would learn something. This was years and years before we heard about the sound barrier or broke through it.
One day I and a crew flew a B-17 down the Grand Canyon at about sunset -- a breathtaking sight that made me appreciate some of the wonders of this great country. I had also flown a small, trainer plane inside the lip of a huge meteor crater near Winslow, Ariz. The crater was about 450 feet deep and three-quarters of a mile across. Later, I was able to view a large fragment of the meteor in the lobby of a hotel nearby. It consisted of a huge piece of black iron with a once-molten surface honeycombed like a block of Swiss cheese.
Trust But Verify
Not everything that happened, however, was pleasant. A combat crew in a B-24 heading for Australia came to Long Beach needing a command pilot to fill out the crew for an overseas trip. Operations assigned me to the task. The crew had been put together in a training station and were pretty green. I asked operations for a test flight with the full crew, fuel load, and complement of equipment before going to Fairfield, Calif. Fairfield was to be our jump-off point for Honolulu, a leg of about 2,450 miles -- a critical distance in terms of fuel.
My request was granted and on the test flight the plane flew like no other B-24 I had flown. It seemed to crab sideways through the air, and it failed to achieve the speed I expected. The cowl flaps were not rigged uniformly, and there were various other discrepancies from optimal performance conditions. It was far preferable to make these corrections in Long Beach than to send the plane overseas to be fixed under difficult conditions. The ailerons were re-rigged, which improved performance, and the plane was cleaned up mechanically. The engines were shut down individually and the props feathered to check their operation. When all seemed to check out fine, we finally took off for Fairfield.
I was really looking forward to seeing Australia again, but mainly the islands between here and there. On the route to Fairfield, I became physically ill, developed a fever, and was barely able to handle the controls for landing. Upon landing, I had to be helped out of the aircraft. Shortly thereafter, I vomited on the runway and, feeling weak, decided to check in at the small base hospital. The doctor could find nothing wrong, but he decided to keep me overnight and said he would send a specialist to see me. That evening, a pompous specialist arrived and started asking outlandish questions: "Are you afraid of flying over the Pacific Ocean? Do you like your crew? Is your wife making your life difficult?" It didn't take me long to realize he was a "shrink."
I slept well that night and woke up feeling OK, but then I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed a lot of little red bumps had appeared. The riddle was solved: I had chicken pox. I was placed in isolation. I called Long Beach and told them I was to be hospitalized for a while.
After a few days, a classmate named Ken was sent to take my place. We talked, as much as the doctors would allow, about the condition of the aircraft and crew.
There But For the Grace of God ...
The plane was scheduled to take off in a couple days, headed for Honolulu. When the time came for their departure, I looked out into the dark night through the hospital windows and silently wished Ken and the crew well, for I knew the plane would be heavily loaded.
The next morning, I was awakened early by a clamor of commotion and conversation in the hallways. There had been an aircraft accident, and the hospital staff was bustling to take care of the injured and the dead. I asked about the survivors and was told that two were OK and a third was in critical condition. The two survivors visited me and, as I recall, one was a gunner and the other a flight engineer. As their story unfolded, I learned their takeoff was fine, but the climb out was very slow because of the heavy fuel load, a full crew of 11 men and their baggage, plus a lot of overseas mail. They must have been less than an hour out when an engine failed and the propeller refused to feather, thus becoming a huge aerodynamic drag for the other three engines to overcome.
The pilot tried to stretch his glide back to the field, constantly losing altitude. Realizing he could not make it to the runway, he gave the order to bail out. For many, it was too late. I can only imagine the confusion and decisions that must have transpired in the cockpit. The two men standing in front of me had parachuted out, getting in one or two swings before hitting the ground. The plane had hit the marshland a short distance away and was in a ball of flame. Running to the crash site, they had been unable to find anyone other than the radio operator, a very stout man, who was attached to his chute, buried to his waist in the soft marsh and unconscious, the marsh grass on fire around him. They pulled him away from the fire and waited for rescue crews.
While waiting for my quarantine to be lifted, I received word that Ken's wife had requested that I accompany her husband's body to Amarillo, Texas, for burial. I was uncomfortable meeting her and the rest of Ken's family, because he had taken my place during an untimely illness. If I had been in the cockpit, would I have handled things differently? Would the outcome have been the same? I will never know.
The funeral and burial went with military efficiency, and I met some very fine people who remained my friends for many years. Thereafter, I often stopped at the ranch Ken's family owned to visit or to go hunting, and to remember Ken through the pictures of him in uniform that hung on the walls.
I returned to Long Beach to continue building up flying experience with my classmates. After we had finished our primary, basic, and advanced flight training and had our silver wings ceremoniously pinned on, we felt like "hot stuff," but actually we were woefully inexperienced. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and tried to keep us from killing ourselves. They wanted us to learn the basics of getting to Point B from Point A in any kind of weather, over any distance and any terrain. To learn about the different kinds of aircraft, we did a lot of useful work moving aircraft about.
I was soon ordered to fly to Homestead, Fla., for special courses in instrument flying. Could it have been because of my pestering operations for Link training and local flying under the hood? When I arrived at the school, I found I was the lowest-ranking man to be assigned as a student. They used C-54s, C-87s, B-24s, and C-60s for instrument training, all of which I had considerable flying time in except the C-54, which flew the way a four-engine plane should fly and handle. Of course, there also was the ever-present Link instrument trainer. The instructor and I took a C-60 to Santiago, Cuba, giving me over six hours of flying under the hood. Ostensibly, it was a training flight, but we loaded the aircraft with rum and other bottled goods for the officers club and some friends.
After my checkride under the hood in a C-54, a very rough test that included feathering two engines, the check pilot pulled me aside and asked questions about my flying background. I was a bit nervous during our conversation, until he told me I had done better than the others. But then he also cautioned me that due to my rank, it would be better for us not to talk about it. I never did.
I had a couple of days after the training classes before I needed to report back to Long Beach. As Homestead was only about 50 miles from my hometown, I decided to take a bus to Fort Lauderdale and then a taxi to the foot of my parents' driveway. I took a leisurely walk up to my former home, savoring every minute of it. The home we had built looked much smaller now, and the river looked narrower than it did on the day when I had pulled out a young lad to save him from drowning. Dad looked older and had been coaxed out of retirement to operate the mill at the navy station. Mom was the same as ever and insisted on baking me an apple pie. My older brother was on a seagoing tug in the Aleutian Islands. For a period time, he was believed to be dead after a German sub had sunk the Liberty ship he was towing in the Caribbean and the abandoned raft had washed ashore. The family was elated to hear his tug had managed to escape and he was actually still alive. My younger brother was a paratrooper, location unknown. Getting news to and from even family members was quite impossible, due to the security of our country and not releasing information on the troop movements.
For the past year, I had had my head into flying, focusing on aircraft, production lines, and the new technology coming in aviation. Little did I know, or even think, about the lives of civilians and how they were changing during this turbulent time, or about how a war could bring such changes to a small town. There were missing people, rationing of food and other products, and restricted travel, along with other quiet, determined sacrifices by everybody in hopes of bringing about a victory. We had been a close-knit family: three brothers separated by only a few years, growing up as boys do, in and out of trouble and constantly on the lookout for a new adventure. But now we were separated and scattered by the winds of war.
After my return to Long Beach, I was transferred to Palm Springs, Calif., about 100 miles east of Long Beach. This was a good staging area for aircraft. A mountain range separated us from the Pacific coast, cutting us off from dense fogs and smog. Its desert location meant the temperatures would reach 120 degrees in the shade; you could fry an egg on the wing of an aircraft. Jeanne had bought an old Plymouth coupe to move our belongings to Palm Springs and rented a trailer for us to live in. It was so small that we had to leave my suitcase in the car. Fortunately, a small house soon became available and we moved right in, but we missed our old apartment on the beach and our occasional drives down the coast to rent a sailboat for the day. Nevertheless, life in Palm Springs was good for the few days I was home.
It was not long before orders came for me, along with about a dozen of the pilots who had completed the instrument flying course with me, to report to Hickam Field in Honolulu. Due to the extended duration of this assignment, Jeanne drove back to Miami to live with her parents.
[Continued with Chapter 3.]
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A pretty airplane with a pretty backdrop makes for a pretty nice Picture of the Week. Air to air is always the result of teamwork and the chase plane team of pilot Tom Mitchell, photographer Jay Beckman and Bonanza pilot Tom Rippinger combined for a winner