This book describes some experiences of Air Force flying
instructors during World War II. All instructors and their
students had narrow escapes. Many of them involved a matter of
seconds between survival and death.
I entered the Army Air Corps as a flying cadet in 1940. At that
time there were about six thousand people in the Army Air Corps; at
the end of World War II, there were one million officers and men
in the Army Air Forces. This exponential increase in numbers of
people indicates the great pressure that was placed on the Training
Commands to push people through regardless of casualties so they could
join the Combat Commands.
In the Air Force during World War II, more people were killed
in training than were killed in combat.
World War II veterans are departing this world at the rate of
360,000 per year. I felt there was a need to record the “flight
training story” before we have all left the scene.
Visit to Grandmother
I had recently graduated from flying school and became a second
lieutenant in the Air Corps. I was a good pilot and I was assigned to
Gunter Field in Montgomery, Alabama as a flying instructor.
My grandmother lived in the little town of Winfield, Alabama, about
250 miles northwest of Montgomery.
Winfield had a little landing strip, so I got permission to fly
there, spend the night, and return.
I took along a friend, Larry Girisso. He sat in the back seat and
did the navigation. I was flying a BT-13, basic trainer, a low-winged
monoplane that cruised above 155 miles per hour and landed at 85. We
landed at Winfield and spent the night. The weather looked bad the
next day and I should have sent a message back to Gunter Field saying
I would spend another night. But against my better judgement I
decided to take off. I thought I could sneak under those low-hanging
clouds and get back home. As I found out later, this was a stupid
thing to do, especially since our airplane had a primitive set of
blind flying instruments: a needle, ball, and airspeed.
We took off and headed toward Montgomery. We skimmed along just
above the hills and under the low-hanging clouds for a few miles and
suddenly we were in those clouds at low altitude — a stupid
thing to do. I frantically looked for the ground. Instead of seeing
it below me I saw it off my right wing. I was in a vertical position
and I was lucky there was a break in the clouds so I could know I was
in this spiral headed for the ground — which was only a few feet
We had been trained well on using our instruments in order to
recover from unusual positions. I instinctively kicked my left
rudder, pulled the stick back to the left-hand corner, and gave full
throttle. I almost did a snap roll to the left, but stopped it just
Now I was flying my instruments exclusively just as I had practiced
under the hood for many hours. I centered the needle, centered the
ball, and set my air speed for a climb.
All this happened in about three seconds. I’ve always
wondered how close we had come to those trees I luckily saw through
the clouds. My instrument training had saved our lives. This was a
similar situation to that faced by John F. Kennedy, Jr.; apparently he
had not received adequate instrument training.
We climbed through those solid clouds for ten minutes on a heading
toward Gunter Field. We finally broke out of the top of the clouds at
10,000 feet. It looked like they were going to be solid all the way
to the Gulf of Mexico. I cursed myself for taking off into this foul
weather. We flew for about an hour when suddenly we saw a big hole in
the clouds and we could see the ground. That was a beautiful sight
and I decided at that moment to put this bird on the ground. Larry
was a good navigator and he said we were over the town of Montevallo,
Alabama. The map showed that there was a small landing strip. We
found out later that the college there had cut that landing strip up
into tennis courts.
We flew over the place for a long time. I finally found a big
cornfield I thought was adequate. I buzzed in several times and then
came in over a fence at very low speed with full flaps and was able to
drop it in on three points. But the field really wasn’t big
enough, and we rolled and rolled across it. I kept applying brakes
but each time I did, my tail would come up. Finally, as we came to
the end of the field, I put on full brakes. My tail came up but
luckily the propeller did not touch the ground. My tail dropped down
as we stopped a few feet from a barbed-wire fence.
Students from the college gathered around us. We were right next
to their campus. A group of them got together and pushed our airplane
away from the fence so we could turn it around and not touch the fence
with the wings. I had judged the wind direction from the smoke coming
from several buildings.
It had been raining and the field was very muddy. We went to the
high side of the field which had firm ground.
Next, I called Gunter Field on our radio and told the tower that we
were on the auxiliary field in Montevallo about 50 miles away. Since
a runway was marked on the map, no one ever knew we were in a
cornfield. Fortunately the corn had been harvested and the field was
fairly level. Gunter tower told me the weather was bad there, and for
us to call back three hours later for further instructions. So we
relaxed and talked to the pretty girls and nice boys at the college.
They were very curious and we were glad to be alive.
We called Gunter tower as instructed. They told us that the
weather had cleared and we could come home, but we still had a
problem. There were two tall trees at the end of the field and they
were just wide enough apart for our airplane to fly between them. Of
course the field was soft, but I knew that with full power, propellers
at low pitch, and full flaps down, we could get over that fence
— but not over the trees. We would have to fly between them.
I tore up two handkerchiefs and tied the pieces on cornstalks
leading exactly between those two trees. They were markers, to guide
us between the two trees during takeoff.
On takeoff I ran the engine up to full power before I released the
brakes. We lumbered along through that mud for a long time. I
thought, “Oh my God, we’ll never get over that fence and
between those trees.”
We barely got over the fence and our wings almost touched the two
We landed at Gunter field with a great sigh of relief. As we
climbed out of the airplane a gruff old master sergeant said,
“Where in the hell have you guys been with my airplane?
It’ll take me a full day to get all that mud off of it!”
Lost Engine on Takeoff
I was instructing at a basic flying school in Greenville,
Mississippi. A friend of mine was an engineering officer and his job
was to repair broken airplanes.
He had a basic trainer, a BT-13 that had engine trouble. His
mechanics told him that they had fixed the problem. He asked me if I
would “test fly it.” On the ground the engine ran up okay.
The control tower cleared me for takeoff, so I pushed the throttle
forward and roared down the runway. I got about a hundred feet into
the air and the engine quit completely. Ahead of me were trees.
Fortunately I had excess speed over normal climbing speed — this
was my insurance policy. This extra speed enabled me to make a
180-degree diving turn and I landed downwind on the grass along the
side of the cement runway.
My friend apologized to me and assured me that his mechanics would
do a better job in the future.
Flying Safety Program
We had been losing about one student every week due to stupid
The base commander called everyone to a meeting in the base
theater. After discussing the problem, he said, “If anyone has
any idea that will help cut down these accidents, please come directly
to me and tell me about it.” The next day I walked into his
office, saluted, and told him I had an idea on how we could cut down
on the accidents. I told him that the Shell Oil Company where I had
previously worked had a driving safety program: they called their
truck drivers “driver salesmen.” Each year, every driver
without any accident would be rewarded with $50 in cash. They got
their pictures in the company magazine also. After five years, they
got a gold medal, and so forth. In other words, they were rewarded
instead of being criticized for accidents. Colonel McConnel said,
“Let’s do that. You’re the Flying Safety
Officer.” At first I didn’t like the idea of being a
full-time flying safety officer. I was perfectly happy being an
When I started the “big reward program” each squadron
got their class name on a flag that hung in the squadron orderly room,
if there were no accidents by anyone in that squadron. Each student
got a diploma-type certificate if he had no avoidable accidents during
his stay at the Greenville Flying School.
I produced a little book for each student. It told how and why
most accidents occurred and how to avoid them. I created a taxi
obstacle course and so forth and so forth. Our accident rate dropped
one-half. We had the best accident rate in the whole training
command. I received a commendation from General Ralph Royce,
Commander of the Eastern Training Command. As a result of this work
an air-force-wide flying safety program was started. Unfortunately,
Headquarters Army Air Force cancelled the program. They sent down a
directive stating that it might take away from of the aggressiveness
and bravery of pilots in combat. I wonder how many lives were lost as
a result of that decision.
The Thunder Mug Club
As part of my flying safety program I created a giant moose head
with a chamber pot hung under it.
I placed this in the men’s room in the officer’s club.
In the base newspaper I announced that any officer who had an
avoidable accident would have his name hung under the chamber pot. It
wasn’t long before some young officer had a taxi accident and
had his name hung under the moose head.
My friend Oran Sisler was an engineering officer and his
organization had been assigned a “Cub Airplane.” The air
force called it an L2B.
He said he would check me out on it. We shot some landings in it
and he said I could fly it anytime. When we flew in it we did some
snap rolls and slow rolls. We found out later that rolls were not
allowed in this little airplane! Fortunately it didn’t come
apart. A few days later I took a sergeant who worked for me on a
flight in this little cub. We flew all around the countryside and
over the Mississippi River where we buzzed some of the barges. After
we’d had our fun we returned home to land.
We did not have a radio and the control tower could not tell us the
wind had increased with strong gusts.
We could not land into the wind on the regular runway. Our speed
was about half that of the other airplanes which would disrupt the
traffic, so I chose to land on a long runway 90 degrees to the wind
Things were going very well as I levelled that little airplane off
for a three-point landing. As we touched the ground a crosswind gust
lifted my right wing. I gave full power and used full controls but
that wing kept coming up. My heart sank as I heard the left wing
start grinding against the concrete runway. The little airplane was
going very slowly as it ground-looped. That means it pivoted around
180 degrees. The only damage was that scraped wing tip.
As it was happening I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve joined
the Thunder Mug Club.” I had my name hung under it the next day.
The base commander laughed when he heard about it. Everyone on the
Greenville Army Air Force Base was amused at my expense. That was the
only aircraft accident I ever had during my flying career.
Danger in the Traffic Pattern
In late 1942, I was anxious to get into combat. I volunteered for
four-engine bomber training. I was sent to the B-24 transition school
in Smyrna, Tennessee. This was a miserable place to live. My wife
and I got a room in a third-rate tourist court. But the big
four-engine B-24 was fun to fly! We finished our training for daytime
flying and started our night flying training.
We were shooting touch-and-go landings. That means we would touch
the runway, then add power and take off again. Since my flying
partner had shot his six landings, we changed seats. I moved to the
pilot seat and he took the co-pilot seat. My partner was an officer
named Simcox — a really great guy.
There were several other aircraft in the 1,000-foot rectangular
traffic pattern. We took off, climbed out on the crosswind leg, and
then turned to the downwind leg. It was a black night, and I was
forced to fly instruments in order to keep the wings level and stay on
the right heading. Simcox, as co-pilot, was supposed to look out for
other aircraft — but instead, he was also watching the
instruments as we flew the downwind leg. This was a big mistake,
because another B-24 was on his base leg who had made his pattern
larger than ours, and we were heading towards each other! Neither
Simcox or I was aware of this.
But, fortunately, we had an old experience crew chief, a master
sergeant. The first thing I knew, he dived over my back and pushed
the wheel forward, and we flew under that other B-24. We were so
close I could see the other pilot sitting in the cockpit. We almost
touched the belly of that B-24 as we flew under it.
We thanked that crew chief for being alert and saving our lives.
When we checked into the operations office after flying that night,
the pilot of the other airplane was bitterly complaining that he had
almost crashed into another airplane in the traffic pattern. We never
admitted that we were that other airplane.
After I finished my B-24 training, I expected to be sent into
combat. But I had entered the Air Corps over a year before World War
II, and as a result I had valuable experience and flying time that
were needed in the training program. I was assigned to be an
instructor in B-24 bombers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery,
Alabama. For two years I flew over 2,000 hours in those airplanes.
Finally, I became an instructor in B-29s, and flew those for 1,000
hours during the last year of the war — the largest and most
advanced bombers in the world.
Too Low on Final Approach
In 1944, I was instructing pilots on how to fly the B-29. At that
time, the B-29 was the largest, fastest bomber in the world. It was
the first pressurized airplane ever built. It was used to drop the
atomic bombs on Japan and end World War II.
We were training air crews on the way to combat. Each crew was
composed of a pilot, co-pilot, engineer, and crew chief. We taught
them day, night, and altitude flying.
On one dark night, we were shooting touch-and-go landings. My
student had not been doing too well. He was coming in too high, so I
lectured him on this. On our next landing he wanted to make sure not
to overshoot the runway — so as we came in on final approach, he
kept getting lower and lower.
My policy was to let the student go as far as possible within
safety limits. In this case I let him go a little too far. Suddenly
our landing lights lit up green trees just below our wheels. I jammed
the four throttles full forward on — but we were in a big heavy
airplane that didn’t respond quickly. Our wheels probably
touched the tops of those trees before we gained altitude.
The control tower called and said, “Number 334, where are
you? You disappeared on final approach.” I never let a student
go that far again.
I was returning to Maxwell Air Force Base after a nice
cross-country flight. I was flying a single-engine advance trainer
called an AT-6. It had retractable landing gear and would cruise
about 180 miles per hour. At that time, I was an instructor in the
B-24 — a big, powerful four-engine bomber. I got permission
from the tower to land, and I entered the traffic pattern behind a
I forgot that I was flying a small, light airplane, and I spaced
myself behind the B-24 in the same manner I would if I were flying
another B-24. I came down the final approach very close to that big
airplane. The pilot in the B-24, probably a student, undershot the
runway and applied power to those four big engines. This caused a
violent disturbance called prop wash. Foolishly, I flew my little
airplane directly into this prop wash.
Suddenly my wings were thrown into a vertical position. I applied
full power and full controls, but at first nothing happened. I knew I
was going to crash into the ground about 50 feet away. But all of a
sudden, the little airplane flipped over to the other side. I caught
it with full controls and rocked back and forth, flying through that
prop wash. I gradually worked it back to an even keel and, as I flew
over the B-24 and climbed back to 1,000 feet, the controller in the
tower called and said, “Aircraft number 124, are you having
trouble?” “Oh, no,” I said, “I decided to go
around the traffic pattern and practice another landing.”
Flight to Omaha
We were returning from a conference in Omaha, Nebraska, which was
the home of the famous Strategic Air Command. We were flying a DC-3
airplane; in the Air Force it was called a C-47. This was a
twin-engine reliable workhorse for the early airlines, and it was our
principle transport aircraft during World War II. There were
four of us on board. We all worked in the Public Relations Office in
the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Denny Dinsmore was our pilot. He had been an old airline pilot
before entering the Air Force, so he was a highly-qualified pilot
— one of the best I’ve ever known.
We were over West Virginia when our right engine started knocking
and missing; after about five minutes, it stopped. Denny pushed the
feather button, which turned the prop blades at right angles to the
direction of flight — this kept the props from windmilling and
causing drag. We were flying on one engine and, of course, had to
increase the power on that engine in order to maintain our altitude.
We were flying on instruments through solid clouds. I had just left
the co-pilot seat and was sitting in the back of the airplane. I
immediately put on one of the parachutes; there was one for each
person on board.
I sat opposite the exit door and reviewed in my mind how to open
the door and how long to wait before pulling the ripcord in order not
to hit the tail of the aircraft.
My plan was to jump out of the airplane the moment that the
remaining engine started to fail. We were flying at 9,000 feet and,
without any power, it doesn’t take long to reach the ground.
Luckily there was a small airport in Danville, Virginia, which was
just ahead of us. Denny called their tower and they told us to land
into the wind, to the north. That is hilly country, and there was a
400-foot hill that was close to the end of the runway we were supposed
to land on.
As Denny came in to land over that hill, he was too high and too
fast to get on the runway. He had to go around.
More trouble: there was also a high hill to our left, so he
couldn’t turn that direction to go around — he had to turn
right, into the dead engine! I had been told that in a DC-3 airplane
you simply couldn’t turn into a dead engine and stay in the air.
I began saying my prayers; I just knew we couldn’t make it
around for another landing towards the north — and we were too
low to bail out. But Dinsmore was a great pilot. He nursed that DC-3
around the entire traffic pattern — and almost touched that hill
as he came in and landed!
When we stopped, we left the airplane on the runway; you
can’t taxi a DC-3 on one engine. They had to tow the airplane
to a parking place.
It was late in the evening, about 6 p.m., so we hired a taxi to
drive us into Washington, D.C., where we all lived. The taxi driver
drove like a maniac on those two-lane mountain roads. As we were
rounding a curve, we came very close to an oncoming car; there was a
metallic click as the two cars touched each other.
At that moment I wondered if we would ever get home alive. This
was definitely not my day. But we made it; the taxi driver dropped us
off at our respective homes. That was just too many thrills and
chills for one six-hour period.
All airplanes use flaps to slow them down and decrease their
stalling speed when coming in for a landing. Flaps are also used on
takeoff to get the airplane off the ground quicker, allowing it to fly
at low speeds and climb faster.
I flew a small twin-engine C-45 airplane that is designed for
transporting a maximum of eight people on fairly short flights. I
landed at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, Louisiana, and dropped off
two people. It normally was flown with both a pilot and co-pilot; but
I was an experienced pilot and knew the airplane, so I was flying it
I had discharged my passengers, filed a flight plan, and taxied out
for takeoff. I was in a hurry to get back to my home base at Maxwell
Field in Montgomery, Alabama, so I had neglected reading the
checklist, which is something that every pilot should do before taking
off in any airplane.
I had landed the airplane with full flaps down. The after-landing
checklist asked for the flaps to be raised. But I was in a hurry and
left the full flaps down, and that’s where they were when I took
I do not think I had ever taken off with full flaps down. I gave
it power and rode along normally when all of a sudden the airplane
jumped off the ground. The airspeed indicator was at 80 miles an hour
— just above complete stalling speed. Also, the nose wanted to
come up. I had pulled the trim tab back when landing, and I forgot to
place it back for level flight.
I was using all of the power in my arms to hold the nose down and
prevent a stall. The airplane ballooned into the air and was climbing
rapidly. I instinctively rolled the trim tab forward, which got the
nose down, but I kept climbing at that very low speed. The tower
called and asked me if I was having trouble. All of a sudden I
realized my flaps were full down. Of course, I had left full power on
because of the very low speed — so I was really climbing fast.
I guess I was at 500 feet before I reached the end of the runway.
I immediately started to milk the flaps up; to place them up suddenly
would have caused an immediate stall and I’d have dropped to the
After I had built up airspeed and was flying normally I told the
tower, “No problem, I was just practicing a full-flap
I became a flying cadet in the Army Air Corps in 1940. I was
successful in the primary phase of training in Jackson, Mississippi.
From there, I entered the basic phase at Gunter Field in Montgomery,
At Gunter, we were trained to fly the BT-13. That means
“basic trainer number 13.” It was a low-winged monoplane
with a 450 horsepower engine. One of our many phases of training was
“acrobatics.” In this phase we did loops, chandelles, snap
rolls, slow rolls, stalls, and spins.
To enter a spin, we would do a complete stall. We would raise the
nose 45 degrees above the horizon; cut the power back; wait until the
airplane began to shudder — which means it was in a stall; walk
the nose down to the horizon with the rudders, keeping the wings
level; and, when we reached the horizon, push one of the rudder pedals
full forward. Then the airplane would fall into a spin: you head
toward the ground spinning like a maple leaf. After a while,
acrobatics became great fun. The spin was the most thrilling because
you lose control and the airplane takes over.
To recover from a spin, you kick the opposite rudder full forward,
and then snap the stick full forward. The airplane would stop
spinning and end up in a dive straight down. Then you would pull the
stick back, and return to level flight.
At Gunter Field, while I was a cadet there, we had three fatal
accidents doing spins. Both pilots were killed in the first accident.
During the second accident, the student succeeded in bailing out, but
fell into the propellers and both legs were severed. He lived a short
time but not long enough to explain what had happened. On the third
accident, the instructor pilot was able to bail out, and rode his
parachute down safely.
He said everything had gone well until the recovery from the spin.
Then, when the student kicked the opposite rudder, they had fallen
into a spin in the opposite direction — he said he
couldn’t get the rudder back to neutral position! It seemed to
be stuck all the way forward.
After that, spins were restricted, and none of us wanted to do
spins until that problem was solved. Experts were called in, but
ironically they were not able to find any solution — it was
solved by one of our students, who was an aeronautical engineer. He
sat in one of the airplanes on the ground, kicked the rudder full
forward with great force, and the rudder pedal went right off the
track! He had broken the metal stop and he could not get it back to
neutral. The problem was solved; the stop at the end of the rudder
track was beefed up so that no one could kick it off. We were then
allowed to do spins again; but they were never as much fun as they had
been before those accidents.
Flight to Kellogg Field
Frank Spangler, my brother-in-law, was a sergeant in the Air Corps
during World War II. He came to Montgomery to spend the
Christmas holidays. His leave was up at midnight on January 2nd. To
get there by train, he would have had to miss the famous MOR ball on
New Year’s Eve in Montgomery.
I was a B-24 instructor and, as the graduation exercise and for
navigation training, we took our students on a day/night cross-country
flight. We always flew to some interesting place, spent the night,
and flew home the next day.
I assured Frank that I would schedule my students’ overnight
flight so as to get him back to his base on the second day of January.
If he was late, he would be AWOL, which was a serious crime during
On the second of January we all reported to base operations early
in the morning. That included Frank, my four students, the aircrew,
and myself. At base operations we were to check the whether and file
our flight plan. Everything was going well, except for one thing
— the weather was terrible.
Kellogg field was just outside Chicago and our heading there was
due north. The weather officer on duty explained that there was a
cold front covering our entire route to Chicago.
At that time, I was an experienced pilot with a green instrument
card; to get a green card you had to be a command pilot, have over two
thousand hours of flying time, and so forth. With a green card I
could sign my own flight plan. Both the weather officer and the base
operations officer strongly recommended that I not take the flight.
But I knew I just had to get Frank to Kellogg Field before midnight,
so against my better judgement I signed my own instrument clearance.
The weather report said the front had everything in it: sleet, snow,
strong turbulence, and — worst of all — ice!
We got wet going out to the airplane. I had flown that big bird in
bad weather before. It was rugged, and built for combat, and it would
withstand any kind of weather.
We taxied out for takeoff, went through the checklist, and then I
pushed all four throttles forward. I was sitting in the
co-pilot’s seat; I told my students that I would make the
takeoff because of the bad weather. When we left the ground, we were
immediately on solid instruments. The sleet rattled against the
windshield, and we started getting ice on our wings. The B-24 had
icing boots on both the wings and the tail — we let the ice
build up to a solid sheet, and then we would turn on the boots. Air
would blow out three ridges along the wing and tail, causing the ice
to fall away. As it did, big chunks would hit the tail, causing the
airplane to rock back and forth and making all kinds of noise.
We climbed on course through the rough weather, picking up ice all
the time. As we hit ten thousand feet I told everyone to put on their
oxygen masks. As I was putting on my mask, the crew chief told me,
“Sir, your brother-in-law does not have an oxygen mask.”
Oh my Lord, I thought, I had forgotten to get Frank an oxygen mask!
I said, “Chief, what can we do?” He replied,
“Sir, we can give him a walk-around bottle — he will have
to place the nozzle in his mouth and breathe through his mouth.”
I told the chief to get one and instruct Frank on how to use it. His
life depended on it, because we were continuing to climb in order to
get out of the ice. Frank was sitting on the floor between the pilot
and co-pilot seats, and I saw him sucking on that oxygen bottle as we
passed through fifteen thousand feet. Frank’s face was red, but
I knew he would survive.
We broke out above the clouds at twenty thousand feet and, as we
flew north, the bad weather began to break up, so we were able to
descend to eight thousand feet and fly on to Kellogg Field. The
flight took four hours, and we had cheated death again!
Frank signed in, and we all went into Chicago and had a wonderful
time in the city that night.
While I was at the Greenville, Mississippi, airfield, we had a lot
of unusual accidents — many of them training accidents brought
on because the Air Corps was having to expand so rapidly during the
war. We were pushing our students through training faster than we
would have normally, because they were needed in combat.
One summer day in 1942, the fire engines and the ambulance started
their sirens and bells, and headed out through the cotton fields. A
cadet had spun in while making a turn from the downwind leg to the
base leg of the traffic pattern. This was because he made the turn
too tight and too fast, and did not heed the shudder the airplane gave
that warned a stall was imminent. An experienced pilot would have
felt this subtle warning, loosened his pressure on the stick, and
When the “meat wagons” (as we called them) arrived on
the scene, they found the airplane had gone straight down into a giant
oak tree. This tree was a marker for the corner of a cotton field
— there was not another tree in sight until you came to the
corner of another field. Everything in between was covered with
cotton — row upon row of beautiful white cotton, as far as the
eye could see. The airplane had hit the top of that tree and shredded
off every branch of that big oak until it had reached the ground. The
branches were big and strong and had served as a cushion for the
airplane as it was coming down.
The ambulance driver said he saw at a distance that the airplane
was nose down into the ground, and knew the pilot had to be dead; he
said they didn’t even hurry once they had seen that.
But as they approached the scene, they heard a voice. They found a
cadet sitting in the front seat of the airplane, saying every curse
word he could think of — one expletive after another. He was
only semi-conscious, had several broken bones, but he survived.
Think of the chance you have to win the lottery; if you double
that, you figure that kids’ chance for survival — he hit the
only tree at the corner of a cotton field, where the length of a field
was one mile!
On another occasion, an instructor who was a friend of mine was
teaching a cadet acrobatics — he did loops, snap rolls, spins,
and then decided to show him a big slow loop. The previous maneuvers
had provided enough centrifugal force to keep the instructor in his
seat, but at the top of this loop he would fall against the seatbelt
— which was no big deal, except that my friend had forgotten to
fasten it. So at the top of his big slow loop, he fell right out of
the airplane. He pulled his ripcord and floated to safety.
The airplane then headed straight toward the ground. The student
had the presence of mind to pull the airplane out of the dive even
before looking over and realizing that the instructor was gone. He
then saw the parachute floating down. He flew home, landed, and
reported to the group commander that his instructor had bailed out of
The instructor, meanwhile, went to the nearest farmhouse and got a
ride back to the airfield. He was terribly embarrassed and received
much kidding from everyone at the officer’s club that night — a
strange way to join the Caterpillar Club! In those old days, anyone
who bailed out of an airplane became a member of the Caterpillar Club;
Charles Lindberg was a two-time member of the Caterpillar Club.
Another time we were night flying and practicing navigation. We
landed at Scott Air Base, near St. Louis. One of the students asked
our instructor if he would taxi our plane up to the base operations,
so he could make a phone call to his favorite aunt. Johnny did this,
and the student promised to bring us some soft drinks when he came
back. The steps were let down and he walked down into the dark. With
four props turning there’s a lot of noise, and it is easy to become
confused as to which is the front and which is the back of the
airplane, especially at night. He was in a hurry and chose the wrong
One of the props hit his head and knocked him down. Luckily the
engine was idling at the lowest speed possible; otherwise, we would
have been cut into many pieces. Instead, he was merely rushed to the
hospital with a fractured skull. He lived, but his flying days were
over. After that I was very careful in which direction I walked after
I went down the steps of a B-24 airplane.
On another occasion a young lady, who was visiting a relative
stationed at Maxwell Air Base, walked down the steps at base
operations to look at an airplane that had engines running. You can’t
see the propellers when they are turning at high speed; she didn’t
know this, and walked into one of them. She was killed instantly.
There was one night when we were making touch-and-go landings. One
of the instructors said, “I see a body on the runway.”
Sure enough, one of the B-24’s had hit an airman, leaving him dead on
the runway. He had been drinking heavily, and had told a friend that
he was going to go out there and stop one of those airplanes.
In 1943 my wife’s brother, Frank Marchman, was flying in a circle
firing at a ground target. He had just finished firing and was
pulling up when another pilot became so intent on hitting his target
that he flew into Frank; his propeller cut off the tail of Frank’s
airplane. Frank bailed out, but he was too low for his parachute to
open completely, and was killed. The other pilot landed safely. This
was one of several needless accidents caused by target fixation.
Alf Coleman was a fellow instructor at Greenville, Mississippi, who
had a very unusual accident. He took off in a basic trainer which
stalled and dropped in from about 50 feet above the ground. He ended
up with a fractured back; he got back on flying status later, but he
had back trouble for the rest of his life. The cause of his accident
was frost on the wing of his airplane. That frost caused a small
change in the curvature of the wing surfaces, which in turn cased a
change in their lift.
My friend Roger Condit told me about a combat practice involving
B-17 bombers and fighter aircraft. The fighters were making vertical
passes at the B-17’s, when one fighter hit the nose of a B-17. This
killed the nose gunner, the bombardier, and the navigator. Amazingly,
both airplanes landed safely.
There is a special section in a cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama,
where British flying cadets are buried. Each year on Valentine’s Day
a ceremony is conducted there honoring these young men who gave their
lives for freedom. Large numbers of British cadets were trained at
Gunter Field during the war. I instructed some of them, and they were
wonderful people. I remember one night when a group of them were sent
out on a cross-country flight; the weather turned bad, they crashed,
and six of them were killed.
Once, a visitor flying a small twin-engine aircraft landed at our
air base. After he parked, he applied external control locks to the
tail control surfaces — blocks of wood that were screwed on to
prevent the wind from blowing the controls back and forth while the
plane was unattended.
After completing his business, he taxied out and took off.
Unfortunately he forgot to remove the locks that fixed the controls in
climb position; the airplane went into a steep climb, fell over on its
back, and dropped to the ground near the spot where it had been
parked. The pilot and both of his passengers were killed.
A Scary Night
I had just been elevated to the position of squadron commander at
our B-24 training school; it was 1943, and I had been a four-engine
teacher for a year. I was very proud of my ability, and the
confidence my group commander had in me.
We were entering the night flying phase of our training when one of
the instructors in my squadron said, “Chuck, I have two students
who are just impossible. I know I’m required to sit in the seat
between them before letting them solo, but I just don’t have enough
confidence in them to do that. I think they should be washed out and
sent to some other form of flying.”
It was my job as squadron commander to check on the judgement of
the instructors under my command. I said, “Okay, Joe, I’ll fly
with them and see how they do.” I went out and sat in the
co-pilot’s seat and shot one landing with each student. They were
very bad, as my instructor had told me, but I sensed that these kids
knew how to do it but that they were just plain scared. I suspected
that their instructor had not built up their confidence enough; it had
been all criticism and no compliments. So I told them there were a
lot of good things about their flying, and I just knew they could do
this night flying job okay. Of course, we all knew that if they
didn’t, they would be washed out.
I said that I was going to let each of them land with the help of
his partner. The partner would be sitting in the jump seat between
the pilot and co-pilot and, of course, I would be sitting in the
co-pilot’s seat. If the partner sees anything wrong, he will tell his
buddy just as though he were an instructor. I would be in the
co-pilot’s seat just in case. They had flown solo during the daytime,
why not at night?
Each pilot shot his landing successfully with the verbal help of
his partner, who called out “you’re too high,” “too
far to the left,” “level off now,” “cut your
power,” and so forth. They did this with no help from me.
So as the next step, I myself got into the jump seat with the two
students at the controls. Of course, I was nervous. I now didn’t
have quick access to the controls if things went wrong. If either
student panicked or froze on the controls — goodbye! The first
student came in on final low and fast. I said, “power off, ease
back on the wheel,” but he was slow doing both. He drove the
wheels into the runway and bounced the airplane high into the air. I
told him to get the nose down; but he had already reacted, and we
landed safely. I complimented him on his recovery, saying,
“Everybody bounces occasionally.”
The other student was determined not to hit the runway and bounce,
so he levelled off too high, even as I kept telling him to get his
nose down. He had the airplane at about the height of a rooftop and
was about to drop in. In desperation, I reached over and jammed the
wheel forward and pushed the power on. We dropped in from about
fifteen feet, which wasn’t too bad.
I said, “I’m going to let you guys solo, but you must help
each other. Between the two of you I know you can do it
safely,” and they did. They each shot three perfect landings.
Joe, the instructor who had given up on those two, said, “I
can’t believe it! I thought they would kill themselves if they flew
solo. How did you improve their landings?” I replied, “I
praised them for everything they did right and I carefully explained
how to correct what they were doing wrong. Not one word of criticism.
I just built up their confidence, and told them to help each
Silver Four Leaf Clover
We were doing night flying out of Smyrna Airbase near Nashville,
Tennessee, when the weather turned bad. Planes were circling in zones
to the north, south, east, and west, with the airplanes stacked from
between two to six thousand feet in each of the four zones. That’s a
lot traffic, even in good weather, and our planes only had
“combat lighting” — several weak blue lights on the
wings and tail. They only added bright lights later, after several
All of a sudden, one of the planes touched down short of the runway
and crashed; we could see the fire and smoke as the airplane burned.
Of course, the folks on the ground went berserk. The stacked planes
could not now be called in to land, so it developed that everybody was
on his own.
Our instructor was John Clayton, a great guy and a superb pilot.
The weather was getting very bad and we were flying on instruments
most of the time. We could not maintain our altitude with the weather
deteriorating; we couldn’t stay in our correct zones; we couldn’t land
with a burning aircraft on the runway; and the tower couldn’t give us
instructions. We began to streak by other planes that also could not
maintain their zones.
After a near miss, Johnny said, “Let’s get the hell out of
here!” So we headed south away from the confusion of the air
base. We looked at our radio facility chart, and decided to go to
Knoxville. We called Airway Traffic Control and got permission; the
weather there would permit a landing. After we made our instrument
landing in Knoxville, we went to a hotel, had some stiff drinks, and
went to bed.
The next morning I bought a little silver four-leaf clover in the
gift shop of the hotel, in honor of the luck we had the night before.
I later gave the clover to my wife; one of my daughters has it now.
From Nagoya to Manila
In 1948 and 1949, I was assigned to headquarters’ fifth air force
in Nagoya, Japan. We were part of the army of occupation. During
that period of time we seldom got any fresh fruit or vegetables, or
fresh milk from home.
I needed flying time for pay, so a group of us planned a flight to
Manila, in the Philippine Islands. We flew a DC-3 aircraft, which was
the old workhorse of the air force back in those days.
It was an all-day flight, and we arrived early in the evening. My
cousin Harris Yates met me. He was in the army, and he gave me the
V.I.P. treatment while we were there. We stacked up on fresh fruit
and milk; each of us had a whole stack of bananas.
We were not able to return home the following day as planned
— a typhoon had stuck Okinawa, which was our refueling point
halfway between Japan and the Philippines. So we had to stay an extra
day; we didn’t mind! We took off at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. The
weather had cleared up at Okinawa, so we could land there and pick up
fuel to get us back to Japan.
All went well until our time and airspeed said we should be over
Okinawa. Our pilot asked the navigator to give us our position from
his LORAN navigation equipment; our radio range was not working at
all. There were low white puffs of clouds in all directions. An
island like Okinawa is like a pinprick in the vast Pacific Ocean. We
were supposed to be there, but couldn’t see it. The navigator was
very contrite. He said he had not used the LORAN equipment because
the radio range was always dependable, and all we had to do was home
in on it. But the radio range was not working, and the control tower
would not answer our calls.
It was obvious that we had missed our target and we had two
alternatives. One, we could turn right, toward the open Pacific. If
we missed Okinawa, we would suffer the same fate as Amelia Earhart.
Two, we could turn left, and if Okinawa was not there, we would land
in communist China and be interned. We were getting low on fuel and
decided that being interned in China would be better than drowning in
We had just turned to the left, toward Asia, when we heard a pilot
call the Okinawa tower and say, “This is General MacArthur’s
airplane, Colonel Tony Story pilot. The General wants to survey the
damage caused by the typhoon.” The tower gave them landing
instructions. Because our radio signals travelled by line-of-sight,
we could hear MacArthur’s airplane from its altitude of six thousand
feet, but not the Okinawa tower down at sea level. We asked Colonel
Story how he was able to communicate with Okinawa, and how he was able
to navigate to it.
Colonel Story replied that, though the Okinawa radio range was
destroyed by the typhoon, he had used the Okinawa entertainment radio
channel for navigation. We turned our radio compass to that
frequency, and it pointed to our rear — we were headed in the
opposite direction! We turned around and our radio compass took us to
Okinawa rather than communist China.
Okinawa was a mess. Airplanes were upside down; buildings were
destroyed. We refueled and went on to Japan with our precious cargo
of fresh fruit and vegetables and milk. Years later, I met Tony Story
in New York City. I thanked him for saving us from internment in
China; he replied, “Oh, well, I was glad to do it. I think that
the Communists were pretty tough on internees back in those
The Duck Pond
It was in the summer of 1941 that three of us pilots decided to fly
a formation of three airplanes to the Greenville, Mississippi Army Air
Base. It was under construction, but the runways were complete. All
three of us were scheduled to be transferred from Gunter Field in
Montgomery to the new basic flying school near Jackson, Mississippi.
This was a fun flight. We flew in formation for a while, but that
got boring, so we separated and started “hedgehopping”
— that meant we flew as close to the ground as possible without
hitting anything. We flew over some heavy woods and saw a large
clearing; I circled low, and saw a big whiskey still in operation.
Several men stopped their work and waved their hats in greeting. We
circled several times, very low, and wagged our wings several times in
We were flying our single-engine basic trainers; as pilot, I was in
the front seat, and had a passenger in the rear seat.
After three hours, we landed at the new airfield near Greenville.
We toured the base and saw its buildings under construction.
We planned to fly next to New Orleans and spend an interesting
evening on the town, so after lunch, we asked the contractor if he
would fill our tanks with aviation fuel — our tanks were empty
and we needed more gas to make our flight to New Orleans. The
contractor said he was sorry, but the only fuel he had was for
automobiles. We finally decided to risk using that lower-octane gas;
after all, we had some higher-octane aviation fuel remaining in both
our left and right tanks. I had actually used most of the aviation
fuel in my left tank, so the left tank wound up as almost pure
I took off using the high-octane gas in my right tank. After
getting to altitude, I switched over to the automobile fuel in the
left tank. It seemed to work just fine, so I went back to
hedgehopping along with the other two pilots.
We flew so low over a duck pond that we made the ducks take off and
scatter. As we pulled up, my engine began to cough and vibrate; I
knew it was that damned auto fuel.
Our of the corner of my eye I saw an open stretch of land alongside
the lake that might be used for a forced landing.
I made my turn back toward that field, switched tanks over to the
good gas, eased back on the throttle, pulled the mixture control back
to lean, and put the propellers on low pitch. All this was
instinctive and was done in a few seconds. My engine lost all power
as I started to turn; fortunately, I had a lot of excess speed, and I
was able to complete my turn and square off toward that open stretch
of land — with enough airspeed to make it over a fence that
stood in the way.
I put down my flaps and slowed down to eighty miles per hour, just
above stalling speed; but just before my wheels touched the ground,
the engine roared back to full power. The good gas had cleared out
the auto fuel, and was doing a good job.
Of course, with this new power I climbed up out of that field and
levelled off at ten thousand feet. I called my friends in the other
two airplanes, and they joined me.
I leaned my mixture way back, and burned out that automobile gas as
we went on to New Orleans as planned. We had a great dinner at
Antoine’s Restaurant. Our trip home was uneventful; we
didn’t do any more hedgehopping that trip.
We never told anyone about the automobile fuel that we put in those
The Lost Suitcase
I was director of Air Force Public Relations in New York City
when I received a call from General Lawrence Kuter,
who had arranged a trip to the Air Force Material Command in Dayton, Ohio,
for a group of New York City VIP’s
(“very important persons”).
The general called me at my apartment on Saturday evening.
He said all of the group had placed their handbags in one area
to be loaded on to the airplane,
but that Mr. Henry Luce’s bag had not arrived with the rest.
Luce was founder and president of Time and Life magazines;
apparently his bag had been lost somewhere in the loading area.
General Kuter asked me to try to locate it
and get it sent to Dayton, Ohio, as soon as possible.
I called the manager of the airport and explained the problem.
Within an hour, he called back and reported that he had located a lost bag
that had a laundry mark of HL.
I asked him when the next flight was scheduled for Dayton, Ohio;
he replied that a commercial Eastern Airlines flight was scheduled
to leave in an hour.
I asked him to request that the pilot take the bag to Dayton,
where I would have an Air Force officer meet the pilot and pick up the bag.
Everything worked perfectly.
The officer in Dayton picked the bag up from the airline pilot
and delivered it to Mr. Luce’s room;
Luce never knew that his bag had been lost.
I never left my apartment during the whole operation.
This was one of those few times when you make a plan,
and everything works perfectly.
A Tragic Ending
One of the very best pilots in my squadron was an officer named Jim
Dennis; we always called him by his last name. He was a tall,
good-looking guy, much like Gary Cooper.
At the end of one of our classes, he invited me to visit his home,
in a town near Dayton, Ohio. So we checked out an airplane, flew to
Dayton, and arrived at his home early in the evening. A lovely young
lady picked us up at the airport — Dennis’s fiance. We
visited his home for two days. I received outstanding hospitality
from his family, and all of his friends.
On the third day we flew back to Maxwell Field in Montgomery. I
kept thinking about what a wonderful future Dennis had; a wonderful
family; the beautiful intelligent girl he would marry in three months;
and that after the war, he was to go into business with his father,
which mean financial opportunity and security.
Everybody liked Dennis. He was a capable instructor, and he worked
hard; he was one of my favorite people.
The day after we returned home, we started a new class on teaching
students how to fly the B-24 bomber. The instructor would take his
students up for an orientation flight; he would show them how to work
all the gadgets, and let them shoot a landing while he stayed at the
duplicate controls in the opposite seat. After a few days of flying
in the opposite seat, the instructor would sit in the center
“jump seat” between the two students. Then, after he had
confidence in their ability, he would let them fly solo.
On this particular day I was taxiing into the parking area when I
saw a big black plume of smoke a half-mile to the west of the field.
That meant only one thing: an airplane had crashed. Black smoke comes
from all big serious crashes, because of the burning oil.
I rushed into Operations, and found that Dennis was the only
instructor who had not checked in.
No one will ever know exactly what caused the crash, but we found
that two engines on one side had been feathered.
The B-24 would fly very well on two engines, but it took an
experienced pilot to do it on the climb out from takeoff. Dennis was
probably sitting in the jump seat between his two students. One
engine probably quit, which left three big engines — and we took
off from the runway many times with only three engines.
But his inexperienced student probably panicked and got
“feather happy.” When an engine quits, you
“feather” its propeller, turning the blades straight into
the wind to reduce its drag. But you never feather a propeller until
you are very sure you know which of the four engines has failed! Even
when an engine has failed, it windmills and looks like the other, good
engines. You have to check the cylinder head temperature, oil
pressure, and manifold pressure of each engine. Only when you are
sure which engine has failed do you press the big red feather button
for that engine.
The student must have just taken off when he felt the airplane
swerve to the left, which meant to him that an engine was out on the
left side. All he had to do was raise the landing gear, increase
power, fly up to altitude, and then check carefully which engine had
failed. But instead, he pushed the wrong feather button, which put
two engines out instead of one, and crashed shortly after takeoff.
After that, we drilled our students over and over about the correct
feather procedure, and to never be feather-happy.
I will always remember Dennis, and I miss him.
Fire in the Cockpit
My roommate at the Greenville Army Air Base was Andrew Victor
Santangini. We got up one morning for our early morning flight and
had breakfast in the mess hall — which, incidentally, did not
have very good food during World War II. Of course, there was not
much the mess sergeant could do to ruin breakfast. We had scrambled
eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee.
We went to the flight line, grabbed our students, threw our
parachutes on our backs, walked out to our BT-13 trainers, and climbed
in. We took off with our students and started climbing. Fifteen or
twenty minutes later, I guess Santi had climbed on up to around ten
thousand feet to practice spins with his students, and I was doing the
same thing, except off in a different direction.
Within five seconds of each other we both called in emergencies to
the tower. I told them, My airplane’s on fire, my cockpit is full of
smoke, and I don’t know whether I am going to bail out or not. Of
course, I opened my canopy; the BT-13 trainer had two enclosed
canopies that slid open. I told the student to open his canopy too,
and the smoke started clearing out. Fortunately it was an electrical
fire, and was not too serious.
Almost simultaneously Santi called in to declare his emergency; he
later described to me what had happened. He had told the student to
prepare for a spin by raising the nose and preparing for a stall. The
student looked around, and made motions with his mouth — because
he wasn’t allowed to use the microphone — and pointed toward the
center of the cockpit. Santi knew something was wrong, so he took
over and pulled on the stick to raise the nose; and it would not move!
He could not pull the stick back at all. All of the other controls
were working okay, but he wondered if he could even land the airplane
without being able to get the nose up and the tail down.
He said, “I saw this nice layer of clouds, so I went over to
them and practiced landing on top of those clouds. I made several
passes over the clouds and decided that I could make a landing without
pulling the stick back.”
He went in to land on an emergency basis. He kept his tail high,
touched down, and then had to roll without using his brakes or he
would have nosed over. He rolled all the way to the end of the runway
before his tail finally dropped down.
When he taxied back to the ramp, they found that a large wrench had
been left in the tail of the airplane where one of the airmen had been
working — that was the cause of the jam.
Years later, Santi told me, he was at a party where he met a
younger man who said, “Colonel, you don’t remember me.”
Santi said, “I don’t believe I do, where did we meet?”
“Well, we were at the Greenville Army Air Base, and I was the
guy who left the wrench in the back of your airplane.”
Santi replied, “Then I suppose you remember the chewing-out
you got from me when we found out what had happened.”
The young man answered, “Yes, I do, Sir — and I’m sure
I deserved it!”
Flight To Florida
I had tickets to the Blue Gray football game on Saturday. I
scheduled a training flight for Friday night — if I could give
my students one night flight, then I could let them go solo on
Saturday morning and make the game that afternoon.
We cranked up our big B-29 and taxied out for takeoff. The weather
looked doubtful; a big front was moving in from the west.
Several ships were in the air shooting touch-and-go-landings. We
were nearing takeoff position when a ship in the landing pattern told
the control tower, “There’s a big wall of clouds moving toward
the field, I recommend you call off flying. I’m coming in
I was next for takeoff, but had to wait until three B-29’s landed
and left the runway. The tower then announced that flying was being
We were in position, so I asked the tower to allow us to take off
and shoot one landing before the weather moved in; the tower gave
their permission. We took off just as the clouds were rolling over
the runway. As we turned in on final approach we could still see the
dim lights of the runway, but as we let down we lost the lights and
levelled off at two hundred feet to go around. We were flying on
instruments by this time, but we did glimpse the runway lights as we
passed over them.
We told the tower we were going back to the radio range station to
do a full instrument let-down and low approach; we were the only ship
left in the air.
We flew three miles back to the radio range station using our radio
compass, did a procedure turn, and headed back toward the field. We
were on solid instrument flying. We did a time let-down from the
range station to the field. We could see some dim lights as we
approached the field. We let down to one hundred feet before we could
see the runway — and were too far to the left to land!
We pulled up to a thousand feet and went through the same let-down
procedure. We got down to fifty feet on our final approach this time,
but were too far to the right of the runway to land.
After this second failure, I decided that it was impossible for us
to land at Maxwell Army Air Field that night.
We asked the tower officer to find out where we could go where the
weather was adequate for a landing. He told us to go into a holding
pattern over the radio range station while he checked the weather.
After about fifteen minutes, he said, “We have a report from
Selma that the ceiling there is three hundred feet, so go over there
Selma is only forty miles from Maxwell, so we flew there.
We stared a let-down and low approach using the Selma radio range
station; as we started down, I flicked the landing gear toggle switch
to the “Down” position — and only then saw that the
student was doing a poor job of letting down. The approach should be
120 miles per hour, but he had let the speed get up to 150 miles per
hour! I had been told to never exceed 150 on let-down because this
would damage the fragile door coverings of the landing gear. I
flicked the toggle switch back to the “Up” position as I
took over the controls and slowed the airplane down.
We made another radio range approach, but as we made our pattern, I
noticed that our gear had not come up all the way. I put the switch
in the “Down” position, and nothing happened. Our gear
was stuck half way down. About this time Selma told us that their
field was zero/zero. As we headed back to Maxwell, we were told that
the field there was now zero/zero — no chance of landing there
either. I asked the tower to find us a place to land within the range
of our fuel supply.
There was a long delay before the tower replied that the only place
that had weather good enough for us to land was Tampa, Florida; all
the rest of the central and eastern United States was below minimums
for landing. So we got approval from Airways to go to Tampa.
But what about that stuck landing gear?
It turns out that when I had reversed the switch from
“Down” to “Up”, I had blown a fuse. The crew
chief was a Master Sergeant, and said he thought he could grind the
gear down manually. After reading the tech order, he did just that.
The students did a good job plotting out a course to Tampa, where
we finally landed, and felt wonderful putting our feet on solid ground
again! Tampa was a training field for B-26 attack bombers,
twin-engine airplanes with high wing loading which were very difficult
to take off in if you lost one of the two engines — and the
engines were not very reliable at that time. There was a little ditty
that circulated throughout the Air Force at that time: “A ship a
day in Tampa Bay.”
We spent the night in the vistors’ quarters, and the next day the
weather at Maxwell was clear, so we were able to fly home. We were
instructed to leave the gear down during the flight even though we had
procured another fuse.
I missed the football game, and it was a long, sad trip. But we
learned a lot about flying the B-29.
While stationed in Hawaii, my favorite training flight was a trip
from Hickory Air Force Base to the Hilo airport on the big island. I
had a civilian friend who was a Reserve officer and a pilot; he needed
some flying time, so we took off in a DC-3 transport airplane. On our
way down to the big island the weather was good, and we saw a pod of
whales swimming off the coast. Occasionally one of them would surface
After two hours of flying time we landed at Hilo airport, bought
some tropical flowers, had some coconut pie and coffee, then took off
As we approached the island of Oahu, the weather turned bad, and we
had to fly on instruments. Suddenly we found ourselves in the center
of a thunderstorm. An updraft took us straight up. Then there were
cross-currents that kicked us sideways. My friend had not flown in a
long time, and his instrument flying was rusty; he was letting things
get out of hand. One giant gust threw us up into a vertical position;
our artificial horizon instrument could only operate up to fifty
degrees, and we found ourselves at ninety!
This caused the artificial horizon to tumble and begin giving
erroneous information — we were in big trouble! I took over
control of the airplane, and went to the old reliable needle, ball,
and airspeed; I practiced using these instruments to recover from
unusual positions for hours every year. The technique was to center
the needle for directional control, put the ball in the middle to keep
the wings level, and use the airspeed to keep the nose and tail on an
It was a struggle getting that old gooney bird back to level
flight. After about ten minutes the bad weather subsided and we were
able to fly on to Hickau field and land. This was the second time the
old needle, ball, and airspeed saved my life.
The artificial horizon instrument has been improved in recent
years; it no longer tumbles at fifty degrees, and in fact now operates
through a full three hundred and sixty degrees. Many new instruments,
in fact, have been invented since World War II which have made
navigation and instrument flying much safer and easier to perform.
I was stationed in Hawaii when a large volcano erupted on the Big
Island. The geyser was said to be as big around as the Empire State
Building; it shot up to about three hundred feet. This solid stream
of liquid rock fell back to earth and fed streams of lava; this lava
flowed down the mountainside, burning everything it touched.
I arranged to fly down from Hickau Field to photograph the historic
event. I was assigned a twin-engine TC-47 transport airplane. After
we arrived on the scene, we took the entry door off and attached a
safety line to our photographer.
We approached from the northern, windward side of the volcano. I
flew in very close — probably within three hundred yards; we
could feel the heat. The geyser was a bright orange shimmering mass.
We started to circle around it, because we did not realize that the
wind was blowing big chunks of semi-solid lava downwind of the geyser.
They began to pummel our airplane; it sounded like a hailstorm. I
immediately dived, applied full throttle, and turned left. After a
few seconds we escaped.
We flew home and inspected the airplane for damage; there was none!
And our photographer got some excellent pictures. We were lucky; that
same day a local airplane flew all the way around the eruption and got
a cracked windshield and multiple dents on the fuselage and wings.
Lesson learned: Stay away from volcanoes!
A Flying Instructor’s Day
I should outline my work as a Four-Engine Transition Flying
Instructor. Before coming to our school, each student had made over a
dozen landings in four-engine airplanes, had finished flying school,
gotten his commission as an officer, and was a qualified pilot. We
had a three-day rotating schedule.
Day One: Get up at 4:30 a.m., report for the briefing of
instructors, and then the student briefing, after which the Group
Commander always said: “Get ’em in the air!” The morning
flight ended at 12:30 p.m.
Day Two: Report at 6:00 a.m. for briefings, etcetera, “Get
’em in the air!” We would get home after midnight.
Day Three: This was the afternoon flight. On this day the
instructor would usually move to the “jump seat” between
the pilot and co-pilot’s seats; that is, if he felt that the students
could fly the airplane safely.
This rotating schedule was hard on our eating and sleeping
routines, but we were young and tough — and, after all, this was
Flying was not the only thing we had to do; before takeoff there
was the preflight, when we checked the airplane over thoroughly.
After landing we logged our time and reviewed the flight with our
students; we got to know each other very well, and we usually became
very good friends.
Then there was all of the paperwork. We had a war room with
classified material about the overall war effort, including new
technical developments. We were each required to visit it daily and
read all new material.
All of our flights had a target duration of five hours; we flew a
seven-day-a-week schedule. Our only times off were when there was no
airplane available, or the weather was very bad. We usually flew more
than one hundred hours every month; we instructors logged more than
one thousand hours each year.
At a cocktail party during the last days of World War II, an
officer came up to me and said, “I was your student three years
ago in Greenville, Mississippi. At that time you said that in case of
a forced landing, never fly straight ahead, but set up a pattern so
you can make a ninety-degree turn into a open field free of
obstructions. You drilled that into us, saying it would give us our
best chance of survival.
“Well, I was recently on a low-level attack mission during
the Battle of the Bulge. I got shot up, and my engine quit. Your
advice came to mind, but I was over the front lines, and if I made a
turn to look for an open field I would be captured by the Germans
— and I had been told they were not taking any prisoners. So I
kept going, straight ahead. Just after reaching friendly territory I
saw a big open field ahead of me and was able to crash-land that P-47
and walk away from it.
“I broke a rule, but I was very lucky.”
I forgave him for breaking the rule.
* * *
After flying one afternoon, I went to the officer’s club to meet my
wife and several friends. One of the party said, “We just got
news over the radio — a giant bomb was dropped on a city in
Japan and it blew up the whole place.”
I replied, “That’s ridiculous — no single bomb could do
that much damage!” But it turned out to be the atomic bomb that
had exploded over Hiroshima.
Days later I was getting ready for night flying in the late
afternoon, when flying for the evening was called off. Word had been
received that the Japanese had surrendered.
That was great news! I got in my old green hornet Hudson
automobile. As I reached the Bell Street gate at Maxwell Field, an
air policeman stopped me and said, “Sir, would you take these
two young ladies to town? They just missed the bus.”
The girls got into the car. One girl wore Corporal stripes and was
a beautiful blonde; the other was a Sergeant and was a lovely
brunette. As we rode to town, they explained that they were going to
a big “victory party” at the Exchange Hotel. They said
the manager was a friend of theirs, and urged me to go along with
As I dropped them off at the hotel, the blonde said, “You’re
going to miss a great party!” But I went on home and celebrated
with my wife and Marquerite, my little two-year-old daughter.