Close Calls

By C. B. “Chuck” Whitehead

Colonel, USAF, Retired


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 away.

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 in time.

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 trees.

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 accidents.

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 instructor pilot.

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 direction.

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.

Prop Wash

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 B-24.

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.

Full Flaps

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 alone.

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 off.

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 ground.

After I had built up airspeed and was flying normally I told the tower, “No problem, I was just practicing a full-flap takeoff.”


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, Alabama.

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 wartime.

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.

Unusual Accidents

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 increased power.

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 airplane.

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 direction.

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 other.”

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 mid-air collisions.

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 the Pacific.

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 days!”

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 greeting.

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 automobile gasoline.

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 airplanes.

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 myself.”

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 called off.

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 and land.”

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.

The Thunderstorm

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 and blow.

After two hours of flying time we landed at Hilo airport, bought some tropical flowers, had some coconut pie and coffee, then took off for home.

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 even keel.

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.

The Volcano

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 wartime.

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 them.

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.