There are a number of great stories from WWII days. This is one. It is a great story, about a boy from Ennis, Texas , who went on to pilot Aircraft #13 off the deck of the Aircraft Carrier Hornet. In all the annals of wartime bravery, what those pilots did on April 18th,1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor ) may be one of the greatest feats ever. Picture yourself at the controls of a B-25 bomber, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, running up your engines prior to takeoff – a takeoff that had never before been accomplished from the deck of a carrier with a bomber, knowing you were on a one way flight and would not be returning – If they were not shot down as they bombed Japan, they would then be in God’s hands. They would have to find obscure airfields in China (assuming they were not under Japanese control), or Russia or crash land or they would have to jump.
This is one of these stories – this one, the boy from Ennis lived to fly again to pilot C-47’s over the Burma Hump and later would return to the sky’s over Japan to bomb them again as a pilot of a B-29. But, I am getting ahead of the story.
Read and enjoy.
Aircraft #13 on the Doolittle Raid
—-My name is Edgar McElroy. My friends call me “Mac”. I was born and raised in Ennis , Texas, the youngest of five children, son of Harry and Jennie McElroy. Folks say that I was the quiet one. We lived at 609 North Dallas Street and attended the Presbyterian Church.
My dad had an auto mechanic’s shop downtown close to the main fire station. My family was a hard working bunch, and I was expected to work at dad’s garage after school and on Saturdays, so I grew up in an atmosphere of machinery, oil and grease. Occasionally I would hear a lone plane fly over, and would run out in the street and strain my eyes against the sun to watch it. Someday, that would be me up there!
I really like cars, and I was always busy on some project, and it wasn’t long before I decided to build my very own Model-T out of spare parts. I got an engine from over here, a frame from over there, and wheels from someplace else, using only the good parts from old cars that were otherwise shot. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was all mine I enjoyed driving on the dirt roads around town and the feeling of freedom and speed. That car of mine could really go fast, 40 miles per hour!
In high school I played football and tennis, and was good enough at football to receive an athletic scholarship from Trinity University in Waxahachie. I have to admit that sometimes I daydreamed in class, and often times I thought about flying my very own airplane and being up there in the clouds. That is when I even decided to take a correspondence course in aircraft engines.
Whenever I got the chance, I would take my girl on a date up to Love Field in Dallas. We would watch the airplanes and listen to those mighty piston engines roar. I just loved it and if she didn’t, well that was just too bad.
After my schooling, I operated a filling station with my brother, then drove a bus, and later had a job as a machinist in Longview, but I never lost my love of airplanes and my dream of flying. With what was going on in Europe and in Asia, I figured that our country would be drawn into war someday, so I decided to join the Army Air Corps in November of 1940. This way I could finally follow my dream.
I reported for primary training in California. The training was rigorous and frustrating at times. We trained at air-fields all over California. It was tough going, and many of the guys washed out. When I finally saw that I was going to make it, I wrote to my girl back in Longview, Texas. Her name is Agnes Gill. I asked her to come out to California for my graduation, and oh yeah, also to marry me.
I graduated on July 11, 1941. I was now a real, honest-to-goodness Army Air Corps pilot. Two days later, I married “Aggie” in Reno, Nevada. We were starting a new life together and were very happy. I received my orders to report to Pendleton, Oregon and join the 17th Bomb Group. Neither of us had traveled much before, so the drive north through the Cascade Range of the Sierra Nevada’s was interesting and beautiful.
It was an exciting time for us. My unit was the first to receive the new B-25 medium bomber. When I saw it for the first time I was in awe. It looked so huge. It was so sleek and powerful. The guys started calling it the “rocket plane”, and I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I told Aggie that it was really something! Reminded me of a big old scorpion, just ready to sting! Man, I could barely wait!
We were transferred to another airfield in Washington State, where we spent a lot a time flying practice missions and attacking imaginary targets. Then, there were other assignments in Mississippi and Georgia, for more maneuvers and more practice.
We were on our way back to California on December 7th when we got word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We listened with mixed emotions to the announcements on the radio, and the next day to the declaration of war. What the President said, it just rang over and over in my head.
“With confidence in our armed forces, with the un-bounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph; So help us God.” By gosh, I felt as though he was talking straight to me! I didn’t know what would happen to us, but we all knew that we would be going somewhere now.
The first weeks of the war, we were back in Oregon flying patrols at sea looking for possible Japanese submarines. We had to be up at 0330 hours to warm up the engines of our planes. There was 18 inches of snow on the ground, and it was so cold that our engine oil congealed overnight. We placed big tarps over the engines that reached down to the ground. Inside this tent we used plumber’s blow torches to thaw out the engines. I figured that my dad would be proud of me, if he could see me inside this tent with all this machinery, oil and grease. After about an hour of this, the engines were warm enough to start.
We flew patrols over the coasts of Oregon and Washington from dawn until dusk. Once I thought I spotted a sub, and started my bomb run, even had my bomb doors open, but I pulled out of it when I realized that it was just a big whale. Lucky for me, I would have never heard the end of that!
Actually it was lucky for us that the Japanese didn’t attack the west coast, because we just didn’t have a strong enough force to beat them off. Our country was in a real fix now, and overall things looked pretty bleak to most folks. In early February, we were ordered to report to Columbus, South Carolina. Man, this Air Corps sure moves a fellow around a lot! Little did I know what was coming next!
After we got settled in Columbus, my squadron commander called us all together. He told us that an awfully hazardous mission was being planned, and then he asked for volunteers. There were some of the guys that did not step forward, but I was one of the ones that did.
My co-pilot was shocked. He said “You can’t volunteer, Mac! You’re married, and you and Aggie are expecting a baby soon. Don’t do it!” I told him that “I got into the Air Corps to do what I can, and Aggie understands how I feel. The war won’t be easy for any of us.”
We that volunteered were transferred to Eglin Field near Valparaiso, Florida, in late February. When we all got together, there were about 140 of us volunteers, and we were told that we were now part of the “Special B-25 project.”
We set about our training, but none of us knew what it was all about. We were ordered not to talk about it, not even to our wives.
In early March, we were all called in for a briefing, and gathered together in a big building there on the base. Somebody said that the fellow who was head of this thing is coming to talk to us, and in walks LCol Jimmy Doolittle. He was already an aviation legend, and there he stood right in front of us. I was truly amazed just to meet him.
Col Doolittle explained that this mission would be extremely dangerous, and that only volunteers could take part. He said that he could not tell us where we were going, but he could say that some of us would not be coming back.
There was a silent pause; you could have heard a pin drop. Then Doolittle said that anyone of us could withdraw now, and that no one would criticize us for this decision. No one backed out! From the outset, all volunteers worked from the early morning hours until well after sunset. All excess weight was stripped from the planes and extra gas tanks were added. The lower gun turret was removed, the heavy liaison radio was removed, and then the tail guns were taken out and more gas tanks were put aboard. We extended the range of that plane from 1000 miles out to 2500 miles.
Then I was assigned my crew. There was Richard Knobloch the co-pilot, Clayton Campbell the navigator, Robert Bourgeous the bombardier, Adam Williams the flight engineer and gunner, and me, Mac McElroy the pilot. Over the coming days, I came to respect them a lot. They were a swell bunch of guys, just regular All-American boys.
We got a few ideas from the training as to what type of mission that we had signed on for. A Navy pilot had joined our group to coach us at short takeoffs and also in shipboard etiquette. We began our short takeoff practice. Taking off with first a light load, then a normal load, and finally overloaded up to 31,000 lbs. The shortest possible take-off was obtained with flaps full down, stabilizer set three-fourths, tail heavy, full power against the brakes and releasing the brakes simultaneously as the engine revved up to max power. We pulled back gradually on the stick and the airplane left the ground with the tail skid about one foot from the runway. It was a very unnatural and scary way to get airborne! I could hardly believe it myself, the first time as I took off with a full gas load and dummy bombs within just 700 feet of runway in a near stall condition. We were, for all practical purposes, a slow flying gasoline bomb!
In addition to take-off practice, we refined our skills in day and night navigation, gunnery, bombing, and low level flying. We made cross country flights at tree-top level, night flights and navigational flights over the Gulf of Mexico without the use of a radio. After we started that short-field takeoff routine, we had some pretty fancy competition among the crews. I think that one crew got it down to about 300 feet on a hot day. We were told that only the best crews would actually go on the mission, and the rest would be held in reserve. One crew did stall on takeoff, slipped back to the ground, busting up their landing gear. They were eliminated from the mission. Doolittle emphasized again and again the extreme danger of this operation, and made it clear that anyone of us who so desired could drop out with no questions asked. No one did.
On one of our cross country flights, we landed at Barksdale Field in Shreveport, and I was able to catch a bus over to Longview to see Aggie. We had a few hours together, and then we had to say our goodbyes. I told her I hoped to be back in time for the baby’s birth, but I couldn’t tell her where I was going. As I walked away, I turned and walked backwards for a ways, taking one last look at my beautiful pregnant Aggie.
Within a few days of returning to our base in Florida we were abruptly told to pack our things. After just three weeks of practice, we were on our way. This was it. It was time to go. It was the middle of March 1942, and I was 30 years old. Our orders were to fly to McClelland Air Base in Sacramento, California on our own, at the lowest possible level. So here we went on our way west, scraping the tree tops at 160 miles per hour, and skimming along just 50 feet above plowed fields. We crossed North Texas and then the panhandle, scaring the dickens out of livestock, buzzing farm houses and a many a barn along the way. Over the Rocky Mountains and across the Mojave Desert dodging thunderstorms, we enjoyed the flight immensely and although tempted, I didn’t do too much dare-devil stuff. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was good practice for what lay ahead of us. It proved to be our last fling.
Once we arrived in Sacramento , the mechanics went over our plane with a fine-toothed comb. Of the twenty-two planes that made it, only those whose pilots reported no mechanical problems were allowed to go on. The others were shunted aside.
After having our plane serviced, we flew on to Alameda Naval Air Station in Oakland. As I came in for final approach, we saw it! I excitedly called the rest of the crew to take a look. There below us was a huge aircraft carrier. It was the USS Hornet, and it looked so gigantic! Man, I had never even seen a carrier until this moment. There were already two B-25s parked on the flight deck. Now we knew! My heart was racing, and I thought about how puny my plane would look on board this mighty ship.
As soon as we landed and taxied off the runway, a jeep pulled in front of me with a big “Follow Me” sign on the back. We followed it straight up to the wharf, alongside the towering Hornet. All five of us were looking up and just in awe, scarcely believing the size of this thing. As we left the plane, there was already a Navy work crew swarming around attaching cables to the lifting rings on top of the wings and the fuselage. As we walked towards our quarters, I looked back and saw them lifting my plane up into the air and swing it over the ship’s deck. It looked so small and lonely.
Later that afternoon, all crews met with Col Doolittle and he gave last minute assignments. He told me to go to the Presidio and pick up two hundred extra “C” rations. I saluted, turned, and left, not having any idea where the Presidio was, and not exactly sure what a “C” ration was. I commandeered a Navy staff car and told the driver to take me to the Presidio, and he did.
On the way over, I realized that I had no written signed orders and that this might get a little sticky. So in I walked into the Army supply depot and made my request, trying to look poised and confident. The supply officer asked, “What is your authorization for this request, sir?” I told him that I could not give him one. “And what is the destination?” he asked. I answered, “The aircraft carrier, Hornet, docked at Alameda.” He said, “Can you tell me who ordered the rations, sir?” And I replied with a smile, “No, I cannot.” The supply officers huddled together, talking and glanced back over towards me. Then he walked back over and assured me that the rations would be delivered that afternoon. Guess they figured that something big was up. They were right. The next morning we all boarded the ship.
Trying to remember my naval etiquette, I saluted the Officer of the Deck and said “Lt. McElroy, requesting permission to come aboard. “The officer returned the salute and said “Permission granted.” Then I turned aft and saluted the flag. I made it, without messing up.
It was April 2, and in full sunlight, we left San Francisco Bay . The whole task force of ships, two cruisers, four destroyers, and a fleet oiler, moved slowly with us under the Golden Gate Bridge. Thousands of people looked on. Many stopped their cars on the bridge, and waved to us as we passed underneath. I thought to myself, I hope there aren’t any spies up there waving.
Once at sea, Doolittle called us together. “Only a few of you know our destination, and others have guessed about various targets. Gentlemen, your target is Japan!” A sudden cheer exploded among the men. “Specifically, Yokohama, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, Nagasaki, and Osaka . The Navy task force will get us as close as possible and we’ll launch our planes. We will hit our targets and proceed to airfields in China.”
After the cheering stopped, he asked again if any of us desired to back out, no questions asked. Not one did, not one. The ship’s Captain then went over the intercom to the whole ship’s company. The loudspeaker blared, “The destination is Tokyo!” A tremendous cheer broke out from everyone on board. I could hear metal banging together and wild screams from down below decks. It was quite a rush! I felt relieved actually. We finally knew where we were going.
I set up quarters with two Navy pilots, putting my cot between their two bunks. They couldn’t get out of bed without stepping on me. It was fairly cozy in there, yes it was. Those guys were part of Torpedo Squadron Eight [Later Torpedo 8: only Ens George Gay survived from the Midway raid] and were just swell fellows. The rest of the guys bedded down in similar fashion to me, some had to sleep on bedrolls in the Admiral’s chart room. As big as this ship was, there wasn’t any extra room anywhere. Every square foot had a purpose… A few days later we discovered where they had an ice cream machine!
There were sixteen B-25s tied down on the flight deck, and I was flying number 13. All the carrier’s fighter planes were stored away helplessly in the hangar deck. They couldn’t move until we were gone. Our Army mechanics were all on board, as well as our munitions loaders and several back up crews, in case any of us got sick or backed out. We settled into a daily routine of checking our planes. The aircraft were grouped so closely together on deck that it wouldn’t take much for them to get damaged. Knowing that my life depended on this plane, I kept a close eye on her.
Day after day, we met with the intelligence officer and studied our mission plan. Our targets were assigned, and maps and objective folders were furnished for study. We went over approach routes and our escape route towards China … I never studied this hard back at Trinity.
Every day at dawn and at dusk the ship was called to general quarters and we practiced finding the quickest way to our planes. If at any point along the way, we were discovered by the enemy fleet, we were to launch our bombers immediately so the Hornet could bring up its fighter planes. We would then be on our own, and try to make it to the nearest land, either Hawaii or Midway Island.
Dr. Thomas White, a volunteer member of plane number 15, went over our medical records and gave us inoculations for a whole bunch of diseases that hopefully I wouldn’t catch. He gave us training sessions in emergency first aid, and lectured us at length about water purification and such. Tom, a medical doctor, had learned how to be a gunner just so he could go on this mission. We put some new tail guns in place of the ones that had been taken out to save weight. Not exactly functional, they were two broom handles, painted black. The thinking was they might help scare any Jap fighter planes. Maybe, maybe not.
On Sunday, April 14, we met up with Admiral Bull Halsey’s task force just out of Hawaii and joined into one big force. The carrier Enterprise was now with us, another two heavy cruisers, four more destroyers, and another oiler. We were designated as Task Force 16. It was quite an impressive sight to see, and represented the bulk of what was left of the U.S. Navy after the devastation of Pearl Harbor. There were over 10,000 Navy personnel sailing into harm’s way, just to deliver us sixteen Army planes to the Japs, orders of the President.
As we steamed further west, tension was rising as we drew nearer and nearer to Japan. Someone thought of arming us with some old …45 pistols that they had on board. I went through that box of 1911 pistols, they were in such bad condition that I took several of them apart, using the good parts from several useless guns until I built a serviceable weapon. Several of the other pilots did the same. Admiring my “new” pistol, I held it up, and thought about my old Model-T.
Colonel Doolittle called us together on the flight deck. We all gathered round, as well as many Navy personnel. He pulled out some medals and told us how these friendship medals from the Japanese government had been given to some of our Navy officers several years back. And now the Secretary of the Navy had requested us to return them. Doolittle wired them to a bomb while we all posed for pictures. Something to cheer up the folks back home!
I began to pack my things for the flight, scheduled for the 19th. I packed some extra clothes and a little brown bag that Aggie had given me, inside were some toilet items and a few candy bars. No letters or identity cards were allowed, only our dog-tags. I went down to the wardroom to have some ice cream and settle up my mess bill. It only amounted to $5 a day and with my per-Diem of $6 per day, I came out a little ahead.
By now, my Navy pilot roommates were about ready to get rid of me, but I enjoyed my time with them. They were all right. Later on, I learned that both of them were killed at the Battle of Midway. They were good men. Yes, very good men.
Colonel Doolittle let each crew pick our own target. We chose the Yokosuka Naval Base about twenty miles from Tokyo. We loaded 1450 rounds of ammo and four 500-pound bombs… A little payback, direct from Ellis County, Texas! We checked and re-checked our plane several times. Everything was now ready. I felt relaxed, yet tensed up at the same time. Day after tomorrow, we will launch when we are 400 miles out. I lay in my cot that night, and rehearsed the mission over and over in my head. It was hard to sleep as I listened to sounds of the ship.
Early the next morning, I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, expecting another full day on board. I noticed that the ship was pitching and rolling quite a bit this morning, more than normal. I was reading through the April 18th day plan of the Hornet; there was a message in it which read, “From the Hornet to the Army – Good luck, good hunting, and God bless you.”
I still had a large lump in my throat from reading this, when all of a sudden, the intercom blared, “General Quarters, General Quarters, All hands man your battle stations! Army pilots, man your planes!!!” There was instant reaction from everyone in the room and food trays went crashing to the deck. I ran down to my room jumping through the hatches along
the way, grabbed my bag, and ran as fast as I could go to the flight deck. I met with my crew at the plane, my heart was pounding. Someone said, “What’s going on?” The word was that the Enterprise had spotted an enemy trawler. It had been sunk, but it had transmitted radio messages. We had been found out!
The weather was crummy, the seas were running heavy, and the ship was pitching up and down like I had never seen before. Great waves were crashing against the bow and washing over the front of the deck. This wasn’t going to be easy! Last minute instructions were given. We were reminded to avoid non-military targets, especially the Emperor’s Palace.
Do not fly to Russia, but fly as far west as possible, land on the water and launch our rubber raft. This was going to be a one-way trip! We were still much too far out and we all knew that our chances of making land were somewhere between slim and none. Then at the last minute, each plane loaded an extra ten 5-gallon gas cans to give us a fighting chance of reaching China .
We all climbed aboard, started our engines and warmed them up, just feet away from the plane in front of us and the plane behind us. Knobby, Campbell, Bourgeois, and me in the front, Williams, the gunner was in the back, separated from us by a big rubber gas tank. I called back to Williams on the intercom and told him to look sharp and don’t take a nap! He answered dryly, “Don’t worry about me, Lieutenant. If they jump us, I’ll just use my little black broomsticks to keep the Japs off our tail.”
The ship headed into the wind and picked up speed. There was now a near gale force wind and water spray coming straight over the deck. I looked down at my instruments as my engines revved up. My mind was racing. I went over my mental checklist, and said a prayer? God please, help us!
Past the twelve planes in front of us, I strained to see the flight deck officer as he leaned into the wind and signaled with his arms for Colonel Doolittle to come to full power. I looked over at Knobby and we looked each other in the eye. He just nodded to me and we both understood.
With the deck heaving up and down, the deck officer had to time this just right. Then I saw him wave Doolittle to go, and we watched breathlessly to see what happened. When his plane pulled up above the deck, Knobby just let out with, “Yes! Yes!” The second plane, piloted by Lt. Hoover, appeared to stall with its nose up and began falling toward the waves.
We groaned and called out, “Up! Up! Pull it up!” Finally, he pulled out of it, staggering back up into the air, much to our relief! One by one, the planes in front of us took off. The deck pitched wildly, 60 feet or more, it looked like. One plane seemed to drop down into the drink and disappeared for a moment, then pulled back up into sight. There was sense of relief with each one that made it. We gunned our engines and started to roll forward. Off to the right, I saw the men on deck cheering and waving their covers! We continued inching forward, careful to keep my left
main wheel and my nose wheel on the white guidelines that had been painted on the deck for us. Get off a little bit too far left and we go off the edge of the deck. A little too far to the right and our wing-tip will smack the island of the ship.
With the best seat on the ship, we watched Lt. Bower take off in plane number 12. I taxied up to the starting line, put on my the brakes and looked down to my left. My main wheel was right on the line. Applied more power to the engines, and I turned my complete attention to the deck officer on my left, who was circling his paddles. Now my adrenaline was really pumping!
We went to full power, and the noise and vibration inside the plane went way up. He circled the paddles furiously while watching forward for the pitch of the deck. Then he dropped them, and I said, “Here We Go!” I released the brakes and we started rolling forward As I looked down the flight-deck you could see straight down into the angry churning water. As we slowly gained speed, the deck gradually began to pitch back up. I pulled up and our plane slowly strained up and away from the ship. There was a big cheer and whoops from my crew, but I just felt relieved and muttered to myself, “Boy, that was short!”
We made a wide circle above our fleet to check our compass headings and get our bearings. I looked down as we passed low over one of our cruisers and could see the men on deck waving to us. I dropped down to low level, so low we could see the whitecap waves breaking. It was just after 0900, there were broken clouds at 5,000 feet and visibility of about thirty miles due to haze or something.
Up ahead and barely in sight, I could see Captain Greening, our flight leader, and Bower on his right wing. Flying at 170 mph, I was able to catch up to them in about 30 minutes. We were to stay in this formation until reaching landfall, and then break on our separate ways. Now we settled in for the five hour flight. Tokyo, here we come!
Williams was in the back emptying the extra gas cans into the gas tank as fast as we had burned off enough fuel. He then punched holes in the tins and pushed them out the hatch against the wind. Some of the crew ate sandwiches and other goodies that the Navy had put aboard for us … I wasn’t hungry. I held onto the controls with a firm grip as we raced along westward just fifty feet above the cold rolling ocean, as low as I dared to fly.
Being so close to the choppy waves gave you a true sense of speed. Occasionally our windshield was even sprayed with a little saltwater. It was an exhilarating feeling, and I felt as though the will and spirit of our whole country was pushing us along. I didn’t feel too scared, just anxious. There was a lot riding on this thing, and on me.
As we began to near land, we saw an occasional ship here and there. None of them close enough to be threatening, but just the same, we were feeling more edgy. Then at 1330 we sighted land, the Eastern shore of Honshu. With Williams now on his guns in the top turret and Campbell on the nose gun, we came ashore still flying low as possible. We were surprised to see people on the ground waving to us as we flew in over the farmland. It was beautiful countryside.
Campbell, our navigator, said, “Mac, I think we’re going to be about sixty miles too far north. I’m not positive, but pretty sure” I decided that he was absolutely right and turned left ninety degrees, went back just offshore and followed the coast line south. When I thought we had gone far enough, I climbed up to two thousand feet to find out where we were.
We started getting fire from anti-aircraft guns. Then we spotted Tokyo Bay, turned west and put our nose down diving toward the water. Once over the bay, I could see our target, Yokosuka Naval Base. Off to the right there was already smoke visible over Tokyo. Coming in low over the water, I increased speed to 200 mph and told everyone, “Get Ready!”
When we were close enough, I pulled up to 1300 feet and opened the bomb doors. There were furious black bursts of anti-aircraft fire all around us, but I flew straight on through them, spotting our target, the torpedo works and the dry-docks. I saw a big ship in the dry-dock just as we flew over it.
Those flak bursts were really getting close and bouncing us around, when I heard Bourgeois shouting, “Bombs Away!” I couldn’t see it, but Williams had a bird’s eye view from the back and he shouted jubilantly, “We got an aircraft carrier! The whole dock is burning!” I started turning to the south and strained my neck to look back and at that moment saw a large crane blow up and start falling over!… Take that! There was loud yelling and clapping each other on the back. We were all just ecstatic, and still alive! But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. We had to get out of here and fast!
When we were some thirty miles out to sea, we took one last look back at our target, and could still see huge billows of black smoke. Up until now, we had been flying for Uncle Sam, but now we were flying for ourselves.
We flew south over open ocean, parallel to the Japanese coast all afternoon We saw a large submarine apparently at rest, and then in another fifteen miles, we spotted three large enemy cruisers headed for Japan. There were no more bombs, so we just let them be and kept on going.
By late afternoon, Campbell calculated that it was time to turn and make for China. Across the East China Sea, the weather out ahead of us looked bad and overcast. Up until now we had not had time to think much about our gasoline supply, but the math did not look good. We just didn’t have enough fuel to make it!
Each man took turns cranking the little hand radio to see if we could pick up the promised radio beacon. There was no signal. This is not good. The weather turned bad and it was getting dark, so we climbed up. I was now flying on instruments, through a dark misty rain. Just when it really looked hopeless of reaching land, we suddenly picked up a strong tailwind It was an answer to a prayer. Maybe just maybe, we can make it!
In total darkness at 2100 hours, we figured that we must be crossing the coastline, so I began a slow, slow climb to be sure of not hitting any high ground or anything. I conserved as much fuel as I could, getting real low on gas now. The guys were still cranking on the radio, but after five hours of hand cranking with aching hands and backs, there was utter silence. No radio beacon!
Then the red light started blinking, indicating twenty minutes of fuel left. We started getting ready to bail out. I turned the controls over to Knobby and crawled to the back of the plane, past the now collapsed rubber gas tank. I dumped everything out of my bag and repacked just what I really needed, my .45 pistol, ammunition, flashlight, compass, medical kit, fishing tackle, chocolate bars, peanut butter and crackers. I told Williams to come forward with me so we could all be together for this. There was no other choice. I had to get us as far west as possible, and then we had to jump.
At 2230 we were up to sixty-five hundred feet. We were over land but still above the Japanese Army in China. We couldn’t see the stars, so Campbell couldn’t get a good fix on our position. We were flying on fumes now and I didn’t want to run out of gas before we were ready to go. Each man filled his canteen, put on his Mae West life jacket, parachute, and filled his bag with rations, those “C” rations from the Presidio.
I put her on auto-pilot and we all gathered in the navigator’s compartment around the hatch in the floor. We checked each other’s parachute harness. Everyone was scared, without a doubt. None of us had ever done this before! I said, “Williams first, Bourgeois second, Campbell third, Knobloch fourth, and I’ll follow you guys! Go fast, two seconds apart! Then count three seconds off and pull your ripcord!”
We kicked open the hatch and gathered around the hole looking down into the blackness. It did not look very inviting! Then I looked up at Williams and gave the order, “JUMP!!!” Within seconds they were all gone. I turned and reached back for the auto-pilot, but could not reach it, so I pulled the throttles back, then turned and jumped. Counting quickly, thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, I pulled my rip-cord and jerked back up with a terrific shock.
At first I thought that I was hung on the plane, but after a few agonizing seconds that seemed like hours, realized that I was free and drifting down. Being in the total dark, I was disoriented at first but figured my feet must be pointed toward the ground. I looked down through the black mist to see what was coming up. I was in a thick mist or fog, and the silence was so eerie after nearly thirteen hours inside that noisy plane. I could only hear the whoosh, whoosh sound of the wind blowing through my shroud lines, and then I heard a loud crash and explosion. My plane!
Looking for my flashlight, I groped through my bag with my right hand, finally pulled it out and shined it down toward the ground, which I still could not see. Finally I picked up a glimmer of water and thought I was landing in a lake. We’re too far inland for this to be ocean. I hope! I relaxed my legs a little, thinking I was about to splash into water and would have to swim out, and then bang. I jolted suddenly and crashed over onto my side. Lying there in just a few inches of water, I raised my head and put my hands down into thick mud. It was rice paddy! There was a burning pain, as if someone had stuck a knife in my stomach. I must have torn a muscle or broke something.
I laid there dazed for a few minutes, and after a while struggled up to my feet. I dug a hole and buried my parachute in the mud. Then started trying to walk, holding my stomach, but every direction I moved the water got deeper. Then I saw some lights off in the distance. I fished around for my flashlight and signaled one time. Sensing something wrong, I got out my compass and to my horror saw that those lights were off to my west. That must be a Jap patrol! How dumb could I be! Knobby had to be back to my east, so I sat still and quiet and did not move.
It was a cold dark lonely night. At 0100 hours I saw a single light off to the east. I flashed my light in that direction, one time. It had to be Knobby! I waited a while, and then called out softly, “Knobby?” And a voice replied “Mac, is that you?” Thank goodness, what a relief! Separated by a wide stream, we sat on opposite banks of the water communicating in low voices. After daybreak Knobby found a small rowboat and came across to get me. We started walking east toward the rest of the crew and away from that Japanese patrol. Knobby had cut his hip when he went through the hatch, but it wasn’t too awful bad.
We walked together toward a small village and several Chinese came out to meet us, they seemed friendly enough. I said, “Luchu hoo megwa fugi! Luchu hoo megwa fugi!” meaning, “I am an American! I am an American!” Later that morning we found the others. Williams had wrenched his knee when he landed in a tree, but he was limping along just fine. There were hugs all around. I have never been so happy to see four guys in all my life!
Well, the five of us eventually made it out of China with the help of the local Chinese people and the Catholic missions along the way. They were all very good to us. Later they were made to pay terribly for it, so we found out afterwards. For a couple of weeks we traveled across country. Strafed a couple of times by enemy planes, we kept on moving, by foot, by pony, by car, by train, and by airplane. But we finally made it to India .
I did not make it home for the baby’s birth. I stayed on there flying a DC-3 “Gooney Bird” in the China-Burma-India Theatre for the next several months. I flew supplies over the Himalaya Mountains, or as we called it, over “The Hump” into China. When B-25s finally arrived in India, I flew combat missions over Burma, and then later in the war, flew a B-29 out of the Marianna Islands to bomb Japan again and again.
After the war, I remained in the Air Force until 1962, when I retired from the service as a Lt. Colonel. We then came back to Texas, my beautiful Texas. First moving to Abilene and then we settled in Lubbock, where Aggie taught school at MacKenzie Junior High. I worked at the S & R Auto Supply, once again in an atmosphere of machinery, oil, and grease.
I lived a good life and raised two wonderful sons that I am very proud of. I feel blessed in many ways. We have a great country, better than most folks know. It is worth fighting for. Some people call me a hero, but I have never thought of myself that way, no. But I did serve in the company of heroes. What we did, will never leave me. It will always be there in my fondest memories. I will always think of the fine and brave men that I was privileged to serve with. Remember us, for we were soldiers once and young.
With the loss of all aircraft, Doolittle believed that the raid had been a failure, and that he would be court-martialed upon returning to the states. Quite the contrary, the raid proved to be a tremendous boost to American morale, which had plunged following the Pearl Harbor attack. It also caused serious doubts in the minds of Japanese war planners. They in turn recalled many seasoned fighter plane units back to defend the home islands, which resulted in Japan’s weakened air capabilities at the upcoming Battle of Midway and other South Pacific campaigns.
Edgar “Mac” McElroy, Lt. Col., U.S.A.F. (Ret.) passed away at his residence in Lubbock, Texas early on the morning of Friday, April 4, 2003.
Thor’s Hammer, ‘Thud’ Memories
A Requiem – by Thomas R. Carlson
I was looking through a spreadsheet that summarized the disposition of the Air Force’s F-105 fleet. Little did I know that what I discovered would start me on a journey into the past that I didn’t really want to make. I had been more or less content with leaving the past where it was and had long since come to grips with memories of decisions and deeds, some right and some fearfully wrong. “Don’t look back unless you want to go there” is usually good advice, and still I was drawn into a place where I imagined that I heard the sounds, smelled the smells and felt the old gut feelings from times past. There was a near physical presence of machines, places and people from the now long ago.
When I found the tail number that I sought, the message was terse, unequivocal and final. “1984 June Scrapped.” That meant that my faithful old #246 had been chopped into pieces and melted down to make beer cans! 246 had been the warhorse of my youthful days, my ride, my big afterburning, supersonic heavy metal. The aircraft had been a proud old war veteran that had once carried the name “Thor’s Hammer” and had met its end at the hands of scrappers, rather than a foreign enemy. A line from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ epic poem about the ship “Old Ironsides” came to mind. “The harpies of the shore shall pluck the eagle of the sea.”
Enemies had tried to bring about its demise, and it wasn’t for their lack of trying that it survived the Vietnam War only to meet its end at the hands of scavengers. The war in Southeast Asia had raged for years and Republic F-105D Thunderchief, tail number 62-4246 had been there from the beginning of the air war until the end and had survived against incalculable odds.
246 belonged to the American taxpayers and was posted to the outer frontier of the country’s sphere of influence. In keeping with tradition, pilots were allowed to have their names painted on the canopy rail and, with that done, it was “their” airplane. With my name on the left side of the canopy and Staff Sergeant Myers, the crew chief’s name on the right, 246 was properly adopted.
Other names would occupy those same rails over the years as pilots, crew chiefs and airplanes rotated from unit to unit or pilots were lost to accidents or combat. My good fortune was to be first. Fresh from the Republic factory on Long Island it still had the distinctive new car smell and the crisp, clean look of a new machine. In Cold War livery, it was painted silver and had a dark blue stripe around the nose, just aft of the radar dome.
The new fighter was ferried from Republic Field to Mobile Alabama to Okinawa with the ultimate destinations of the forward bases of Korat and Takhli Thailand.
By comparison with other fighters of the day, the Thunderchief was a giant of an airplane and incredibly more complex. My contemporaries and I had originally viewed it with suspicion and admittedly some trepidation. For such a machine to be powered by a single engine and operated by a single pilot seemed optimistic at best. Twenty- five tons of machine when fully loaded gave some credibility to term “Fighter, Heavy.” This was almost comically noted in the designation FH that preceded the buzz numbers on the side of the sixty-four foot fuselage.
The Thunderchief name would give way to the universally adopted term “Thud”. What was originally meant to be a put-down would eventually become an accepted and revered name. The term “Thud Driver” would be a badge of honor and respect that would be worn with pride.
246 was assigned to the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron on Okinawa. The 44th was a unit with a proud tradition dating to the attack on Pearl Harbor where it’s pilots in P-40s rose to meet the Japanese attackers. During the course of World War II, the Vampires, as they were known, earned many battle honors, including the Distinguished Unit Citation. Then equipped with the F-100 Super Sabre and a legacy of excellence, the 44th would be among the units in the Pacific Air Forces to be the recipient of the F-105 aircraft in 1963.
This would be a proper home for 246. It would be more than a year before the war in Southeast Asia became heated up to the point that the authorities committed the unit to action and posted the 44th to Korat Thailand on temporary duty. This time interval had been an opportunity for pilots and ground crews to become familiar with the new machine. Maintenance and operations schedules didn’t always match, but when they did, it was squadron policy that pilots flew their own aircraft.
Far from being my personal chariot, 246 was a warplane. The existence of the machine and its presence in that part of the world was for a grim purpose.
The Cold War mission was well defined and far too terrible for most to even contemplate. Much of the time, aircraft and pilots were on alert and loaded with the deadliest weapons ever devised. Republic had built the craft to carry and deliver those weapons and the pilots had been trained to carry out the nuclear mission. The alert duty was never taken lightly and yet, I doubt that most pilots, myself included, thought that such madness as a wholesale exchange of such weapons would ever happen. Carried to a logical conclusion, there was no logic to it.
The warplane role of the Thud would play out in quite a different direction. The twenty millimeter Gatling gun in the nose of the craft fired projectiles at a hundred per second. The destruction wrought by such a stream of exploding shells was a new dimension in firepower. A one second burst, fired into a truck, a structure or an aircraft would tear the target to shreds. Hard points on the belly and wings carried the bomb load of a B-17 bomber from another era. Missiles of several types were carried, intended for airborne and ground targets alike. All the conventional weaponry available was to be employed by the Thud drivers in the years to come.
Modifications were made to the aircraft over time. Hydraulic lines were re-routed and other changes made to enhance survivability. Introduction of the two-seater models to combat expanded the role of the aircraft even more. Wild Weasel, a concept started using the F-100, was soon transferred to the F-105F, later designated the G model. The Weasels tormented the enemy missile sites and destroyed them when their radar came up on the air sometimes even after the missiles had been launched.
The Soviets reportedly believed the Weasel crews were on marijuana or other stronger drugs. The more traditional Thud drivers simply thought that the definition of an optimist was a Weasel crew that quit smoking. The Weasel pilots and their “Bears” (Electronic Warfare Officers) earned a revered and special status in the hearts of all who knew that they had performed the most dangerous task in an environment where all faced grave danger. No tale of the Thud could be told without acknowledging the role of the Weasels.
The spectrum of pilots sent to Asia to fly the Thud would be broad. Initially, the Wing and Squadron Commanders, Ops Officers and some Flight Commanders would be the veteran warriors from the skies of Europe and the Pacific in World War II and From MiG Alley in the Korean War.
The younger pilots would be the Cold War era trainees from the fighter pipeline. The Thud drivers would be West Point, Air Force Academy and Annapolis graduates, from The Citadel and VMI as well as those from the ROTC programs and Aviation Cadets. Most would give a good accounting of their time in the airplane.
There would be Medal of Honor recipients, MiG killers, 200 mission survivors, former astronauts and future General Officers. As the war dragged on, and fighter pilot ranks thinned, there would be transport and other multi-engine pilots as well as some staff officers who were hurriedly trained to fly the Thud.
While many of them distinguished themselves in their new role, they were, after all, in a new and far different element for which their previous training and experience had done little to prepare them. In training and in combat, they would die in numbers disproportionate to the long-time fighter pilots but nobody would ever question the courage of those who flew. Thor’s Hammer would respond to the hands of pilots from all these backgrounds.
246 was transferred to Takhli Thailand after my return to the States. It was a successor of mine, Capt. Nels Running, a future Thunderbird Pilot and future Major General, who named it. The legend of the Norse God who brought down thunder from the skies as he wielded his mythical hammer, was a well-chosen and appropriate nom de guerre. Memphis Belle, Old Ironsides, Glamorous Glennis, Enola Gay, Protestor’s Protector and Thor’s Hammer. Some of these names would be remembered in aviation and naval history and some forgotten.
The little-known names of ships and aircraft would be remembered only by the generation that flew or manned them. The Thud would be legendary among aviators, aviation enthusiasts and historians as the workhorse of the Vietnam War. Museums, memorials and pedestals would be home for many of the retired fleet. Memories of Thor’s Hammer and those who flew it would grow dim and eventually disappear as the passage of time relegated them to history’s margins.
Unlike most other fighters, in addition to a conventional pneumatic engine starting system, the Thud had one that utilized an explosive canister much like an over-sized, slow-burning shotgun shell. Pilots and ground crews became accustomed to the acrid smell of burning cordite as the coffee can sized powder cartridge spun the big turbine engine to life. Since Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder in the ninth century, that smell had been the essence of war.
To the doughboy in the trenches of World War I it was his constant companion, bearing witness to the incessant artillery fire that took friend and foe alike by the hundreds of thousands. To the sailor on a battleship, it signaled the firing of the big guns, sending huge projectiles toward the enemy. To the Thud driver and his crew chief it usually meant a successful engine start. In many ways, it was a hint of things to come.
With the tachometer indicating idle speed, there was a high-pitched whine as the small air turbine motor was brought on line to power the hydraulic and some electrical systems.
An almost imperceptible movement of the machine could be felt as compressors and turbines came up to speed, pumps and generators came on line and the start sequence was completed. The smells of hydraulic fluid and burned jet fuel mixing with the dissipating gunpowder aroma completed the sensory inputs and told the pilot that the machine had come to it’s form of life.
Whether in combat or on a routine training mission, flying the Thud was always an adventure. It wasn’t trepidation as much as anticipation of the adrenalin rush which was sure to come. The culmination of boyhood dreams and fantasies of one day being a fighter pilot had been fulfilled. There was the thrill of advancing the throttle to full power for take-off. The landing gear struts which stretched nearly eight feet from their mounting point in the wing to the surface, bent slightly aft as the power was advanced and sprung forward as the brakes were released.
Feeling the gear “walk” was a uniquely Thud experience. The throttle was moved outboard to the afterburner detent and, when needed, water injection was selected by a toggle switch forward of the throttle. With that done, 26,500 pounds of thrust accelerated the Thud along the runway and into the air. The painful decibel level reached by the shrieking afterburner and the continuous thunderclap of the engine exhaust were not heard by the pilot. The tight canopy and special fluid-filled, snug fitting headphones in the helmet left the painful noise to torment those on the ground.
In a combat environment, details such as aircraft numbers appeared on scheduling boards and mission cards but were not recorded in the pilot’s log. I don’t know how many times I flew 246 in that role. What were called “good” missions during that early phase of the war were hard to come by and eagerly sought after by most pilots. Nobody much cared about the aircraft number. Escorting unarmed RF-101s on their low-level photo missions, interdiction sorties to Laos, armed reconnaissance along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the real plums, the initial “Rolling Thunder” strikes north of the DMZ, were considered good.
There was a “Bitch Board” in squadron operations where missions were tallied in grease pencil to insure that no pilot got more “good ones” than someone else. It wasn’t as though they relished war and the possibility of dying. They were Fighter Pilots who lived on the edge even in peacetime. Going in harm’s way is what they had been trained for, what was expected of them. It was who they were and what they were there to do.
No more scrimmage. It was time to get in the deadly contest. This time frame in the war is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling who made an observation that the “Old Sarge” was usually a bit more circumspect about going into battle than the young recruit.
Each pilot has his own indelible list of remembered places, previously known only to cartographers and locals. The Plain of Jars, Vinh, Than Hoa, Sam Neua, Mu Gia Pass, Dong Hoi and Route 1 were the locations of early targets and were on my list. Those pilots who were there as the war intensified would be exposed to a far more dangerous and foreboding environment of air defenses and a new set of names.
Thud Ridge, Downtown, Hai Phong, the Paul Doumer Bridge, Kep, Phuc Yen, the Red River, most of these in what was known as Route Pack Six, would be imprinted in their memories. A hundred times they were required to go where missions were no longer “good.” Surviving one hundred missions to those places, however unlikely that was, would earn those pilots a special status in the aviator’s pecking order.
While they might have reveled that their skill and a measure of luck carried them through the ordeal, like soldiers throughout history, they would grieve for their comrades whose fortune was not as good as theirs.
Every combat mission was permeated with risk and, a predictable adrenalin overdose. Even though one was in the company of other flight members and usually part of a larger effort, there was a feeling of aloneness. One engine, one seat, one pilot, one set of thoughts. Dryness in the mouth and the hint of the taste of bile were the signs of trepidation, however slight or well concealed from the others. The mission would be flown and even the slightest thought to the contrary immediately put aside. If a pilot didn’t fly his assigned mission, someone else would have to go in his place.
Surviving one phase of flight was only a set-up for the next phase. There was always the heavyweight take-off where every available foot of runway was needed. The bomb laden Thud gained speed slowly at first. It seemed to have feet of clay as the afterburner and water injection were selected. Further along the take-off roll, the pilot became committed to flight, since there was no stopping once refusal speed and distance had been reached.
Clearing the arresting barrier at the far end often seemed in question. Having survived that, the struggling Thud felt as if it remained airborne only by virtue of the downward thrust vector of the blazing afterburner and the extra boost of water injection. As speed was gained and the water injection depleted, the flaps were retracted to the subsonic flight position. The pilots breathing rate returned to somewhere near normal as the speed increased to a comfortable 400knots or so.
A join-up with other flight members into normal four-ship formation preceded the tanker rendezvous. Fuel loads were usually topped-off prior to entering the target area.
The refueling was generally a routine matter, but there were notable exceptions. One pilot, Gary Barnhill, suffered an internal aircraft fuel system failure. His Thud exploded in a giant fireball as he backed off the tanker’s boom. At the urging of John Betz his wingman, who observed a massive fuel leak, he ejected a split second before the fireball would have engulfed him. Miraculously, he survived.
The bombs on Ned Miller’s aircraft were thought to have detonated because faulty proximity fuses sensed the density of the tanker. Ned perished in the blinding flash that left only bits and pieces of his Thud fluttering and tumbling earthward. George Sasser, flying Ned’s wing, saw the Gatling gun propelled forward out of the fireball as if it had been fired out by a larger cannon. He saw Ned’s limp form descending toward the undercast in his parachute.
The tanker guys always seemed to be where they were supposed to be. They hung around to refuel any post strike fighters that may be low on fuel. This was done at great peril to themselves and with the everlasting gratitude of the fighter pilots, especially the ones they saved.
The heavy weight of the Thuds soon after takeoff made refueling more difficult than usual. There were times when the bomb load and considerable weight of fuel already on board taxed the ability of the engine output, making it difficult to hook-up. Being late on the tanker or not getting a prompt hook-up was undesirable since that may require following the tanker around a racetrack circuit and arriving late on the target. It was better to get there first.
Flying Col. Bill Craig’s wing one day, we arrived late on target because of a circuit with the tanker. Predictably, the flight scheduled to follow us was already there. A B-57 pulling off the target went between the leader and me going straight up. He didn’t miss either of us by more than what seemed like inches. I know that he didn’t see us and there wasn’t even time to tense. The episode was over in a fraction of a second but the image remains.
With the refueling done, the target area was next. Time seemed to switch to fast-forward between tanker and target. Lurking somewhere in the recesses of the mind was the knowledge that one could instantly be propelled from the comfort and familiar sounds of the cockpit into the unknown. From the tip of a high-tech spear, into the silent void of nothingness would only take a fraction of a second. Transition to a grim and uncertain future in a primitive cage, far from home and far removed from the thin veneer of civilization, would take a bit longer.
On a dive bomb run at some long forgotten place, I marveled at the countless projectiles heading my way. There were bright colored tracers and those that were less visible shades of gray. The anti-aircraft guns usually focused on the plane presenting the most immediate threat and all of them seemed to be firing directly at me. It looked as if each round was destined to come through the center of the windshield. That none of them had hit me yet seemed impossible. At a speed close to 600 knots, I glanced out the side of the cockpit and it seemed as though tracers were actually arcing up and over my right wing, following the airflow around it. I dismissed this as an optical illusion and concentrated on the delivery of the bomb load.
The ripple of the six thousand pounds leaving the aircraft meant that it was time for afterburner and lots of back stick. Vision grew narrow then dim as the G load increased, in spite of the functioning of the G suit and the tightening of body muscles. Acceleration to maximum speed and heading for relative safety away from the target followed. This same drama was to be repeated thousands of times by hundreds of pilots over the next seven years.
Surface to air missiles (SAMs), MIG fighters, 37,57, 85 and 105 millimeter anti-aircraft shells and small arms fire filled the airspace where the Thud lived. According to the data contained in the article where I learned of the fate of my airplane, by rough count, some 423 Thuds were lost to combat or related accidents.
Too many pilots and crews died in their prime and too many of them suffered and languished in the fetid torture camps of another culture. One could debate the Vietnam War to infinity. Good war, bad war or no war at all. Wars throughout history represented the failure of diplomacy and were waged as instruments of national policy. Some wars were fought with final victory as the goal, and some weren’t. In my experience, they were neither initiated nor relished by the soldier since it was always the soldier who bore the heaviest burden. Those pilot soldiers who were ordered into battle and flew 246, always made it safely back to their base. On other days and in other aircraft, many of them were not so fortunate.
The heavy losses of aircraft and people were less due to any deficiency attributable to the Thud than because of the incredibly hostile environment where these aircraft and pilots were sent, day after day for some seven years. Against almost incalculable odds, Thor’s Hammer was a survivor, as were those pilots who flew it on each individual mission. Perhaps a thousand times it went to war and a thousand times returned safely. It would be impossible to estimate the number of SAMs and the countless rounds of artillery and small arms that had been fired at this aircraft and failed to bring it down.
246 spent semi-retirement with a reserve unit at Oklahoma City where systems were upgraded, war scars and blemishes repaired and where it continued to serve in the nation’s arsenal. The reservists would have known the airplane’s history since some of them had probably flown it in combat.
The old fire horse had found a new, quieter fire station and waited for the bell. The bell, when finally heard by the keepers, would have been a death knell from a distant five-sided steeple. It would have appeared on the daily scheduling board in the squadron simply as “246, ferry, DMA (Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson).
I would have wanted to be there to fly Thor’s Hammer on that last ferry flight to Tucson when it was time to go, much as a saddened owner would take a beloved dog on that dreaded last trip to the vet. It might be logical for Gen. Running to make the flight, but I’ll have him occupied elsewhere (after all, it’s a fantasy). Besides, Generals didn’t usually engage in anything so mundane.
With a knowing wink and nod, a Master Sergeant assisting in the pre-flight inspection would remove the cover plates on the outboard wing pylon stations, leaving a pair of round voids that worked much the same as blowing across a bottle. They would be off for the traffic pattern at destination so the familiar shriek would be heard as the Thud approached. As a young airman he would have done this in the past.
He would have remembered the days of sweating-out the mission on a distant flight line, counting the Thuds as they returned. His contribution would be noted and appreciated.
I would have been aware that many better men than me had challenged fate and survived, strapped in the seat of 246. It would be for them that I would advance the throttle, release the brakes and feel the gear walk for the last time. The afterburner would bark a final defiant insult to the earth-bound’s ears as we lifted off and headed west. In aviator’s jargon, “Gone West” means that one has flown the last sortie to that final and uncertain destination. The irony of geography dictating the direction of flight would not be lost. This would be Thor’s Hammer’s judgment day but there was no uncertainty.
It would have been tempting and so easy to let the speed build and slip through the Mach to supersonic flight. The strike of Thor’s hammer would have brought down thunder from the heavens once more, just as in the Norse legend. Windows would have shattered and dishes rattled along the route of flight. Officialdom would not have allowed such a transgression.
I would have to have been content with the memories of other days when supersonic flight had been effortlessly attained in the same cockpit, hand on the same throttle, looking through the same windscreen. Pushing eight hundred knots on the airspeed tape wouldn’t be necessary on this day. After all, we wouldn’t be headed out of the chaos and carnage of battle, or outrunning a pursuing MIG, but bound for a vast graveyard for old, un-needed war machines. Guns that had once fired at the stiletto shape were far away and long silent. The scrappers patiently waited, assured of success where the enemy’s guns had failed. No need to hurry.
A New Mexico rancher astride his horse, who except for his clothing, might have looked like a knight or a cavalryman from another time, would have looked up briefly at the long thin contrail in the stratosphere and the barely perceptible dot pulling it along. He and his mount would return to their earthbound chores without knowing the meaning of the melancholy wisp.
The Captain of an eastbound 767 would have nudged his co-pilot and pointed upward as his airliner passed underneath the old fighter. With his face pressed to the glass, he would have recalled to his captive audience other days and times when he too had been strapped in the cockpit of the magnificent Thud. It wouldn’t have had much of an impact on his younger colleague who was most likely a new-age child of the magenta line. To him, old fighters would probably have been a historical footnote, of some significance to the old guys who lived in the past.
The unmistakable silhouette of the needle nose and the forward sweeping intakes would quickly pass from view but not from The Captain’s memory, which would have been instantly at flood tide. He would watch until the contrail left by the Thud dissipated then vanished. He would turn again to the relatively mundane yet important matters at hand. After all, he would have thought, that was then and this is now.
Of course, a good solid 4 G pitch-out to downwind from a 500 knot initial approach would be in order for the last overhead traffic pattern. To hell with it, make it 650! In for a penny, in for a pound! Stay just under the mach so I wouldn’t end up in jail for destroying the place with a sonic boom. .
“Black Matt” Matthews, a legendary Thud driver, former Thunderbird pilot and genuine good guy had already paid a price for slipping through the mach during a flyover at the Air Force Academy. Much of the glass construction was reduced to rubble. Matt’s good name was cleared of any blame but still, no need to repeat that. Unlike Matt, I wouldn’t have been blameless.
The massive speed brakes, idle power and 6Gs would combine to slow to the 275 knot gear down speed. The voids in the outer wing panels where the cover plates had been removed would shriek their high-pitched wail. Dogs for miles around would howl and the ground-bound folk would look up and take notice. Some of them would have known immediately without even seeing it. that this wasn’t just another aircraft in the pattern, this was a Thud!
Approach control would already be on the phone to the Airdrome Officer, making note of the speed violation to be filed. Screw ‘em. The plastic colonels who would revel in violating this rogue pilot’s transgression didn’t matter. Neither would a violation matter. Thor’s Hammer’s last traffic pattern would not be one of the post-modern era but from another day, now far in the past when airplane and pilot were at the top of their game.
Anything less could not be done nor would it be acceptable. To wimp out at this point would result in a well-deserved chorus of “You don’t have a hair on your ass!” rising in crescendo from legions of Thud drivers living and dead. Beyond that, the old war horse deserved no less than a full gallop to the ignominious end of a metaphorical glue factory.
Gear down, flaps down then the 200 knot final approach to a touchdown on the numbers. A few knots on the fast side perhaps, but a good comfortable speed and there would be plenty of runway. The abrupt deceleration of the drag chute would hasten the slowing process for the turn off the runway.
The canopy that had completed the cocoon of the familiar cockpit would open slowly, once clear of the runway. Even the sudden blast of hot Arizona desert air would feel good against the accumulated sweat and the deep imprint on the face that had been tightly covered by the now dangling oxygen mask. Time to jettison the drag chute and follow the yellow pickup with the “follow me” sign on a serpentine route to the storage facility and journey’s end.
The brakes would be set at the ground handlers stop signal and wheel chocks inserted. As a final, defiant and time-honored obscene gesture in the Thud driver’s repertoire, the refueling probe would be extended then retracted. The device, located in the nose of the aircraft forward of the cockpit, was not visible in the stowed position. When extended, it had the look of a large finger.
The absolute last mechanical movement called for from within the guts and soul of the still viable machine would be a gesture to the unseen jury that had imposed the death sentence and those who would carry it out. The meaning of this would probably be lost on the intended audience, the toothless scrappers with their cutting torches at the ready.
The well- worn throttle, made shiny by the thousands of leather- gloved hands that had caressed it for two decades, would be slowly and reluctantly moved to the cutoff position. The clatter of compressor blades, as the engine wound down would be the death rattle of a warrior who had fought well but lost the last battle.
An official notation, entered in the logbook, “Flight # 1 OK” would be recorded. Between the lines allotted for commentary would be added: “So long, old timer, well done.” A few minutes would be devoted to checklist items then, a couple of more minutes seated there with arms resting on the canopy rails.
The new car smell would be only a memory from the distant past. The sweat of a thousand pilots, the decades of cordite, hydraulic fluid and jet fuel would have permeated the molecules of the metal, paint and fabric of the cockpit. The smells would hang heavy in all the recesses and voids. The familiar odor of hot titanium and stainless steel would combine with the others and enter the nostrils and consciousness.
The silence would be broken only by the “tink tink tink” sound of cooling metal.
We can all appreciate this one.
Old Guy and a Bucket of Shrimp
This is a wonderful story and it is true. You will be pleased
that you read it, and I believe you will pass it on. It is an important
piece of American history.
It happened every Friday evening, almost without fail, when the
sun resembled a giant orange and was starting to dip into the blue ocean.
Old Ed came strolling along the beach to his favorite pier.
Clutched in his bony hand was a bucket of shrimp. Ed walks out to the end
of the pier, where it seems he almost has the world to himself. The glow of
the sun is a golden bronze now.
Everybody’s gone, except for a few joggers on the beach. Standing
out on the end of the pier, Ed is alone with his thoughts…and his bucket
Before long, however, he is no longer alone. Up in the sky a
thousand white dots come screeching and squawking, winging their way toward
that lanky frame standing there on the end of the pier.
Before long, dozens of seagulls have enveloped him, their wings
fluttering and flapping wildly. Ed stands there tossing shrimp to the
hungry birds. As he does, if you listen closely, you can hear him say with
a smile, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’
In a few short minutes the bucket is empty. But Ed doesn’t leave.
He stands there lost in thought, as though transported to another
time and place.
When he finally turns around and begins to walk back toward the
beach, a few of the birds hop along the pier with him until he gets to the
stairs, and then they, too, fly away. And old Ed quietly makes his way down
to the end of the beach and on home.
If you were sitting there on the pier with your fishing line in
the water, Ed might seem like ‘a funny old duck,’ as my dad used to say.
Or, to onlookers, he’s just another old codger, lost in his own weird
world, feeding the seagulls with a bucket full of shrimp.
To the onlooker, rituals can look either very strange or very
empty. They can seem altogether unimportant … maybe even a lot of
Old folks often do strange things, at least in the eyes of Boomers
Most of them would probably write Old Ed off, down there in
Florida… That’s too bad. They’d do well to know him better.
His full name: Eddie Rickenbacker. He was a famous hero in World
War I, and then he was in WWII. On one of his flying missions across the
Pacific, he and his seven-member crew went down. Miraculously, all of the
men survived, crawled out of their plane, and climbed into a life raft.
Captain Rickenbacker and his crew floated for days on the rough
waters of the Pacific. They fought the sun. They fought sharks. Most of
all, they fought hunger and thirst. By the eighth day their rations ran
out. No food. No water. They were hundreds of miles from land and no one
knew where they were or even if they were alive. Every day across America
millions wondered and prayed that Eddie Rickenbacker might somehow be found
The men adrift needed a miracle. That afternoon they had a simple
devotional service and prayed for a miracle. They tried to nap. Eddie
leaned back and pulled his military cap over his nose. Time dragged on. All
he could hear was the slap of the waves against the raft…
Suddenly, Eddie felt something land on the top of his cap. It was
Old Ed would later describe how he sat perfectly still, planning
his next move. With a flash of his hand and a squawk from the gull, he
managed to grab it and wring its neck. He tore the feathers off, and he and
his starving crew made a meal of it – a very slight meal for eight men.
Then they used the intestines for bait. With it, they caught fish, which
gave them food and more bait . . . and the cycle continued. With that
simple survival technique, they were able to endure the rigors of the sea
until they were found and rescued after 24 days at sea.
Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he
never forgot the sacrifice of that first life-saving seagull… And he
never stopped saying, ‘Thank you.’ That’s why almost every Friday night he
would walk to the end of the pier with a bucket full of shrimp and a heart
full of gratitude.
(Max Lucado, “In The Eye of the Storm”, pp…221, 225-226)
PS: Eddie Rickenbacker was the founder of Eastern Airlines. Before
WWI he was race car driver. In WWI he was a pilot and became America’s
first ace. In WWII he was an instructor and military adviser, and he flew
missions with the combat pilots. Eddie Rickenbacker is a true American
hero. And now you know another story about the trials and sacrifices that
brave men have endured for your freedom.
As you can see, I chose to pass it on. It is a great story that
many don’t know…You’ve got to be careful with old guys, You just never
know what they have done during their lifetime.
I did not see the film, but if this is what really happened, then it’s another Benghazi.
Almost seems as though Obama celebrates when our servicemen are killed.
Does the actions (or in this case, inaction) of ZERO really surprise anyone?
The real story of Captain Phillips
Apparently the President “managed” the details of the rescue of
Captain Phillips. In doing so he earned the hostility of the Seals
entrusted with the mission.
Here’s an account by a career Naval
officer who had a distinguished career, Herb Schwartz, in which he
refers to the President as “Zero”. (Which gives you an indication that
he feels the President was more of an obstructionist than what the WH
would later characterize as “daring and decisive”, once success had been
If you see the movie, keep these things in mind !
Herb Schwartz is a Navy Blue and Gold Officer for the Naval Academy
and father of the highest ranked graduate at the USNA in 2000.
He flew missions over the former Soviet Union with Francis Gary
Powers, taught at the Judge Advocates college and briefed President
Kennedy as an intelligence officer.
The best is that he is my friend and a man I trust. Did I forget that
he is an author and a retired Military Judge.
From: Herb Schwartz, Subject:
The real story of Captain Phillips written shortly after the event by
someone who was there.
All of us want to raise our glass this week to the Navy
SEALs who popped those three Somali pirates. And I’m sure you want to
hear the real story of what happened. Especially because there is a
revoltingly opportunistic and cowardly side to it. Guess which side
Zero (aka: our president) is on.
Why, for example, did it take SEAL Team Six (aka DEVGRU, Navy Special
Warfare Development Group, the Navy’s equivalent of Delta Force) over
36 hours to get to the scene?
Because Zero refused to authorize the SEAL deployment for those 36
hours, during which the OSC – the on scene commander, Cmdr. Frank
Castellano of the USS Bainbridge – repeatedly requested them.
Once the SEALs arrived – parachuting from a C-17 into the ocean near
the ship – Zero then imposed ‘Rules of Engagement’ (ROE) specifying the
SEALs could not do anything unless the life of the hostage, Captain
Richard Phillips, was in “imminent” danger.
Thus, when Capt. Phillips attempted to escape by jumping off the
lifeboat into the ocean, the SEAL snipers had all four pirates (one
later surrendered) sighted in and could have taken them out then and
there – but they could not fire due to Zero’s ROE restrictions.
When the SEALs approached the lifeboat in a RIB (rigid-hull inflatable
boat) carrying supplies for Capt. Phillips and the pirates, the
pirates fired upon them. Not only was no fire returned due to the ROE,
but as the pirates were shooting at the RIB, SEAL snipers on the
Bainbridge had them all dialed in. No triggers were pulled due to the
Two specific rescue plans were developed by Cmdr. Castellano and the
SEAL teams. Zero personally refused to authorize them.
After the second refusal and days of dithering, Cmdr. Castellano
decided he had the Operational Area and OSC authority to “solely
determine risk to hostage” and did not require any further approval of
Four hours later, the White House is informed that three pirates are
dead and Capt. Phillips has been rescued unharmed. A WH press release
is immediately issued, giving credit to the president for his “daring
and decisive” behavior that resulted in such success.
Zero has absolutely no military knowledge or experience whatsoever.
He demanded decisional control over the entire hostage drama to the
last detail. All actions required his personal approval. He dithered
like a coward while the world laughed at our warships flummoxed by
four illiterate teenagers with AKs in a lifeboat.
Only when the Navy Commander decided to ignore his Pantywaist-in Chief
and take action and responsibility himself, were the incredible skills
of the SEALs put into play.
That Zero could cynically and opportunistically claim that his “bold”
“calm” “tough” leadership was responsible should remind everyone that
not a single action, not a single word of this man can be trusted. He
is bereft of honesty and moral character. That’s why he’s Zero.
We raise a glass full of pride and gratitude to Navy Commander Frank
Castellano, the Navy SEALs for their incredible competence, and our
military as we also recognize Zero for what he is,
appropriately, for what he is Not.
Having carried countless knives of many types and sizes all of my life, I discovered that in today’s protective nanny society, kids can no longer do that.
I had one time asked the boys why they didn’t carry knives while in school? They looked at me like I had suggested something evil, and said No Way, they would have been ‘cuffed and stuffed’ for carrying a deadly weapon in school.
Times sure have changed. Every boy I ever knew, along with a few girls, carried a knife to school and ‘Nothing’ ever happened… in ‘Our’ Culture. No one ever thought about stabbing anyone with them. We played games like ‘mumbly peg’ at recess. Which included tipping the open knife off various things, knees, elbows, chins, foreheads etc, trying to ‘stick it’ :>)
We threw our knives at trees, dirt, logs to ‘stick’ em and see who could do it best. We whittled animals out of pieces of wood that we carried in our pockets, while waiting for class to start, or just while sitting around with each other or alone.
We compared any ‘new’ knife with pride, as ‘new’ anything was rare in those days. Hand me downs were far more common. Larry got new boots for Christmas. A knife pocket was sewn on the outer side. They were the new boots he was wearing while riding his bicycle, as he kicked the cats in the dark…Skunks. Those boots stunk for the rest of their life. He had to ‘wear them out’ because no new boots until the next year. Larry didn’t smell like Larry…. until his boots wore out.
My Boy Scout knife that mom ordered for Christmas, was very special. I carried that Camp Knife for years, until I broke it, doing something not realistic for any knife. Every time I see a Boy Scout knife, I remember mom getting that special knife for me. :>)
I had a Boy scout Axe with a sheath from one other Christmas. In excellent condition today, those are worth a few dollars. Mine was battered and used, after many camping and hiking trips. I was ‘rough on stuff’ :<(
Today the knife is considered a very irresponsible item for a well protected boy to own. Back then it was as common, as a dollar in your pocket is today.
Totalitarian Controlled ‘progressive’ Society by Design, authoritarian mandated Safety across the USA of today, has changed this once adventuresome nation into some dis-utopian, feel good imaginary dream state, that has far more flaws than ever existed in Mark Twain’s time. Heaven, filled with adventure and knowledge, seems ever more attractive in comparison.
Enjoy life in the Untied States of America. ‘One Nation Under God’
and ‘Pack a Knife, you will feel better about yourself’
A compilation of SR-71 stories.
In April 1986, following an attack on American soldiers in a Berlin disco, President Reagan ordered the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorist camps in Libya ..
My duty was to fly over Libya , and take photographs recording the damage our F-111’s had inflicted.
Qaddafi had established a ‘line of death,’ a territorial marking across the Gulf of Sidra, swearing to shoot down any intruder, that crossed the boundary.
On the morning of April 15, I rocketed past the line at 2,125 mph.
I was piloting the SR-71 spy plane, the world’s fastest jet, accompanied by a Marine Major (Walt), the aircraft’s reconnaissance systems officer (RSO).
We had crossed into Libya , and were approaching our final turn over the bleak desert landscape, when Walt informed me, that he was receiving missile launch signals.
I quickly increased our speed, calculating the time it would take for the weapons, most likely SA-2 and SA-4 surface-to-air missiles, capable of Mach 5 – to reach our altitude.
I estimated, that we could beat the rocket-powered missiles to the turn, and stayed our course, betting our lives on the plane’s performance.
After several agonizingly long seconds, we made the turn and blasted toward the Mediterranean …
‘You might want to pull it back,’ Walt suggested.
It was then that I noticed I still had the throttles full forward.
The plane was flying a mile every 1.6 seconds, well above our Mach 3.2 limit.
It was the fastest we would ever fly.
I pulled the throttles to idle, just south of Sicily , but we still overran the refueling tanker, awaiting us over Gibraltar …
Scores of significant aircraft have been produced, in the 100 years of flight, following the achievements of the Wright brothers, which we celebrate in December.Aircraft such as the Boeing 707, the F-86 Sabre Jet, and the P-51 Mustang, are among the important machines, that have flown our skies.
But the SR-71, also known as the Blackbird, stands alone as a significant contributor to Cold War victory, and as the fastest plane ever, and only 93 Air Force pilots, ever steered the ‘sled,’ as we called our aircraft.
The SR-71, was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, the famed Lockheed designer, who created the P-38, the F-104 Starfighter, and the U-2.
After the Soviets shot down Gary Powers U-2 in 1960, Johnson began to develop an aircraft, that would fly three miles higher, and five times faster, than the spy plane, and still be capable of photographing your license plate.However, flying at 2,000 mph would create intense heat on the aircraft’s skin.
Lockheed engineers used a titanium alloy, to construct more than 90 percent of the SR-71, creating special tools, and manufacturing procedures to hand-build each of the (40 planes.. (WoW ! ! ! 40 planes???? I thought only 7.)
Special heat-resistant fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluids, that would function at 85,000 feet, and higher, also had to be developed.
In 1962, the first Blackbird successfully flew, and in 1966, the same year I graduated from high school, the Air Force began flying operational SR-71 missions.
I came to the program in 1983, with a sterling record and a recommendation from my commander, completing the weeklong interview, and meeting Walt, my partner for the next four years.He would ride four feet behind me, working all the cameras, radios, and electronic jamming equipment.
I joked, that if we were ever captured, he was the spy, and I was just the driver.
He told me to keep the pointy end forward.
We trained for a year, flying out of Beale AFB in California , Kadena Airbase in Okinawa , and RAF Mildenhall in England ..
On a typical training mission, we would take off near Sacramento , refuel over Nevada , accelerate into Montana , obtain a high Mach speed over Colorado , turn right over New Mexico, speed across the Los Angeles Basin, run up the West Coast, turn right at Seattle , then return to Beale.
Total flight time:- Two Hours and Forty Minutes.One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic, of all the mortal airplanes below us.
First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied.
A Bonanza soon made the same request.
‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply.
To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio, with a ground speed check.
I knew exactly what he was doing.
Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley, know what real speed was, ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded.
The situation was too ripe.
I heard the click of Walt’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walt startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace.
In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’
We did not hear another transmission on that frequency, all the way to the coast.
The Blackbird always showed us something new, each aircraft possessing its own unique personality.
In time, we realized we were flying a national treasure.When we taxied out of our revetments for take-off, people took notice.
Traffic congregated near the airfield fences, because everyone wanted to see, and hear the mighty SR-71.
You could not be a part of this program, and not come to love the airplane.
Slowly, she revealed her secrets to us, as we earned her trust..
One moonless night, while flying a routine training mission over the Pacific, I wondered what the sky would look like from 84,000 feet, if the cockpit lighting were dark.
While heading home on a straight course, I slowly turned down all of the lighting, reducing the glare and revealing the night sky.
Within seconds, I turned the lights back up, fearful that the jet would know, and somehow punish me.
But my desire to see the sky, overruled my caution, I dimmed the lighting again.
To my amazement, I saw a bright light outside my window.
As my eyes adjusted to the view, I realized that the brilliance was the broad expanse of the Milky Way, now a gleaming stripe across the sky.
Where dark spaces in the sky, had usually existed, there were now dense clusters, of sparkling stars.
Shooting Stars, flashed across the canvas every few seconds.
It was like a fireworks display with no sound.
I knew I had to get my eyes back on the instruments, and reluctantly, I brought my attention back inside.
To my surprise, with the cockpit lighting still off, I could see every gauge, lit by starlight.
In the plane’s mirrors, I could see the eerie shine of my gold spacesuit, incandescently illuminated, in a celestial glow.
I stole one last glance out the window.
Despite our speed, we seemed still before the heavens, humbled in the radiance of a much greater power.
For those few moments, I felt a part of something far more significant, than anything we were doing in the plane.
The sharp sound of Walt’s voice on the radio, brought me back to the tasks at hand, as I prepared for our descent.
San Diego Aerospace Museum
The SR-71 was an expensive aircraft to operate.
The most significant cost was tanker support, and in 1990, confronted with budget cutbacks, the Air Force retired the SR-71.
The SR-71 served six presidents, protecting America for a quarter of a century.Unbeknown to most of the country, the plane flew over North Vietnam , Red China , North Korea , the Middle East , South Africa , Cuba , Nicaragua , Iran , Libya , and the Falkland Islands .
On a weekly basis, the SR-71, kept watch over every Soviet Nuclear Submarine, Mobile Missile Site, and all of their troop movements.
It was a key factor in winning the Cold War.
I am proud to say, I flew about 500 hours in this aircraft. I knew her well.
She gave way to no plane, proudly dragging her Sonic Boom through enemy backyards, with great impunity.
She defeated every missile, outran every MiG, and always brought us home.
In the first 100 years of manned flight, no aircraft was more remarkable.
The Blackbird had outrun nearly 4,000 missiles, not once taking a scratch from enemy fire.On her final flight, the Blackbird, destined for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, sped from Los Angeles to Washington in 64 Minutes, averaging 2,145 mph, and
setting four speed records.
Thank you, from an SR-71 pilot.
This is a re-post, only because it was such a great story :>)
Thank you Hot Rod Forum, for the reminder
This was forwarded to me by LTC Robert Bent, US Army, Retired
SR-71 Blackbird Communication to Tower
Written by Brian Schul—former sled (SR-71 Blackbird) driver.
There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in an SR-71, but we were the fastest guys on the block and loved reminding our fellow aviators of this fact. People often asked us if, because of this fact, it was fun to fly the jet. Fun would not be the first word I would use to describe flying this plane—intense, maybe, even cerebral. But there was one day in our Sled experience when we would have to say that it was pure fun to be the fastest guys out there, at least for a moment.
It occurred when Walt and I were flying our final training sortie. We needed 100 hours in the jet to complete our training and attain Mission Ready status. Somewhere over Colorado we had passed the century mark. We had made the turn in Arizona and the jet was performing flawlessly. My gauges were wired in the front seat and we were starting to feel pretty good about ourselves, not only because we would soon be flying real missions but because we had gained a great deal of confidence in the plane in the past ten months. Ripping across the barren deserts 80,000 feet below us, I could already see the coast of California from the Arizona border. I was, finally, after many humbling months of simulators and study, ahead of the jet.
I was beginning to feel a bit sorry for Walter in the back seat. There he was, with no really good view of the incredible sights before us, tasked with monitoring four different radios. This was good practice for him for when we began flying real missions, when a priority transmission from headquarters could be vital. It had been difficult, too, for me to relinquish control of the radios, as during my entire flying career I had controlled my own transmissions. But it was part of the division of duties in this plane and I had adjusted to it. I still insisted on talking on the radio while we were on the ground, however. Walt was so good at many things, but he couldn’t match my expertise at sounding smooth on the radios, a skill that had been honed sharply with years in fighter squadrons where the slightest radio miscue was grounds for beheading. He understood that and allowed me that luxury. Just to get a sense of what Walt had to contend with, I pulled the radio toggle switches and monitored the frequencies along with him. The predominant radio chatter was from Los Angeles Center, far below us, controlling daily traffic in their sector. While they had us on their scope (albeit briefly), we were in uncontrolled airspace and normally would not talk to them unless we needed to descend into their airspace.
We listened as the shaky voice of a lone Cessna pilot who asked Center for a read-out of his ground speed. Center replied: “November Charlie 175, I’m showing you at ninety knots on the ground.” Now the thing to understand about Center controllers, was that whether they were talking to a rookie pilot in a Cessna, or to Air Force One, they always spoke in the exact same, calm, deep, professional tone that made one feel important. I referred to it as the “Houston Center voice.” I have always felt that after years of seeing documentaries on this country’s space program and listening to the calm and distinct voice of the Houston controllers, that all other controllers since then wanted to sound like that and that they basically did. And it didn’t matter what sector of the country we would be flying in, it always seemed like the same guy was talking. Over the years that tone of voice had become somewhat of a comforting sound to pilots everywhere. Conversely, over the years, pilots always wanted to ensure that, when transmitting, they sounded like Chuck Yeager, or at least like John Wayne. Better to die than sound bad on the radios.
Just moments after the Cessna’s inquiry, a Twin Beech piped up on frequency, in a rather superior tone, asking for his ground speed in Beech. “I have you at one hundred and twenty-five knots of ground speed.” Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren.
Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check.” Before Center could reply, I’m thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a read-out? Then I got it, ol’ Dusty here is making sure that every bug smasher from Mount Whitney to the Mojave knows what true speed is. He’s the fastest dude in the valley today, and he just wants everyone to know how much fun he is having in his new Hornet. And the reply, always with that same, calm, voice, with more distinct alliteration than emotion: “Dusty 52, Center, we have you at 620 on the ground.” And I thought to myself, is this a ripe situation, or what? As my hand instinctively reached for the mic button, I had to remind myself that Walt was in control of the radios. Still, I thought, it must be done—in mere seconds we’ll be out of the sector and the opportunity will be lost. That Hornet must die, and die now. I thought about all of our Sim training and how important it was that we developed well as a crew and knew that to jump in on the radios now would destroy the integrity of all that we had worked toward becoming. I was torn.
Somewhere, 13 miles above Arizona, there was a pilot screaming inside his space helmet. Then, I heard it—the click of the mic button from the back seat. That was the very moment that I knew Walter and I had become a crew. Very professionally, and with no emotion, Walter spoke: “Los Angeles Center, Aspen 20, can you give us a ground speed check?” There was no hesitation, and the replay came as if was an everyday request.
“Aspen 20, I show you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, across the ground.” I think it was the forty-two knots that I liked the best, so accurate and proud was Center to deliver that information without hesitation, and you just knew he was smiling. But the precise point at which I knew that Walt and I were going to be really good friends for a long time was when he keyed the mic once again to say, in his most fighter-pilot-like voice: “Ah, Center, much thanks, we’re showing closer to nineteen hundred on the money.”
For a moment Walter was a god. And we finally heard a little crack in the armor of the Houston Center voice, when L.A. came back with, “Roger that Aspen. Your equipment is probably more accurate than ours. You boys have a good one.” It all had lasted for just moments, but in that short, memorable sprint across the southwest, the Navy had been flamed, all mortal airplanes on freq were forced to bow before the King of Speed, and more importantly, Walter and I had crossed the threshold of being a crew. A fine day’s work. We never heard another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast. For just one day, it truly was fun being the fastest guys out there.
Any pilot will appreciate this video.
Descent into Queenstown, New Zealand.
Gotta have faith in your instruments and your proficiency to fly the approach.
But the feeling of elation from doing well, what we’re trained to do, is it’s own reward.
…as if descending into an undercast over mountainous terrain doesn’t bother you too much.
An older post, good enough to repost.
Take a minute and read this true story!!!
Jerry Brown Delta Flight 15… (true story)
Here is an amazing story from a flight attendant on Delta Flight 15,
written following 9-11:
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, we were about 5 hours out of
Frankfurt, flying over the North Atlantic.
All of a sudden the curtains parted and I was told to go to the
cockpit, immediately, to see the captain. As soon as I got there I
noticed that the crew had that “All Business” look on their faces. The
captain handed me a printed message. It was from Delta’s main office in
Atlanta and simply read, “All airways over the Continental United
States are closed to commercial air traffic. Land ASAP at the nearest
airport. Advise your destination.”
No one said a word about what this could mean. We knew it was a serious
situation and we needed to find terra firma quickly. The captain
determined that the nearest airport was 400 miles behind us in Gander,
He requested approval for a route change from the Canadian traffic
controller and approval was granted immediately — no questions asked.
We found out later, of course, why there was no hesitation in approving
While the flight crew prepared the airplane for landing, another
message arrived from Atlanta telling us about some terrorist activity
in the New York area. A few minutes later word came in about the
We decided to LIE to the passengers while we were still in the air. We
told them the plane had a simple instrument problem and that we needed
to land at the nearest airport in Gander, New Foundland, to have it
We promised to give more information after landing in Gander. There was
much grumbling among the passengers, but that’s nothing new! Forty
minutes later, we landed in Gander. Local time at Gander was
12:30 PM! …. that’s 11:00 AM EST.
There were already about 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over
the world that had taken this detour on their way to the U.S.
After we parked on the ramp, the captain made the following
announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these
airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have. The
reality is that we are here for another reason.” Then he went on to
explain the little bit we knew about the situation in the U.S. There
were loud gasps and stares of disbelief. The captain informed
passengers that Ground control in Gander told us to stay put.
The Canadian Government was in charge of our situation and no one was
allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed to
come near any of the air crafts. Only airport police would come around
periodically, look us over and go on to the next airplane. In the next
hour or so more planes landed and Gander ended up with 53 airplanes
from all over the world, 27 of which were U.S. commercial jets.
Meanwhile, bits of news started to come in over the aircraft radio and
for the first time we learned that airplanes were flown into the World
Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in DC. People were
trying to use their cell phones, but were unable to connect due to a
different cell system in Canada. Some did get through, but were only
able to get to the Canadian operator who would tell them that the lines
to the U.S. were either blocked or jammed.
Sometime in the evening the news filtered to us that the World Trade
Center buildings had collapsed and that a fourth hijacking had resulted
in a crash. By now the passengers were emotionally and physically
exhausted, not to mention frightened, but everyone stayed amazingly
calm. We had only to look out the window at the 52 other stranded
aircraft to realize that we were not the only ones in this predicament.
We had been told earlier that they would be allowing people off the
planes one plane at a time. At 6 PM, Gander airport told us that our
turn to deplane would be 11 am the next morning. Passengers were not
happy, but they simply resigned themselves to this news without much
noise and started to prepare themselves to spend the night on the
Gander had promised us medical attention, if needed, water, and
lavatory servicing. And they were true to their word. Fortunately we
had no medical situations to worry about. We did have a young lady who
was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. We took REALLY good care of her. The
night passed without incident despite the uncomfortable sleeping
About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th a convoy of school buses showed
up. We got off the plane and were taken to the terminal where we went
through Immigration and Customs and then had to register with the Red
After that we (the crew) were separated from the passengers and were
taken in vans to a small hotel. We had no idea where our passengers
were going. We learned from the Red Cross that the town of Gander has a
population of 10,400 people and they had about 10,500 passengers to
take care of from all the airplanes that were forced into Gander! We
were told to just relax at the hotel and we would be contacted when the
U.S. airports opened again, but not to expect that call for a while.
We found out the total scope of the terror back home only after getting
to our hotel and turning on the TV, 24 hours after it all started.
Meanwhile, we had lots of time on our hands and found that the people
of Gander were extremely friendly. They started calling us the “plane
people.” We enjoyed their hospitality, explored the town of Gander and
ended up having a pretty good time.
Two days later, we got that call and were taken back to the Gander
airport. Back on the plane, we were reunited with the passengers and
found out what they had been doing for the past two days. What we found
out was incredible.
Gander and all the surrounding communities (within MATCH about a 75
Kilometer radius) had closed all high schools, meeting halls, lodges,
and any other large gathering places. They converted all these
facilities to mass lodging areas for all the stranded travelers. Some
had cots set up, some had mats with sleeping bags and pillows set up.
ALL the high school students were required to volunteer their time to
take care of the “guests.” Our 218 passengers ended up in a town called
Lewisporte, about 45 kilometers from Gander where they were put up in a
high school. If any women wanted to be in a women-only facility, that
was arranged. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers
were taken to private homes.
Remember that young pregnant lady? She was put up in a private home
right across the street from a 24-hour Urgent Care facility. There was
a dentist on call and both male and female nurses remained with the
crowd for the duration.
Phone calls and e-mails to the U.S. and around the world were available
to everyone once a day. During the day, passengers were offered
“Excursion” trips. Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and
harbors. Some went for hikes in the local forests. Local bakeries
stayed open to make fresh bread for the guests.
Food was prepared by all the residents and brought to the schools.
People were driven to restaurants of their choice and offered wonderful
meals. Everyone was given tokens for local laundry mats to wash their
clothes, since luggage was still on the aircraft. In other words, every
single need was met for those stranded travelers.
Passengers were crying while telling us these stories. Finally, when
they were told that U.S. airports had reopened, they were delivered to
the airport right on time and without a single passenger missing or
late. The local Red Cross had all the information about the whereabouts
of each and every passenger and knew which plane they needed to be on
and when all the planes were leaving. They coordinated everything
It was absolutely incredible.
When passengers came on board, it was like they had been on a cruise.
Everyone knew each other by name. They were swapping stories of their
stay, impressing each other with who had the better time. Our flight
back to Atlanta looked like a chartered party flight. The crew just
stayed out of their way. It was mind-boggling.
Passengers had totally bonded and were calling each other by their
first names, exchanging phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses.
And then a very unusual thing happened.
One of our passengers approached me and asked if he could make an
announcement over the PA system. We never, ever allow that. But this
time was different. I said “of course” and handed him the mike. He
picked up the PA and reminded everyone about what they had just gone
through in the last few days. He reminded them of the hospitality they
had received at the hands of total strangers. He continued by saying
that he would like to do something in return for the good folks of
“He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund under the name of DELTA 15
(our flight number). The purpose of the trust fund is to provide
college scholarships for the high school students of Lewisporte. He
asked for donations of any amount from his fellow travelers. When the
paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone
numbers and addresses, the total was for more than $14,000!
“The gentleman, a MD from Virginia, promised to match the donations and
to start the administrative work on the scholarship. He also said that
he would forward this proposal to Delta Corporate and ask them to
donate as well.
As I write this account, the trust fund is at more than $1.5 million
and has assisted 134 students in college education.
“I just wanted to share this story because we need good stories right
now. It gives me a little bit of hope to know that some people in a
faraway place were kind to some strangers who literally dropped in on
It reminds me how much good there is in the world.”
“In spite of all the rotten things we see going on in today’s world
this story confirms that there are still a lot of good and Godly people
in the world and when things get bad, they will come forward.
“God Bless America… and God Bless the Canadians.”