Jocelyn Moore Evernham earned her Womens Airforce Service Pilot wings in December 1943 after completing 6 months of training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Prior to joining the WASP'S Jocelyn was employed by Consolidated-Vultee in Fort Worth, Texas and started learning to fly at the local flying club. Her early training was in the club's Porterfield in which she completed 35 hours.
One day in the local newspaper, Jocelyn read an announcement about recruitment for the WASPs. The recruiting office was in Fort Worth, and she immediately went down to sign up. A few months later she received a call to join the 1943 W8 class at Avenger Field. During her training she flew the PT-19, BT-13, AT-6 and UC-78. Upon completion of approximately 200 hours of training, she reported to Gardner Field at Taft, California. There she flew the BT-13 ferrying planes throughout the Southwest, taxiing non-flying officers and working with engineering doing check flights.
In August of 1944, we was transferred to Yuma Army Airforce Base to report for co-pilot training in the B-26C. At Yuma she towed targets with the B-26 for the gunnery school. She completed a total of 66 hours in the B-26C. On December 20th, 1944 the WASPs were deactivated and Jocelyn returned to her parent's home in El Cajon, California.
Jocelyn married Clark C. Evernham in 1948. They had 2 children who were raised in El Cajon on their lemon and chicken ranch. In 1964, the family moved to La Mesa where they lived until 1983. Clark, who was the Director of the San Diego Museum of Man for 23 years, passed on in 1971. She moved to Julian in 1983 to live on a ranch. In 1987, she moved to Colorado before returning to San Diego three years ago to live with her daughter, who had become a pilot.
For her 90th birthday, I had the privilege of flying with her in her "dream ship," the AT-6 Texan, the advanced trainer she'd piloted during World War II. She flew west for the last time in 2003.
Jocelyn Moore Evernham earned her Womens Airforce Service Pilot wings in December 1943 after completing 6 months of training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Prior to joining the WASP'S Jocelyn was employed by Consolidated-Vultee in Fort Worth, Texas and started learning to fly at the local flying club. Her early training was in the club's Porterfield in which she completed 35 hours.
None of this is in any particular order, and none of it may be right for you. But based on about 40 years of accident- and incident-free flying and about 10,000 hours in the air this is reality as I see it. Your mileage may vary.
Fly from the airport nearest home, work, or school so it doesn't become a big pain to drive there frequently. Actually, one student I had moved to be closer to the airport (she's an airline captain now pulling down a six figure salary). Starting, but not finishing, is a combination of personality, motivation, economics...and geography.
Don't go take a ground school course and then start flying. Ground school is like space travel. Astronomers know a hell of a lot, but it ain't the same as being an astronaut. Book work in a classroom can seem boring and sometimes irrelevant. But when you're flying you'll develop an urge to know and -- ta-rah! -- there it is in your ground school just when you need it. The King Schools video courses are okay, if you can stand their corny, evangelical preacher style. There are some good combined video/computer CD-ROM/online courses. I like Jeppesen, but there are other good ones including ones the aircraft manufacturers have put together. Rod Machado has written some good, and rather funny, training manuals too.
If you can afford it, consider buying a used airplane and paying an instructor to teach you in it. You'll pay the instructor more per hour than at a school, and buying an aircraft when you don't even know how to fly is a big step, a radical idea, admittedly. But used aircraft, in general, are appreciating. You'll be paying yourself to use it not including a profit markup to a school. A decent trainer can be found for around $25,000. Get a subscription to Trade-a-Plane or buy a couple of copies from the local pilot shop. You'll find everything from Piper Cubs to 747s, Stearman biplane trainers to F-18 Hornets for sale. I don't recommend 747s and F-18s as your first aircraft, however.
If you can find someone to do it with you, consider learning to fly together in a 4 seater. Slightly more expensive per hour, whether from a flight school or to operate yourself, but you get twice the exposure by watching each other. This approach sometimes creates scheduling problems, but worth the effort.
There are dishonest salesmen that sell aircraft just like the kind that sell cars (maybe worse), so find someone that really knows aircraft to help you pick a good one. Most of us that fly have the sickness bad enough you won't have trouble finding someone to go shopping with you. Condition and price vary widely for the same model based primarily on airframe/engine hours, radios/equipment, and age/condition.
Great pilots can be lousy teachers, and vice versa; so find one that works for you. Pick an old one with lots of experience, that communicates with you. Youngsters can teach you stick and rudder skills, but that's the easy part. You fly an aircraft with your head, not your hands. Experience is a hard teacher because the test comes first, then comes the lesson, so learn from an experienced instructor. And pick carefully; there are instructors where the student is important and there are instructors where the instructor is important.
Nuttin' against young instructors, by the way (I actually was one once too), but one of the paradoxes in the process is that young flight instructors need experience, but their knowledge is proportional to the mistakes they've made. Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment--so learn from the mistakes others make. A new instructor just hasn't had the time to goof, but a gray eagle can teach you judgment and share the mistakes...er, experiences. By the way, when you make a mistake, try to make each one a new one so you can learn from it. That said, mistakes are inevitable. How you handle mistakes is what's important.
Ask yourself, "Who's buyin' and who's sellin'?" It's your money so if the first one, or two, or eleventy-seven instructors don't click, fire 'em and get another. Ditto with the school. If you feel their maintenance standards, paper work, bookkeeping or style isn't what you want/expect don't be afraid to try another instructor or school. If whoever you use doesn't have a folder of required maneuvers/experience, a list that they use to keep track of your progress, buy one of your own and make your instructor fill it out. I like Jeppesen's best...but that's probably only because they're the ones my instructor used eons ago, and they're the one's I use.
Once you're comfortable with an outfit and an instructor insist that you fly with the same one. You don't want to have to demonstrate to every new instructor what you know every time you go fly, and you don't want them wasting your money while you re-learn something you already know. A periodic flight check with someone else (usually called a stage check) is a good idea, just for quality control purposes. If your school doesn't offer them (insist on them) find someone and schedule your own check rides for yourself. As a courtesy make sure your instructor knows you're doing it.
You didn't ask, but....they're called charts not maps, aircraft not airplanes or planes (or plains), biplanes not bi-planes or worse yet bi-wings. When you take the keys out of the switch put them on the dash in full view from outside so you'll know the mags are off. Leave the rotating beacon on when you shut down so you can tell from outside when you forgetto turn off the master switch (and you will) . Turn the beacon and all lights off before start because airplane batteries are small (to keep them light) and so they don't have much juice to crank the starter. Yes, you can push or pull on a propeller if you do it close to the hub (with the switch off), but don't push on the spinner or the prop tips. Always chock your airplane. Never trust a fuel gauge unless it's showing near empty, then assume it's optimistic. When you start the engine keep the RPM below 1000--those first few seconds without lubrication are hard on the machinery that's going to keep you safely in the air. Airplanes, like power boats, produce a wake--watch your prop-wash and don't blast people, airplanes, or fill other people's hangars with dirt.
Think first, then fly the airplane, then navigate, then talk. If you're doing your job right nothing is going to happen so quickly that a moments reflection is going to hurt anything and it most certainly can help. There are very few situtations that require instant reactions. Your airplane isn't going to suddenly plummet from the sky, for example, if you're a little lost. (Okay, if you're A LOT lost it might become a glider if you haven't paid attention to your fuel. But even then it will glide for quite a long time if you've given yourself lots of altitude and speed to work with.) You and your aircraft are a team. You take care of it, it'll take care of you when you need it. Don't depend on that, entropy is an force than will not be denied--things do break--but there are times when if you just let the airplane fly it will do just that while you think about a solution to your problem. And if the worst happens keep flying until all the pieces come to a stop. As long as you're flying, you have options.
My Dad learned to fly in 1944, flew A-20s and A-26s in the Pacific during WWII, and for 50 years after that safely flew for business and pleasure. His most valuable piece of advice to me was to always give yourself an out. Always have an option. When you run out of options, when you don't have alternatives, you're in trouble even if everything is working fine at the moment.
The FAA folks, for the most part, are your friends. Treat them with respect, ask their advice, listen to what they say. (Yes, there are few bad eggs that ruin it for everyone. There are pilots like that too. Note that there are more pilots than Feds.) Next time you're inclined to gripe about a controller's handling of your flight remember that day-in day-out they make far fewer mistakes than pilots.
An old aviation maxim sez: Fuel in the truck, runway behind you, airspace above you, good weather behind you, and charts in your car are all worthless. All true.
Bernoulli keeps an airplane in the air. Not true, Newton does. Read http://airsports.fai.org/feb99/feb990d.html if you (or your instructor) don't believe it. Actually money is what really keeps an aircraft in the air, but that's a different issue.
Your never know all there is to know about flying. When you start to feel as if you really have this flying thing down pat, watch out! That's when your aircraft, weather, your own stupidity, or some unknown is about to make you humble again. Doesn't matter if you have 100, 1000, or 10,000 hours. Heck, I have almost 10,000 hours and I got well and truly lost in deteriorating weather within 5 miles of the airport the other day!
Controller "North American 55 Kilo say your intentions."
Controller "Recommend a ninety degree right turn to remain on the final approach course."
Subtle, very subtle. Turns out they were in the tower cab laughing at ol' Tailspin Tommy and how he got lost on final. Keeps ya humble, flying does.
A required part of your training should be a visit to a control tower, a visit to an approach control/center facility, toward the end of your training do some serious flying in a glider, and some aerobatics--especially spins. Even a ride in a high-altitude chamber is a good idea, especially if you're flying something that will get you up high--set it up through your local FAA office. You'll be a much better, safer pilot for all of it. Visit Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland FL (Spring) or EAA Air Adventures in Oshkosh WI (Summer), the National Air Races in Reno (Fall), The National Air & Space Museum in Washington (anytime) at least once. The Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH and the San Diego Aerospace Museum are well worth the visit too (so are the three museums at Chino, for that matter). At any museum, by the way, the place to go is the restoration facility and/or the annex. That's where they stash the goodies, in my experience.
Try to fly on weekdays so air traffic doesn't cost you so much waiting on the ground or flying in circles waiting to enter the traffic pattern. Yeah, it's all goes in your log book, but when you're learning to fly you want quality time not quantity. Build time after you have your license. Don't let your instructor spend your money jawing with the engine running. Aircraft are for flying. Classrooms, airport cafes, and bars are for talking.
It ain't gonna be easy. You will find plateaus in your progress that will be frustrating. Try to fly at least twice a week so you don't forget too much between lessons. National average to solo is about 20 hours, to Private Pilot check ride is about 80 hours, last I checked, so don't expect it to happen over night. Especially toward the end it's still hugely fun, but seems to drag on trying to schedule around yourself/aircraft/instructor/weather for the cross countries.
Don't fall into the trap of quitting right after you solo. Lots of people do because they feel a surge of achievement (often the biggest of their life), but then they look down the road and see several grand in expense and several hours a week in time so they decide they've made it and wander off. The biggest sense of achievement you ever have is after your take your check ride, receive that Private Pilot's License, and take your friend/wife/folks/kids for a flight.
'Course that Private Pilot License (PPL the Brits call it) is just a license to start learning and tackling more complex aircraft, learning to fly instruments, traveling cross-country on vacations and business, and a lifetime of experience. But be careful what you pray for, they say, you may get it. Richard Bach's version: "An idea is never given to you without you being given the power to make it reality. You must, nevertheless, suffer for it." That's certainly true about learning to fly. You'll enjoy a whole new perspective, you will literally never be the same again, but you'll have to work for it. All for the better, I say. (Yes, I'm prejudiced).
Figure with Ray-Ban sun-glasses, David-Clark headset, big watch, flight bag, books, charts, ground school, flight training, and check rides you'll spend $3500-$5500. Many banks offers loans for flight training, by the way, and the GI Bill will pay for advanced training, once you have your Private Pilot Certificate. There even are some scholarship programs that will contribute to your training. Join the AOPA and the EAA (they have financial programs too). You'll get their outstanding magazines and learn a lot from them. Read voraciously, visit AvWeb and get their twice a week email news, subscribe to Flying, Private Pilot, and Pacific Flyer etc. Cheap education--remember you want to learn from someone else's experiences.
Sorry this was so long, as mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, "I have made this rather long because I haven't had time to make it shorter."
Go to it! And feel free to e-mail questions, dissenting opinions, or additions anytime.
Glenn 'Sky-ho' Daly, a professional friend, professional flight instructor, and professional writer adds:
Buy a headset. It makes communications much easier and it will protect your hearing. I HATE those overweight, uncomfortable, pea green David Clark headsets. The only reason to buy a David Clark is the fact that they stand by them after purchase. Maybe buy a cheapie $100 Marv Golden to start, then ask to try your pilot friends' headsets so you can find one you really like. You'll pay upwards of $500 for a good noise canceling headset, but then you'll have two, a cheap one for a passenger and a good one for you.
Also, the $3500-$5500 numbers you quoted are pre-9/11, pre-insurance run-up and pre-fuel run-up. I regularly tell people it'll cost between $6500 - $7500 ... and that's if you fly, as you correctly suggested, around twice a week (I find 3 times a week better, but why quibble.) Figure the costs: 55 hours of airplane at $75/hour = $4125; add 40 hours of instructor at $50/hour=$2000. Add the examiner's fee, currently $350, charts (you're soooo right, not maps), plotter, E6B and books for the knowledge exam add upwards of $200. Don't forget those headsets for $500-$600. AND the written exam fee = $80. Grand total with 55 hours of flying and 40 hours of superior instruction $6855.
You might wanna look at the page I've done on my website, SoCal Skies. Some of our thoughts are amazingly similar, my friend - probably why I like you so much. Blush.
My Dad sent these nuggets:
There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.
Truly superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations where they might have to use their superior skills.
It's better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.
Speed is life, altitude is life insurance. No one has ever collided with the sky.
Always remember you fly an airplane with your head, not your hands.
Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn't get to five minutes earlier.
Don't drop the aircraft in order to fly the microphone. An airplane flies because of a principle discovered by Bernoulli and Newton, not Marconi.
Those who hoot with the owls by night should not fly with the eagles by day.
An airplane may disappoint a good pilot, but it won't surprise him.
Any pilot who relies on a terminal forecast can be sold the Brooklyn Bridge. A pilot who relies on winds-aloft reports can be sold Niagara Falls.
Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to increase headwind.
A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.
A fool and his money are soon flying more airplane than he can handle.
Remember, you're always a student in an airplane. Keep looking around; there's always something you've missed.
Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory.
With years of sea-faring experience, Sgt “Bill” Bailey arrives in Cairo in 1942 as a new recruit to the R.A.F., hoping to fulfill a lifelong ambition to fly. Within hours of arrival he is sent aboard a Vickers Wellington on a bombing mission that rapidly turns from success to danger, culminating in a disaster from which he is the only survivor.
Against all odds, he emerges relatively unscathed from days of isolation in the desert. His ensuing wartime experiences use up several more of his nine lives on other bombing raids and unusual posts, where he always has to learn something new, often at high speed in unusual circumstances.
What follows is an excerpt from Alone I Fly, written by Bill Bailey himself and available here for $22.70US. This direct and honest account of a true experience vividly conveys the extraordinary dangers to which servicemen in World War Two were exposed. Above all, the understated narrative tells the story of a modest, humorous man coming to terms with having to learn to cope as best he can when suddenly subjected to intense pressure in the most life-and-death situations. Bill died after a prolonged illness on July 23, 2007.
The air crackled with tension as the air-crews entered the shabby dusty tent that was being used for briefing. As we filed in, each of us tackled our fear in our own way, some of us turning within ourselves, walking like zombies, stumbling over guy-ropes, as with tight lips we thought about our loved ones at home; others talked incessantly in a loud nervous way, and yet others laughed raucously over unfunny stories. I was among them, a boy who had more reason than the others to be afraid; for it would be my first operation against the enemy. I could feel the tension in the air as the other air-crews sat, each occupying their own collapsible bench, waiting for the briefing to start.
Suddenly, as one man, a crew stood up, and the tail-gunner, sitting at the end, was thrown to the floor as the counterbalancing weight of his crew members was removed. A gale of laughter passed through the crowd at this ridiculous childhood prank. Any weak joke, any prep-school action seemed enough to lighten the atmosphere.
And yet this all brought back memories to me of a time when I was once again frightened. It was my first day on the training ship Warspite.
We had finished scrubbing the upper deck with bare feet and cold Thames water and came down to the mess deck for breakfast. Two boys were told to go to the galley to fetch the meal. They soon brought back two mess tins and a huge teapot, and so it wasn’t long before we were all tucking in. A few minutes passed and then there was a crack and three of us boys found ourselves sprawling on the deck as the bench collapsed from underneath us. A roar of laughter from the rest of the boys greeted us as, embarrassed, we fixed the bench again.
A hush fell over the audience as a procession of senior officers made their way to the front.
“Any bets it’s Tobruk,” whispered the wireless op as we all stood up. There was a rustle as half a dozen air-crews balanced their weight once again upon the shaky seats.
I watched with interest as the officers climbed up on to the ramshackle platform made of tables. A little man with the four rings of a group captain waited impatiently for the noise of the platform party to cease, and then he looked at the air-crews who were still chuckling over the discomfort of their tail-gunner. I felt a dislike for this man, who seemed so full of his own importance.
“The programme tonight,” he said eventually, “is similar to last night. I’ve been informed that a heavy build-up of forces is threatening in the Tobruk area, and we must do everything we can to stop it.”
There were no smiles or chuckles now. The marquee was silent and still while the distant roar of an engine under test built up to a crescendo before dying away. I could sense the atmosphere, even though I did not know that Tobruk had more defences per square yard than Berlin.
“I know,” went on the group captain in his bumptious way, “that some of you took a pasting last night. Well,” he shrugged his shoulders, “we must expect it. I think that’s all… Oh no, I nearly forgot: crew of P for Peter should be congratulated, damn fine show…” All this was over my head, although it did remind me of the Headmaster’s assembly at school, when the football team were congratulated by a Head who really did not give a damn.
“No, I’ll leave all the details to your Flight Commander. Good luck, chaps, and keep a cool head.” He jumped down into the sand and stomped away.
Was it my imagination, or was there really a look of irritation upon the face of the Flight Commander as he moved forward? I watched as he pinned up a strange map drawn upon a grid of concentric circles. The easel was designed to be kept stable by a length of rope, but this had disappeared long ago and so it slowly began to do the splits He paused, pulled the easel up to its full height and started again.
“We are operating against Tobruk and so the target map is the same as last night. There is only one slight difference. You don’t need me to tell you that this target is very hot.”
He paused and looked around. Was I imagining that his gaze lingered a little in different parts of the tent?
“To make it a little easier, we have organised a blitz period. At 6 minutes past 3 I want all crews to make their run at the same time. This should help, for they cannot concentrate on more than one aircraft at a time. 50 squadron and 106 will be operating, and as this means that eighteen aircraft will be in the area, a good look-out must be maintained at all times. 125 squadron will be at 15,000 feet to give you fighter cover.”
“Lot of good that will be,” grunted the gunner on my left.
“Bombing height will be the usual 6,000, and all aircraft will do one photo run after bombing. Are there any questions?” No one answered, so the Flight Commander continued. “Take-off time, 22:45. All crews to be at readiness and engines tested by 22:13. Order of take-off will be alphabetical: Apple, George, Johnnie, Sugar, X-ray. You have already been assigned to aircraft.” He sat down and his place was taken by the tall, bony figure of the Engineering Officer.
“All aircraft,” he started, “have been filled with 90% fuel load, which should be plenty for this run. With a 4,000-pound bomb, that should give you a maximum altitude of around 6,500. You have all tested your aircraft. Remember to sign the Form 700 before take-off. Oh, and there is one further point…”
He paused and looked at the Flight Commander, who gave a slight nod: “Can I ask you to stop pissing on the tyres of the aircraft?”
Grins appeared everywhere, much to his annoyance.
“You may think it is funny, but the urine is having a serious effect upon the rubber. You can remember what happened to B-for-Bertie when a tyre burst on take-off.”
The audience was hushed. They were only too aware of the hole in the sand, and the ingots of molten aluminium.
The next to appear was the Met officer. Aussie, our wireless op, leaned forward. Holding his hand over his mouth, he attracted my attention.
“Now he’ll tell us all about his big toe.”
By this time the Met man had pinned up his collection of synoptic charts and was rapidly explaining the weather situation.
“Wind at 6,000 will be 035, 10 knots. All other winds will be available to navigators later. And so, in conclusion, gentlemen, may I remind you that approaching low pressure will cause your altimeters to over-read. Remember stratus cloud is coming in thick from the south and may very well reach here by tomorrow. This, incidentally, is confirmed by my big toe, for today it has begun to ache.”
There were polite smiles everywhere but most were too wrapped up in their own thoughts to be worried about his big toe.
The last person to speak was the Intelligence officer, who explained at length the details of the target, the alterations in the defences and the spine-chilling statistics of the amount of anti-aircraft defence we would encounter.
“To end, may I remind you that in case of an accident always keep your parachute; and above all, make certain that you always have your goolie chit.”
As we filed out of the marquee, I kept close behind my captain. “What’s a goolie chit?”
“It’s a card written in four or five Arabic languages explaining that you are an important member of the forces of the white king across the sea, and that if anything happens to you, then the white king across the sea will have their guts for garters.” [Click to enlarge.]
“But why is it called a goolie chit?”
“Because natives around here have a nasty habit of cutting off the testicles of any prisoner. They add them to the stew, you know; airman’s balls are the main delicacy.”
“You’re pulling my leg,” I said nervously. “Have you known it happen to anyone?
“Only once, and then the chap was accused of rape. Still if you haven’t got one, you’d better see the brains department and they will issue you with one. See you later, and then we’ll take the crew-bus together.”
The time seemed to drag and the hands of my watch seemed to be quite still during the hours after briefing, but gradually the time went and I joined Frenchie and the two gunners for the pre-flight check. Aussie was away attending a wireless briefing and Roy was hidden away working on his flight plan. I watched as Frenchie checked the Form 700 with the corporal while the gunners loaded their twin Brownings. I strolled underneath the aircraft and studied with interest the great yawning gap in the black plane’s stomach. I stood to one side as the ugly great bomb was wheeled into position, and joined Frenchie who was studying a repair that had been done to the Pitot head.
“What’s she like aerodynamically when that great hole is open to the slipstream?
“Not a great deal of difference,” said Frenchie, as he moved an aileron to and fro. “She becomes a little nose-heavy perhaps, but when we drop the bomb we lift vertically for about 500 feet.”
I noticed that the normal bomb-beam had been removed, and that the seeming collection of oil drums was being winched up by a cable around its centre of gravity. It was a bit crude, I thought, as I watched the armourer winding it into place. I looked up to find Frenchie had climbed into the cockpit, and so I continued my idle tour of inspection by strolling under the front turret. As I looked up, I could see the gunner sitting in his perspex bubble 15 feet above me. I watched as the gunner rotated the barrels of the twin Brownings to test for the full range of movement, and I wondered if it was true that the average life of an air-gunner really was 6 weeks on ops. Certainly these two had lasted longer than that, as they were nearly time-expired. They must be either clever or, as they put it, damn lucky.
We all met again in the dining marquee. Supper was the only good thing of the night. Most of us were not very hungry, and the meal was a quiet, subdued affair. We stayed there having a last cigarette until the crew bus took us to the crew room.
Carefully I emptied my pockets, placing all my personal effects in my locker. I then checked that I had my new goolie chit, and anything else that would be useful if I met the enemy.
Many others did a similar thing, I discovered; why, even Frenchie kept a sheath knife tucked in the top of his sock, probably a souvenir of his life in Canada. The aircraft at readiness were in dispersal bays over a large area and the crew bus was working overtime. Some of the air-crews stood outside having a last cigarette and watching the jeep moving slowly across the airfield, while the controller for the night switched on each individual light for the flare-path.
“It’s a job I’ve always wanted,” I overheard, “The one belonging to the chap at home who lights all the red lights around a hole in the road and then sits all night in a hut warming himself with a coke-burning stove.”
“Not much future in that.”
“You think there is in this?”
The speaker dropped his cigarette, stood on it, and walked into the crew-room.
Meanwhile, Roy the navigator had just finished his flight-plan and was checking his equipment. Charts, maps, star tables, Met forecast, two pencils, two dividers, rubber, encoding machine, and sextant were all there. He rammed them all into his hold-all and for a moment looked through the flap of the tent.
A flurry of wind whipped up the sand and set the guy-ropes rattling against the canvas. If everything went well we should be back by five in the morning. Sky, he thought, was clear, air stable; there should be no difficulty over astro. Arcturus was ideal for a 90-degree position-line.
However, Tobruk was a target that filled everyone with dread. Rarely did the squadron escape without some casualties. Yet it was easy to ignore it, or to pretend to ignore it. After all, we went off one aircraft at a time and we came back one at a time – or we didn’t. There were always these empty places in the mess, always the same excuse, but everyone knew that chalk marks in the control room at Group had recorded the disappearance. Sometimes over the target they would see a Wimp falling earthwards, a plume of flame streaming from the fuselage, but it was best not to think of such things. After all, it would never happen to them. Frenchie was an inspired pilot. He could throw the plane around like a Tiger Moth, and he had an original mind that always came up with something.
Roy’s mind wandered to the latest member of the crew. There was something about him that reminded him of home. He was young, and innocent, and with his spotty face he was like so many of his pupils at home. He remembered the old stone buildings of Graythorpe Grammar School. [Bill's class shown below.]
Well, he had done his best to keep things going. More and more of the staff were called up until it was inevitable that it would be his turn soon. That was why he had joined the R.A.F. After all, if he had to leave his wife and children, then it was better to volunteer. Forcing himself to face the present, he picked up the bulging hold-all and joined the young novice outside. [Bill's wife, below, met on active service.]
“What say to walking out? Our aircraft is only just over there.”
As we strolled along, I helped Roy carry his gear.
“Are you frightened?” he enquired.
“Don’t worry; you’ll be all right with us.”
The others had walked ahead. When they arrived at the aircraft, it was obvious to me that something was wrong.
“It’s all right, Frenchie, for him to say that,” moaned Nipper the gunner, “but things won’t be the same if we don’t.”
“That’s just a superstition,” retorted the Canadian.
“You’ve been the first to remind us in the past.”
“Tell you what,” drawled Aussie, “can’t we go through the motions without actually using the wheel?”
“Good idea,” said Frenchie, quick to realise the possibility of a compromise, “we’ll use the starboard wing. Come on, crew – form a straight line with Nipper outboard.”
I had no real idea as to what was going on, but the others were quick to catch on. Nipper walked to the wing-tip, followed in turn by Nipper the front gunner.
“It won’t be the same,” he grumbled, shaking his head, “it just won’t be the same.”
“Of course it will,” said Roy, throwing the weight of his maturity on to his skipper’s argument.
“I’ll stand next to you – and Bill, you next. About 2 yards apart should do it.”
Slowly the line formed up under the huge wing. The corporal fitter sat on the starter trolley and watched to see what was going on.
“Right, men,” shouted Frenchie, “Atten-tion.” The crew jumped to attention as far as their parachutes would allow.
“On the command ‘Go,’ you release your parachutes.”
“One, two, three, go.”
As one man, they brought their right hands over to snap the quick release buckle.
“One pace forward march. On the command ‘two’, you will take another step forward. On ‘three’ you will open your flies, and on ‘four’, you will present your prick for inspection. Pissing by numbers, begin.”
Like airmen on parade they shouted, “One, pause two, pause three, pause four.” Timing their actions as Frenchie had instructed.
“Good men, good, now piss.”
I found I could urinate as well as the others. Perhaps it was the tension.
Meanwhile the Corporal sat on the trolley grinning. Still, he’d seen this sort of ritual before. If they thought it helped, then good luck to them. Rather them than me, he reflected, thinking of his drinks in the N.A.A.F.I..
“O.K. men, chutes on,” ordered Frenchie, “Its time we were aboard.”
As second pilot, I was the last to enter the plane. I watched as, one by one, they climbed up the five aluminium rungs to disappear into the bowels of the aircraft. I knew exactly what I would discover. I knew that the ladder went up through the floor into the cockpit, and that if I were to walk toward the tail, then I would pass the navigator’s table and the wireless op’s chair.
Poor Aussie, he had to face forward with his head only inches from the brightly coloured knobs of his radio. Going further aft meant clambering over the main beam that took the weight of the wings, and entering rather an empty section with a camp bed, a chemical toilet, and a chute for photoflashes. There was a window on either side here which at one time, I believed, had been used for gun positions. Now, with the goedetic construction breaking up the perspex into diamond panes, it gave the place an almost arty-crafty look.
The front gunner, I knew, would have to crawl forward, while the captain and I would sit at the controls above the entrance hatch, which when closed formed part of the bomb-aimer’s position.
I followed Frenchie up the ladder. Why did all aeroplanes smell the same? It was an odd smell of oil and plastic that was common to every aircraft in the world. Carefully I pulled up the ladder and closed the hatch. Now we were ready to start.
From where I was sitting I could see over the starboard wing, with the round cowl of the Pegasus engine jutting out from the leading edge. I gazed across at the other Wimpies, their propellers beginning to move in a staccato fashion, as each cylinder went into compression at top dead centre.
Frenchie had his oxygen mask unclipped at the side and was shouting through the window at the corporal below.
“Brakes on, switches off,” he shouted, starting the usual litany of procedure.
“Contact,” he cried, as he pressed the starter button with one hand and flicking up the two ignition switches with the other, making the engine roar into life.
“Contact starboard,” he repeated and soon the propeller on my side became a blur of movement. The corporal unhitched the starter cable and moved it to a safe distance while the Wimp’s engines ticked over, until the oil temperature and pressure seemed correct.
Then there came the chance to escape. Roy and Aussie looked over my shoulder at the trembling instruments. Would there be a big rev drop at this last moment? If there was, then the operation would be cancelled and we could sleep safely in our beds for another night.
Frenchie leaned forward, adjusted the throttle friction nut and carefully increased the revs of the port engine. I knew that each engine had two ignition systems complete with their own sets of sparking plugs, and each set controlled by its own ignition switch. The needle of the rev counter moved upward and the roar of the engine increased. At 1000 revs, Frenchie took his hand from the throttle and reached for the ignition switches. Who would not run away if a chance was given? Frenchie operated one switch: there was no drop in revs, so he switched it back on and then tried the other. The engine still roared away as if nothing had happened. Quietly, he throttled back and repeated with the other engine. The others lost interest, and returned to their stations while Frenchie the captain clipped on his mask, switched on the R.T., and called Control.
“Hello Caesar, hello Caesar, S-for-Sugar ready and clear to taxi from dispersal? Over.”
“Hello, Sugar – you may taxi to Control. Direction of take-off 32, Q.F.E. 004. Over.”
“Hello Caesar, S-for-Sugar, wilco, over and out.”
He switched back to intercom.
“O.K. you shower, we’re on our way.”
He waved the chocks away and glanced to right and left. The corporal was right ahead by this time, and by following his instructions the Wimp slowly swung round to point its nose at the black-and-white chequered control hut parked on the perimeter.
We bumped our way over the sand as the other aircraft took off in a steady stream.
“Flash S for Sugar on the downward indent,” ordered Frenchie. I leaned forward and tapped the three flashes.
I had always been fascinated by flare-paths. They seemed to go on, and on, to the very horizon, where lines of lights slowly converged with perspective. I turned my attention to Frenchie, who was doing his pre-flight check. Pitch, flaps, throttle control nut, direction indicator on nought, and brakes hard on. Slowly but surely he opened both throttles until the whole plane shook and vibrated as the roaring engines strained against the locked-on brakes.
“Here we go boys, say goodbye to Leicester Square.”
He released the brakes, and the plane jumped forward like a carthorse released from its shafts. I hoped it wouldn’t develop the simile too closely by suddenly rolling over. Soon we were bouncing over the ruts as the lights of the flare-path began to fly by.
I am sure we were all scared. The moment of take-off, particularly with a 4,000-pounder, was fraught with danger. I clenched my hands until my knuckles were white as the plane seemed to take over with a life of its own. The tail was up and there was that strange unstable feel, when suddenly there was a roar and everything disappeared in fog. Many times I had taken off in my short career, but never before had I lost visibility at 90 mph. It was like racing at night with no brakes, and then hitting a bank of fog. All sense of direction left me. Were we on the flare-path, and above all did we have enough speed to become airborne? In a flash, I remembered the post-man saying that once we took off with that sort of bomb there was no turning back. I sat frozen with horror.
As suddenly as it had fogged, so the visibility returned, the vibration ceased and Frenchie, hiding his relief, leaned forward and selected “Undercarriage Up”. As in a nightmare, I watched the little green lights turn to red as the wheels came up to lock in the fuselage.
“What the hell happened?” cried Aussie.
Frenchie looked at me and pointed downwards. I looked down between my legs and was astonished to see the lights of the outer circle shining through a hole. There was nothing but five hundred feet of air between my seat and the darkened landscape.
“You didn’t close the hatch properly; you could have killed us all, you silly bastard. Better get down and shut it and make certain it’s properly closed or we may fall out.”
My face red with shame, I unstrapped myself and carefully closed the hatch. When I finally plugged in again to the intercom I heard the cries of protest from the rest of the crew. I looked around and noticed that the throttle assembly was covered in fine yellow sand. Had I looked behind me I would have seen Roy emptying the sand from his charts and books, while Aussie was blowing it from beneath his morse key.
Later that night, while I was sitting in the captain’s seat concentrating upon my direction indicator, the compass and the artificial horizon, I had time to think. To think that carelessness upon my part had brought us to the brink of disaster, saved only by the experience of Frenchie who could lift the aircraft off blindfold, and by feel alone. I glanced at the muffled figure to my left and wondered whether I too would soon be like that.
Showed up to brief for an EA-6B 'Prowler' hop from North Island to NAS Whidbey and the pilot, our Skipper, was major hung over after a night in Tijuana. (He took the rental car alone, and left us without wheels. Showed up at Ops the next morning in a cab. "No, YOU guys had the car. . . . Didn't you?"). Anyway we decided we had the final vote (the one stamped Martin-Baker); and he decided we were going home VFR (his gyros were still a bit wobbly) and--against our protests--he decided low-level up the coast would be fun. So we flew right through the brand new Los Angeles TCA (give you an idea how long ago it was) without talking to a soul. I still have the knee-board note I wrote to my fellow backseater that asks, cryptically, "Don't we have to talk?" He damned near lost his wings (and so did we). It's all too easy to 'check to the power' and defer decision-making to implied (or real) authority when you know better.
If this example doesn't give you shivers, you were never there.
"Flash back to the early 70's... the war was winding down... and low and behold... some genius decided that the RF-8's were tired and worn out and they needed to be replaced by a newer aircraft... Trouble was, the only thing around was the RF-4B... and they belonged to us... the Marines.
Since most of us "Green Machine" types hadn't seen the blunt end of the boat since the training command... initial efforts were a real horror show. I was determined that when my time came... I'd rather die than look bad at the boat. Day CQ didn't bother any of us... been there, done that... Night CQ however, was a different story.
Not one pilot in our squadron had ever had a night trap.
When my turn came... it was aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. I'd gotten in my required day landings and had flown out to the ship earlier in the day to check on my troops ( I was the Maint. Officer). Also on board was newly designated CAG James Flatley. He was going through a refresher course in the F-4 at Miramar.
After attending to my troops, I made my way down to the ready room and found out that I was scheduled for the first night launch with CAG. Since we were both on the boat already ... I couldn't believe my good fortune, my first night traps were going to be "easy pinkies"... it was forecast to be a "field grade" night.
About that time, CAG came into the ready room and introduced himself... seemed like a nice enough guy... said we'd brief about 1630 for an 1800 launch. After he left the room, one of the Navy guys asked me if I knew who the CAG was? I shrugged my shoulders and he proceeded to tell me about Flatleys's C-130 caper [no-hook cargo aircraft full-stop carrier landing experiments]. Now I was impressed!
Around 1530, the ship sailed into a fog bank... By the time we briefed... the weather was "Zero-Zero". Damn the luck ! We briefed anyway and hung out in the ready room for hours, waiting for a break... No luck...
Around 2200 we decided to bag it. We secured to our respective rooms... but my back seater and I were 'wired' and found it hard to sleep ... cursing what had started out to be a good deal that had gone south with the weather. I think I finally nodded off at about 2330... only to be rudely awakened by some sailor around 0100..." Sir, CAG is waiting for you in the ready room... You're going flying! "
In a literal fog... we jumped into our bags and made our way down to the RR... There stood CAG... bright eyed and bushy tailed... fresh as a flower... as I recall, he even smelled of after shave... "Hey, let's do it", he said. "The brief is the same as earlier, except for bingo which is 4.9... So every trap will be a trick or treat... I'll go first and give you a PIREP down- wind... see you up top". With that he wheeled out of the ready room and headed up topside.
My brain was trying to absorb his abbreviated lecture as I was putting on my speed slacks and torso harness... when it dawned on me... Max trap fuel weight for the F-4 was 5.1! With a bingo of 4.9, we only had two hundred pounds to play with! Hence his cavalier "Trick or Treat" statement meant, we either got aboard or went home immediately. With such a high bingo fuel state... we were way the hell out to sea and land at [home base] Miramar was IFR. At least I thought, we'll have a thousand and three here at the boat [required for initial night CQ ] .. as my bleary eyes scanned the chalk board where I saw, " Estimated 300 overcast, ¾ mile"... " Shit, I thought! That can't be right " ?
We made our way up to the flight deck and as I came out of the island... I'm immediately slapped in the face with moisture... I can't believe we're going to fly in this crap! I look over and CAG is climbing up the cockpit ladder... in the [artificial] twilight like mist, I can barely make out him turning toward me, smiling and giving me a thumbs up! In my heart, I'm wanting to believe this is just a cruel joke they're playing on this young Marine... that at some point they'll say: secure flight operations... just kiddin'! I'd surely rather have been the butt of the joke... than to have to do this... at this time... for real! As I started engines... reality hit home... it was for real... and like it or not... we were going to do it.
CAG and I taxi up to the CAT... the boss comes up and says they'll work the pattern single frequency until turned over to CCA. CAG needed only two traps to re-qualify... while I needed to get a full bag... six.
As I cross the shuttle, CAG is in tension and is quickly fired off the bow, disappearing immediately ! As I go through the cockpit checks, I try to keep my voice as low as possible (trying not to do a Tiny Tim impersonation) and keep my heart from pounding a hole in my chest... Truthfully, Marine or not... I was scared shitless!
God never made a blacker void than off the bow of the boat at night with no stars and no moon... Only those of us who've been there... can truly appreciate what I'm saying, here... By this stage of my life, I'd been shot at... missed and hit... but never had anything make me as tense. The bad dream was about to get worse as we fired off into the void.
Just as I'm turning downwind, CAG goes over to CCA... as I turn to final... the CCA final controller comes up, fires off a staccato of instructions and ends with a terse... "CAG says it's workable".
Down the chute we came... Folks... I'm working harder than I've ever had to in the cockpit... This was not the joy of flight! It was just short of stark raving terror! CCA then says... you're now ¾ mile . . call the ball ! I glance up and nothing ! Okie, my backseater says... "200 feet"... Paddles says, "Call the ball!" Another glance and still nothing! I keyed the mike and said, "I can't see shit"! As the expletive was leaving my lips... It was suddenly there ... and I had about a nano-second before we hit the deck and caught a wire.
Unlike a day trap where one feels euphoria and exhilaration... my first night trap left me with the impression that I'd just cheated death... Big Time! Coming out of the wire and I taxied over to the purple shirts... my knees were shaking like a leaf and my boots were drum beating on the rudder pedals. Once I was chained down and taking on fuel... paddles comes up and says, "Shadow, go squadron common"... I switch frequencies... "What'd ya think"? I said... "I didn't break out until 100 to 150 feet... This is insane"! CAG replies, " I knew you'd say that... that's why I switched you over to this freq". I asked what happened to our 1,000 and three minimums... He then threw down the gauntlet... "If an old man [like me] can do it, you can too"! Why'd he have to say that? The bastard knew I'd take the bait!
It would end up being the longest night I ever spent in a fighter cockpit.
CAG got his second and blew me a kiss as I taxied up to the cat for my third. Just before my third trap [another 100 footer]... the boss tells me that the air wing is coming out from Miramar... and the pattern will get more crowded soon... After the third trap... I'm steeling myself for the last go [I thought] while taking on fuel... when all of a sudden the horror show began... plane after plane is waved off... or bolters...
I'd gotten all the way up to the cat when I had to push back and take on more fuel... one of my squadron mates initiated a wave-off FROM BELOW FLIGHT DECK LEVEL... IN FULL AFTER BURNER ! Then a Viggie hits the round down and wipes out the number one wire... at this point, I truly believe exhaustion overtook fear.
I fire off for number four and upon recovery... instead of taxiing me forward... I'm sent back to the 'grapes' once again. "What's going on?", I think...
Paddles then comes up and says... "Looks like you're the only game in town... We're going to the Admiral for a waiver if you think you can hack it... It's up to you". Amazing how they absolve themselves of any responsibility... Tired and beaten, but ego still intact... I said, "Fuck ... Let's do it"!
No sooner were the words out of my mouth than from the back cockpit, Larry, tersely says : "Hey . . don't I get a vote"?
As it turned out, approval was granted and I completed initial night qualification in one night... Six Cats, Six Traps... All the way back down to the ready room, my six foot conscience [my backseater] is nipping at my heels... and telling me how stupid we were to do it...
As we get to the ready room... there stands CAG... He comes up, shakes my hand and says... "We did it... great job... what'ya think"? White as a sheet... I responded with: "Honestly CAG, the last one was just as scary as the first one and it never got any better!" He laughed and hit me with the old cliché... "If you ain't scared, you don't belong here". He then invited us up to his room for a toddy.
Amazing how drunk you can get off one drink when you're ragged out... As we got up to go to our own room... I turned to CAG and thanked him for waiting up for us... but imbued with a little libation... I ended with... "CAG, I hope you never are the duty weather pilot again... 'CAUSE YOU'RE A LYING SUMBITCH !" He just looked at me, smiled and said : "Go on, get outta here"..
To this day, whenever I cross paths with Jim Flatley... I point him out to who I'm with and say, "You see that man over there... He's a lying sumbitch!... Workable my ass"! Every time I do this, he gives me that same twinkling smile... feigns ignorance... and says: "Get outta here".
As long as I live, I'll never forget this living Navy legend and the night he conned me into going six for six.
This piece was written by a friend, Jim Oberg. We met when we were both teaching at the Department of Defense Computer Institute in Washington, DC back in the mid-'70s. He went on to work for NASA, is now a correspondent and commentator for MSNBC, and is a writer and consultant. As usual, his views are clear and incisive, and worth your time to read.
I worked at the Lovelace Foundation for Aerospace Medical Research in Albuquerque while in college at the University of New Mexico, and was a coauthor on a paper that reported the results of our research titled, "The physiologic consequences of exposure to high density pulsed electromagnetic energy."* You'll understand why that's relevant when you read the article.
Jerry Truhill flew B-25s and a pink P-51, among other aircraft.
*Int. J. Biometeorology. 12 (1968): 263-270.
AIRSPEED - Speed of an airplane. (Deduct 25% when listening to a fighter pilot.)
BANK - The folks who hold the lien on a pilot's car.
CARBURETOR ICING - A phenomenon reported to by pilots that occurs immediately after they run out of gas.
CONE OF CONFUSION - An area about the size of New Jersey located near the final approach NDB at an airport.
CRAB - A VFR Instructor's attitude on an IFR day.
DEAD RECKONING - You reckon correctly, if you're a Navy carrier pilot, or you are.
DESTINATION - Geographical location 30 minutes beyond the pilot's bladder saturation point.
ENGINE FAILURE - A condition that occurs when all fuel tanks mysteriously become filled with low-octane air.
FIREWALL - Section of the aircraft specifically designed to funnel heat and smoke into the cockpit.
FLIGHT FOLLOWING - Air Force idea of formation flying.
GLIDE DISTANCE - Distance from an airplane to the nearest emergency landing field, less one mile.
HYDROPLANE - An airplane designed to land long on a short and wet runway.
IFR - A method of flying by needle and horoscope.
LEAN MIXTURE - Nonalcoholic beer.
PARACHUTES - The two chutes in a Stearman
PARASITIC DRAG - A pilot who bums a ride and complains about the service.
RANGE - Usually about 3 miles short of the destination.
RICH MIXTURE - What you order at another pilot's promotion party.
ROGER - Used when you're not sure what else to say.
SECTIONAL CHART - Any chart that ends 25 nm short of your destination.
STALL - Technique used to explain to the bank why your car payment is late.
STEEP BANKS - Banks that charge pilots more than 4% interest.
TURN & BANK INDICATOR - An instrument largely ignored by pilots.
USEFUL LOAD - Volumetric capacity of the aircraft, disregarding weight.
WAC CHART - Directions to the WAC barracks.
YANKEE - Any pilot who has to ask New Orleans tower to "Say again".