• Know Where You're Going When You Volunteer



2011 ended for us on the next to last day of the year with the sale of our Twin Beech. We weren't flying her much for physical, financial, and business reasons, so we were happy to have her go to a place in Ohio where she'll be flown and kept in a manner to which she was accustomed.

In the process we remade our acquaintance with Taigh Ramey, one of a handful of genuine Twin Beech experts around, and a thorough gentleman. His shop is in Stockton California, in the valley east of San Francisco, where we stopped on the way home to San Diego from Oregon where we bought the bird.

While reviewing the log books on our dining room table, Bob Parmerter's wonderful, authoritative, and exhaustive book Beech 18: A Civil & Military History came up.


And that reminded me of a spiral bound collection of stories, by former military flyers who had flown the Bugsmasher, titled She's A Beech.



Taigh said he'd heard of it and would give anything to read it, and I knew I had a copy someplace.

So after their departure


I went home and rummaged around until, sure enough, I found the book. I'd told Taigh I'd share it with him if I found it, and so I started to scan it into a PDF file. But I was brought up short by the line on the title page that said reproduction of the mid-1990s book in any form was prohibited without the permission of the author. I pondered the 17 year copyright expiration issue, but resolved to contact editor Tom Smith regardless.

In 1995 it would probably have been a frustrating and fruitless effort to track him down—and back then I wouldn't have been considering sending the material off as a computer file or finding some way to share it on the Internet, either.

But on the last day of 2011, with help from Google, I found Tom's phone number on a RAFS (Real Aviators Flew Stoofs) forum, a Stoof being the iconic Navy/Grumman S-2F 'Tracker'.



And, boy, am I glad I called Tom. Even if you didn't know the 82-year-old was a Naval Aviator, you could tell by the verbal equivalent of the spring in his step that he'd been to Pensacola. It was clear he still wore his wings of gold with pride, if even only metaphorically.


This was taken just after Tom's initial carrier qualification on the USS Monterey, December 1954.

We traded a few flying stories, and Tom graciously allowed me to share his book with you and the story below. The details of how he manage to find the stories for the book, and background on the authors, are in the PDF.

Tom, we salute you for your service and for your effort to preserve the stories that prove, She's A Beech



This tale, modestly told when you think about what he actually did, is by Colonel Benjamin H. Shiffrin, USAF (Retired).

Ben graduated from Army Air Corps pilot training on August 15, 1941. After Pearl Harbor, he flew submarine patrol with C-47s, C-46s and 0-52—the Curtis Owl. People grew up fast in WW2, and just four years later, in January of '43, Ben was Commander of the 1st Arctic Search and Rescue Squadron, based in Greenland. In '45 he activated and commanded the 44th TC Squadron, flying C-46s with a mission of providing air drops on Japan.

After the war he operated a flying school, fixed base operation, and an aircraft sales and service business in Bethany, Connecticut. He was recalled to active duty in '47 as a Major, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1951 and Bird Colonel in 1953. Among other prestigious assignments he was Base Commander of Kelly AFB. He retired in 1968 and started a new career as a successful company executive.

I think you'll enjoy his story, especially for the unusual and historic details in it:



KNOW WHERE YOU'RE GOING WHEN YOU VOLUNTEER

In early January of 1943, I was the Officer-of-the-Day for the 103rd Observation Squadron based at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. A teletype message came across my desk requesting a volunteer pilot with multi-engine and ski-plane experience for an urgent rescue mission.

Nothing was mentioned about what and where the rescue mission would be, or what type of aircraft was involved.

Being completely bored with squadron inactivity in wartime following a frustrating year of ineffective antisubmarine patrol in obsolete aircraft, I volunteered immediately. I had never been on skis, on my feet or airplane, and my multi·engine experience totaled 1.5 hours. In a matter of hours I was accepted for the mission.

Two days later I received secret orders. I learned that the mission was to rescue crew members of a B-17 that had crashed on the Greenland ice cap. The B-17 went down while searching for another lost aircraft.

Greenland? Up to now I had always thought of Greenland as a little green island somewhere in the ocean. After pouring over numerous charts and maps, I found the location of Greenland ... and went into immediate shock!

My orders required me to pick up a new AT-7 (C·45) at the factory in Wichita, Kansas. There I was to undergo a quick checkout in the Beech, and then proceed to the Norduyn Aircraft factory in Montreal, Canada, to pick up pontoon-type skis.

From Montreal, I was to fly to Presque Isle, Maine; Goose Bay, Labrador; and then to Greenland. At Presque Isle I was to pick up an ex-airline pilot who knew the route to Greenland.

With orders to proceed with dispatch, we arrived at BW1, (Narssarssuak) Greenland, on 24 January. My co·pilot/navigator escaped at once back to the United States. He probably thought he would be assigned to go on the rescue mission if he didn't get the hell out of there fast.

I sought out Colonel Bob Wimsatt, Commander of the Greenland Base Command, and the only person who had ever been to the rescue base on the east coast of Greenland, BE-2 (lquteg), and returned. All others who had tried were either lost enroute or were still there.

It took two days to recruit a crew chief, S/Sgt McDonald, and to collect the necessary survival gear. I checked with every pilot I could find that had flown in Arctic conditions. With their help, I plotted the flight and waited for good weather conditions.

On the third day, weather forecasters assured me that the weather enroute would be clear. It was probably the last time in my life that I ever completely believed a weather guesser.

After crossing the ice cap at 10 ,000 feet, we flew over the water along the shore to our destination, an airfield more than four hundred miles north, and sixty miles up a narrow fjord. The further north we flew, the lower the ceiling became. We crossed over the Eskimo village of Angmagssalik, at the mouth of the fjord, with a ceiling of about 1,000 feet.

There was an American operated radio beacon at Angmagssalik, but not at our destination airfield. We had already passed the point of no return, so our only option was to fly up the narrow fjord with lowering ceilings.

We were truly flying into a tunnel with towering mountains on both sides, water below and the ever lowering ceiling above. To make matters worse, it began to snow, restricting our visibility. We had calculated the flying time from the beacon at Angmagssalik, and knew we would be in deep trouble if time ran out and we didn't have the airfield in sight.

As the time elapsed, we were flying with 500 feet of ceiling and about a half mile of visibility. At that moment I observed the silhouettes of two B-17 bombers on the snowy bank of the fjord. The area turned out to be our destination airfield. But no semblance of a runway was visible from the air. I executed a hard landing with several bounces on the very rough runway.

We had to get the aircraft skis out of the cabin before we could exit the aircraft. As we left the aircraft, we were met by Colonel Bernt Balchen, commander of the rescue task force. He threatened to court martial me on the spot for endangering the vital ski·equipped AT-7.

Hell, I was just glad to be alive!

The six man crew of the crashed B-17 had been awaiting rescue since November 9. They had been spotted on the ice cap by Colonel Balchen on November 24, and had been the subject of an intense rescue effort for more than two months.

We went to work immediately to install the pontoon· type skis on the AT-7. We worked without a hangar in sub-zero temperatures with little daylight. We succeeded in mounting the skis on the next day and made some taxi tests on the rough and icy runway.

We learned to our dismay that a hard landing or bounce on takeoff would result in the props cutting the skis. To correct this, Colonel Balchen had the blacksmith shop of the civilian airfield construction crew cut the landing struts and insert metal pipes to lengthen them. The work was completed overnight and taxi tests the next day proved the aircraft to be uncontrollable on the ground—one ski was pigeon-toed and the other, people-toed.

Again the blacksmith shop removed the struts in an attempt to realign them parallel. All their work was in vain. That evening, after all their creative labor, the blacksmith shop burned down, skis and all!

The rescue, code-name PN9E, eventually succeeded when Colonel Balchen and a U.S. Navy crew flying a PBY Catalina amphibious plane, landed on the ice cap on its belly. This had never been attempted before, and demonstrated great courage on the part of Colonel Balchen and the Navy flight crew.

The rescue required two such belly landings. On the second flight an engine failed due to overheating and required the PBY and crew to remain on the ice cap overnight. Repairs made during the night allowed the PBY to takeoff on two engines, but the ailing engine had to be shut down again after takeoff.

Lt. Spencer and rescue man Sgt. Tatley on board the rescue plane.
All members of the B-17 crew survived.

Colonel Balchen, the renowned Arctic and Antarctic pilot, who had also flown Admiral Byrd across the Atlantic in 1927, wore two hats at this particular time. In addition to being the Rescue Task Force Commander at BE-2, he was also the Commander of the 1st Arctic Search and Rescue Squadron. After leaving these command positions, he led a successful bombing expedition from Iceland to northern Greenland where German weather stations had been discovered by Danish patrols. These stations were providing valuable weather information to German submarines and luftwaffe operations.

The complete story of the PN9E rescue effort is told in Hitch Your Wagon - The Story of Bernt Balchen, by Clayton Knight and Robert C, Durham, Bell Publishing Company, 1950.

Click here to download She's a Beech (PDF 3.8Mb)

2 comments:

  1. The link for "She's a Beech" doesn't seem to work. Would you be able to update the download link?

    Thanks, Liam

    ReplyDelete