• Alaskan Skies

Wrote this years ago as a promo piece for Bill and Homer (a drinking town with a fishing problem).  It's a little too travelogue-y in retrospect.

"I'll show you the Alaska you came to see, but don't call me a bush pilot, it's over blown," says Bill de Creeft. Named 'Alaska Man Of The Decade' for selfless and daring rescues, Bill says, "Thirty years ago the Coast Guard didn't have many helicopters, so I was frequently called to help out. At that time it was just part of living here; if someone was in trouble and you had an airplane, you were just naturally going to be out there trying."

In Alaska, flying is almost as much a part of everyday life as a commute on the Interstate in the "Lower 48." But pilots, like drivers, vary in skill and experience. When you hire one as a tour guide, picking the right one is an insurance policy and also your guarantee you'll see what Alaska offers.

"Today, as a sightseeing pilot, my job is different," Bill says, "my responsibility is to take care of my passengers. Sometimes when the weather's bad I may not take you anywhere. I'd rather disappoint you than scare you. But if the weather cooperates and you'll come with me in an airplane that's been an old friend for over thirty years, we'll see Alaska together."

Departing from Beluga Lake in Homer southwest of Anchorage, Bill and his floatplane will give you a bird's eye view of whales breaching in the bay, brown bears fishing in rivers, salmon by the thousands, moose meandering through meadows, big horn sheep gazing at you from impossibly steep mountainsides, and more eagles in one tree than you can count. You'll even see a nearby town, Soldotna, built on a dozen tiny islands that has bridges instead of streets, farmers with boats instead of tractors, and herds of oysters instead of cows.

Bill is a weathered version of Sean Connery. He built the log cabin they live in working outdoors only when Alaskan weather was so bad he couldn't fly--which in Alaska means either white-out blizzard or zero-visibility downpour. He orchestrates an annual neighborhood paella cookup in honor of his Spanish ancestry. "Who knows," he says,"Maybe I'm a Count, not a no account". Picture a man who can bring tears of pleasure to your eyes when he plays the bagpipes.

His wife Barbara quietly puts up with all this while firmly running Kachemak Bay Flying Service. Barbara's the one who worries about where the money's going to come from for the overhaul on their engine while Bill dickers to buy a sister-ship of their aircraft that went down on the North Slope in the '30s and hasn't been seen since. Picture a woman who gently rocks her granddaughter while she calls on the shortwave radio to make sure Bill is okay flying over treacherous Cook Inlet.

Their aircraft, a Travel Air S6000B, is extraordinary too. It was built back when there were round engines, and rag wings, and shiny varnish on golden wood ribs. With wicker seats, mahogany framed roll down windows, fresh flowers in a crystal vase. a tiled lavatory and broadcloth seat covers it personified luxury aloft in 1929. Fledgling Delta and Braniff flew them and they were touted as the "Limousine of the Air."

In the glory days of the mid-30s, Phillips Petroleum even sponsored their aircraft (not one like theirs, theirs) and a crew that stayed up for 13 days without a landing or, for that matter, a bath. A hose was lowered from another aircraft to transfer fuel and, clinging to a makeshift catwalk, the crew changed spark plugs inches from the spinning propeller, thousands of feet from the ground.

Bill knew we owned a Travel Air biplane made by the same company as his floatplane and wanted us to know what Alaska was like during the Travel Air's heyday. So the first night we flew out to Willard's Moose Camp on Caribou Lake. The cabin there was a remnant from the '20s built as a shelter for pilots forced down by weather. Eight feet square, it had a wood stove that used sawdust mixed with diesel fuel for fire starter. Amenities included flour sacks full of sawdust for mattresses on the bunk bed, and slices of truck inner-tube for springs. It was a moose lodge, but it was bears that partied all night. We hardly slept worrying about the noisy neighbors, what with the nice collection of nuts and berries someone thoughtfully provided.

The next day Bill picked us up at the dock and we flew to a lake at the foot of a glacier. Some travelers go to the ends of the earth to get away from it all. Go to Loonsong Mountain Lake Camp and you'll understand what being away from it all really means. Bill carried every stick of wood, every nail, every gallon of paint, and every knife and fork for Loonsong into the tiny lake that it sits on. It took over a hundred trips about 30 minutes in the air each way. You can't get there in by land except hiking for days. Stay a week and he'll drop the Sunday paper on the porch for you as he flies over.

Loonsong cabin, with its spacious rooms and massive posts and beams, is constructed with giant spruce logs cut from where the building stands now. Charming antiques, art, pioneer artifacts and a cozy wood burning stove warm the living room. A kitchen, bath, two guest rooms and a sleeping loft, accessed by hand-hewn stairs, accommodate a single couple, family, or up to six friends. Huge picture windows frame the lake, forested mountainsides and the blue ice-face of a vast, unnamed glacier. The sod-roofed Finnish sauna will soothe your body and soul at day's end.

The next night we spent back in Homer at Wild Rose Cottages, log cabins on East Hill just two miles out of town. With cooking facilities, huge windows, and an awesome view of Kachemak Bay, glaciers, and mountains the place was wonderful. Each cabin is 'Alaska homeyness' at its best with lots of amenities and comforts. Indoor-living accommodations make each cottage great in sunshine or rain, summer or winter. There's even a floppy-eared rabbit that thinks he's a chicken and hangs out with the locals.

To sample more modern accommodations, we tried Land's End Reanort, a 80-room hotel where many of the rooms face Kachemak Bay and have private viewing decks. These comfortable rooms come in a number of different styles to suit any taste and budget including 21 deluxe rooms added in 2001. They all have bay windows (Kachemak Bay, that is) with incredible views, including active St. Augustine volcano. A unique feature are the hand made beds fabricated locally from beetle-kill spruce. Sounds of the surf made our room a private haven after a busy day.

We flew across the inlet to Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, nestled among towering spruce, on an island peninsula. The beauty and uniqueness of the lodge and its surroundings are a delight. The artistic detail in every building was beautifully planned and executed. Each delightfully unique cabin has fine art, homemade quilts, tile and cedar bath, a picture window and electricity--something you won't always find in the wilds.

Views from the solarium and lodge windows frame China Poot Bay's exquisite estuary and a panorama that unfolds from sea level to the top of nameless 4,000' mountains. Yes, there are so many mountains and so few people there are actually mountains that haven't been named. The friendly experienced staff of trained naturalists shared the country with us at our pace. Trails radiate from the lodge and invite exploration. As we amble over ancient bedrock and through dense spruce forests, each unexpected opening in the trees offers a visual gift: a sea otter sleeping on the water below, a kingfisher flying to its burrow, a whisper of smoke rising from a distant volcano.

Bill dropped us off at sea for our final treat. The Katmai Coast is an unlikely destination for a tourist boat, but skipper Michael Parks, and first mate Lydia Rabottini, along with owner John Rogers, have been running a heavyset 70 foot tugboat built for the U.S. Army 50 years ago. With thick wooden beams built into its rising lines, motor vessel Waters has cruised for years during the summers exploring the coast and sharing views of the bears of Katmai with people seeking a unique Alaska adventure.

When you go to Alaska you will want to go flying. Alaska is a place where pilots are beloved and airplane noise reason for rejoicing. Most of the places we visited would take days by car and hours by boat to reach (if you could get there at all) but only a few minutes by air. Visit Kachemak Bay Flying Service in Homer, Alaska and you can fly Alaskan skies with a humble hero that in 40 years has accumulated over 20,000 hours of flying experience. And he will show you the Alaska you went to see, just as he promised.

Kachemak Bay Flying Service, PO Box 1769, Homer AK 99603 1-907-235-8924

Loonsong Mountain Lake Camp, Box 956, Homer AK 99603 907-235-8910

Wildrose Cottages, P.O. Box 665, Homer, Alaska AK 99603 (907) 235-8780

Land's End Resort, 4786 Homer Spit Road, Homer AK 99603 907-235-0400

Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge, China Poot Bay, Box 956, Homer AK 99603 907-235-8910

M/V Waters,
c/o Katmai Coastal Bear Tours, Homer AK 99603 1-800-532-8338

• Don't Piss off A Bush Pilot

Here's Bill holding forth on a Jaguar forum (that's pronounced Jag_you'_r, yankee), decrying some political jabs on what's supposed to be a politics-free automobile community:

Argh !!

Read the rules you guys !

Just because we are silent does not mean we agree !?!

We are not supposed to have to be a captive audience....I may ramble but I try not to give you the benefit of my knowledge on politics world history and the real bullies in this world..

Sick of hearing the sheep bitch about the sheepdog while the wolf moves in...
What you say sticks in my craw....but tic a loc ...I'm not saying it !!

Now about jags .
Bill de Creeft '32 model and high mileage seen three wars from the ground.


But see...that's what I'm saying; start out on health care and it rolls right on into war and Bush and why we are hated!

If it had been about health insurance I would not have said a word.

Until I got to be 65 and became a ward of the State it cost me a couple of hundred thousand dollars paid over years and years to repair me from an accident because I had once had arthritis (until I learned what not to eat) and couldn't get insurance....And I would rant with the rest.

But that ain't politics!

Don't eat high fructose corn syrup and stay skinny...Don't eat meat with growth hormone implants in it and you won't need the pills. At 75 I don't even take aspirin and I was looking at methotrexate !?!

But stay offa war unless you want my side of it and it won't be on this site...in fact I've made my statement in other years and in other lands under my flag.

Oi ! It's hard to stick to Series One, Two and Three !!!

The most beautiful car I know and the sweetest V12 and I've owned a 1953 v12 Ferrari all out 183 mph race car

and a 1932 Pierce-Arrow V12...bloated plutocrat that I am.....

Like Forrest Gump, "that's all I have to say about that !"

I mean it darn it! No politics!!

I love the cars, I love you guys, I love being alive...(I might shoot you if you try and steal my car...I know I will if you try and hurt my grand-daughter) ...we are all different and we are here for one purpose, under Flag of Truce to talk about one kind of car.

Even if I were in the pub, I'm not interested in convincing you of anything...I've even got one hot Lump and one sweet 12 so I won't fight about that either!!

I was 5 years old and a refugee in the Spanish Civil War...I grew up through WW2...I've got a CIB from the 2nd Inf.Div. in Korea as an infantry squad leader in 1952 (been called a Baby Killer)...spent 40 years flying bush in Alaska....I haven't been hiding under the bed!

I'm descended from one of the guys that wrote the Bill of Rights and from people that have been on the wrong side in wars in Spain, Scotland, and on opposite sides at Gettysburg at the stone wall .......

None of us has the right to tell each other what to think....and when the wolf comes I'll be the sheepdog...but meantime let me sleep in the corner near the stove and dream of rabbits and biting tires on jaguars....!?!

"Don't Tread On Me"...older than the States.

I used to be in a Pipe band and there is a very old tune Cogadh Na Sith...means "Peace or War"; that's the essence of it, nothing in between.

No nibbling and quibbling...no agitating, no "signifying".

They also used to say, in the Band, when the girl brought around the water glasses at a pub "Och!, Lassie, We're nae dirty, we're thirsty !!"

See you in the Pub, someday...Until then, everybody, may you fire on all twelve!

(Nurse! Some Milk of the macDougalls here! Oban for my friends!!)

[later - referring to a winter trip in his Jag]

They did fine even up to 125 mph on graded snow (but very cold so good traction) in the long desolate open stretches....averaged 55 mph for 700 miles at 38 below F. non-stop from Haines to Anchorage.

Actually that was the series One that I have had for 15 years and we had been all through it; took out the bent front tray and replaced all the front suspension parts and installed a brand new 383 RV roller cam crate motor and 700R-4 and pulled rear tray and did everything new and a 3.31 LS xj-s rear and all bushings,brakes and suspension.

The run was from Haines at 9AM after digging out of 18 inches of snow and got into Anchorage at 11 at night (gained an hour) and saw four cars ,one wolf and two caribou throughout the whole time.

Haines junction for gas was 30 below,Burwash was 38 below Tok was 42 below so didn't dare stop! three or four yellow snow stops with the motor running and white ice fog out the tail pipes.

No food but 70% chocolate bars.

It's over 700 miles and I went as fast as I could the whole time. Road was beautiful graded very cold snow...penalty for leaving the road would have been a very cold night so actually I was conservative...as i remember 125 was 4000 rpm.

(Redline on the Aston I used to race was 137 mph and i spent a lot of time there while Phil Hill went by at 170 in a Testa Rossa as I waved him by...)

Got an SCCA Senior Competition License in 1958

It was a fun drive in a frozen waste in a good car that I had built up to do more than that(and may have!)...if you look at the map you will see.

The average with fuel stops is only about 55 mph so sounds mild, and obviously I wasn't flat out except for when I could.

I've seen a lot more from people passing me on the autobahn.

That was 7 or 8 years ago when I was young and strong. Once in a lifetime experience and never to be forgotten or repeated I'm sure (the times they are against it!)

Well here i go again running my mouth off but you asked, Frank, and this is restraint from me !?!

I don't try and justify or defend it...and i did enjoy it and here i am.
And my tires were at the "100 mph plus" pressure so "what could possibly go wrong !?!"

Sir Wm.Lyons built that car to do that.

From now on I will be cruising in the van den Plas but I have my memories from this life! Big Grin !

(It would do it too, but i won't ask it.)

Toad of Toad Hall
(poop! poop!)

PS... Listen to this, (since it's late at night here and nobody is listening) I once raced in a race with Dan Gurney, Jean Berha, Richie Ginther, Roy Salvadori, Ken Miles, Masten Gregory, Jo Bonnier, Phil Hill, Lance Reventlow ,...and more, all in one race, and all faster than me!

But I had fun, and I finished and I wasn't last.

April, 1958 Riverside Intl. Gran Prix. Me and my little Aston DB3S (factory # 115) Single plug head, drum brakes early model. No crew, no budget, 1937 Dodge pick-up tow truck. Money went to Avon Racing tires. Lovely little car.

• Saturday Science

I happened to be out on the back porch fiddling with my camera when an aircraft flew over, so I fired off a few frames.

Later, looking at the images in Apple's great iPhoto program, the n-number (registration) on the side of the aircraft tickled a few neurons, and I wondered why. A quick check of the FAA registry told me it was owned by someone in Coronado, and Google told me he was an air traffic controller. No help.

So I googled the n-number and out popped an NTSB report that the aircraft "was substantially damaged" in a landing accident at Hyde Field in 1976. Ah-hah!

I flew out of nearby Oxon Hill airport back in the early '70s when the Navy sent me to work at the Department of Defense Computer Institute in Washington DC. Sure 'nuff, a check of my log book revealed I have 5.7 hours in N3430T in late 1973.

So I asked a friend who works for the FAA to forward the picture and the 'small world' history to the owner via agency e-mail.

Then I started wondering if maybe I'd put whoever was flying it on report by mentioning the aircraft had flown low over the neighborhood and when.

How low, I wondered. Is there any way to tell from the picture? Turns out there is.

Virtually all digital cameras store EXIF data along with the image information. That's short for Exchangeable Image File. Information such as shutter speed, F-number, focal length, ISO number, date and time the image was taken, white balance, lens that was used, resolution, and other details are all saved with each image.

If I have the actual focal length (my darling gave me a fantastic Nikkor zoom lens so it might have been anything from 18 to 200mm), and if I know the size of the aircraft (google knows), I can compute it's distance using a simple ratio.

The image size (IS) of the object in the frame is to focal length (FL) as the object size (OS) is to object distance (OD). In other words


Solving for what we don't know, object distance (OD) we get


So I loaded the image in Photoshop, used the ruler tool, and found the aircraft's image size (744 pixels in 3008 pixel image). The focal length was 200mm, and the size (length) of a Cessna 177 Cardinal is 8.22 meters (27 feet). Do the math, and the bird was 262 meters away.

That's a slant range of 860 feet. If he'd been directly overhead he'd have been 860 feet above the ground. If he'd been level with me he'd have been zero feet above the ground.

We could do some more measuring and more math to determine exactly what the angle was, but let's estimate it at 60 degrees. Now with Pythaogras' help, all we have to do is solve a simple geometry problem, with a little trig thrown in [sin (60 degrees) * h], and what you find is that the aircraft was at about 750 feet.

That's higher that I thought (I guessed about 500-600'), but nevertheless slightly lower than is legal over a populated area (1000'). To be charitable let's say that with measuring error on my part and instrument error on his part—he was close enough for government work.

So what does all this prove? Well, for one thing, don't believe everything you think. Humans are notoriously bad observers and even worse estimators. And if you're a pilot, keep in mind that even a backyard photographer can catch you busting the regs.

You might also conclude that I've effectively proven I have far too much time on my hands.

• Air Pilot Killed At Biddenham

Bedfordshire Times and Independent - Friday 20 August 1920

About 8.20pm on Monday night, an aeroplane, which had been near Biddenham some time, was taken up by its pilot, accompanied by a mechanic. When about 100 feet up the engine stopped and the plane began to descend. In attempting to avoid a barn it crashed.

The pilot, James Gordon Riley, aged 21, of 5, Oak Tree Avenue, Palmer’s Green, London N., was jammed in his seat owing to the front of the engine being crushed in. He received severe head injuries.

Mr Blick, of Ford End road, was first on the scene, and was shortly joined by two of the Beds Constabulary, who were on the riverside patrol at Honey Hills.

The mechanic, named Hamblin, of Brixton, also received injuries about the head. He was the first to receive attention, and was conveyed by boat to Kempston Mill, and later to the County Hospital. The pilot was then removed, and died about five minutes later.

The plane was one of those belonging to the By-Air Co., of Coventry, who were giving passenger flights a few weeks ago.

The first machine sustained damage and this was the second which, it will be remembered, came to grief in a field of growing corn belonging to Mr R Whitworth. It had to wait for removal until the corn was cut, and this accomplished.

Mr Riley and his mechanic got to work upon the machine. On Monday evening we believe it was their intention to fly to Hendon.

The inquest was opened by Mr Gregory Whyley at the ‘Three Tuns’, Biddenham, on Tuesday afternoon.

Riley, a bank clerk, living at the same address as the deceased, identified him as his brother, a civil airman and a shareholder and pilot in the By-Air Co. He took his certificate in 1917 and had served in the RAF.

The inquest was adjourned for a fortnight in order to enable the evidence of the mechanic, who is the only witness who can throw light on the mishap, to be taken.

In a follow-up article covering the inquest proceedings some additional details emerged.

William Roe, of Coventry Road, Bedford, described how on Aug. 16th about 8.15pm, he was in a stubble field at Biddenham, when he heard the engine of an aeroplane. He crawled through the hedge, and saw an aeroplane in the field.

The pilot tested the planes, and then the machine started off. It went about 100 yards along the ground before it began to rise, cleared the hedge, and went up towards some sheds. Near the sheds it circled. It was about 60 or 70 ft up. It then seemed to come down at an angle of 45 degrees. He did not see it strike the ground, as he was behind the hedge.

He ran to the spot, and saw that both men were seriously hurt. He obtained a bicycle and rode into Bedford for a doctor. The passenger, Corporal Hamblin, RAF, stationed at Uxbridge, recovered sufficiently to give evidence.

Mr Riley had wired him on Aug.13th to come to Bedford, and he came the next day. He worked for some time on the engine, which was lying in a field, and put in a new cylinder and piston. The machine was then in good order, except for filling up.

On the morning of the 16th Mr Riley assisted him in changing one of the ground wheels, and getting in stores of oil, etc.

Hamblin did not remember getting into the machine at the start, and had no recollection of what happened afterwards.

Mr Trevor Laker, of Coventry, formerly a pilot, gave evidence as to the history of the machine. He said he had got it down from Hounslow, after some trouble, to Lilbourne Aerodrome near Rugby. The water circulation failed, and he had a forced landing a Lilbourne.

After that the engine was thoroughly overhauled by their ground engineer, and he made several flights before he left the Company, the machine flying perfectly. He tested it on July 16th, when they were flying it at Kempston.

It was then (in his opinion) being flown badly, and he expected to see the pilot crash at any moment. He deduced that the tail trimming was out of order. He went to the field and found that Riley had made a bad landing, and bent his under-carriage.

Witness told Riley that if he made a similar mistake that would be his last. Finally Mr J W Batchelor, aeronautical draughtsman, Coventry, said the machine was passed as air-worthy in July. He had seen Mr Riley’s log book, which showed that he had spent 789 hours in the air, and had sunk a German submarine.

The aircraft involved - if it is the same one as was auctioned (Airco DH6, ex C7815) – did not fly again. Records show that it was withdrawn from use at this date and the registration cancelled. Beyond this little is known as to how the sale went, however two papers in the same file as the poster give some clues ... and raise some questions.

The first is a short note from a Superintendent at Bedford Police Station to Mr Mr H Peacock (Auctioneer in Bedford), dated 1st September 1920. It reads ...

"Dear Sir, I received a request from Mr Whitworth yesterday to move the Aeroplane from his field, as he wanted to put horses in. I did so and it is now at the rear of the “Three Tuns”, Biddenham, as it is a better place and it will not be tampered with. When allowing permits to view kindly put “Three Tuns” instead of Mr Whitworths farm, Honeywells. This is also an easier place to find. I see by this mornings paper that Aeroplanes sold very badly at Cambridge but I should think that probably there were a lot for sale."

The second is a typed letter (carbon copy) from the auctioneers, dated 31st January 1921, to O Bach, Esq. Aberlady NB (near Edinburgh).

"Dear Sir, We offered your Aeroplane last week but were unable to get any bidding at all for the same. We offered it again last Saturday, after advertising, and have sold it for £6, and will render you the account on Wednesday. Yours faithfully / (unsigned)."

The reference to the pilot's WW1 service record in reputedly sinking a submarine is interesting.

It is a little known fact that in the last year of the war the DH6, which had been specifically designed as a trainer, was adapted for use as a submarine hunter and may therefore have been a type on which he had some considerable experience.

DH.6 must hold the record for the number and variety of disrespectful epithets. The “sky hook”, a favorite of Australian airmen, probably referred to its lack of speed, although the shape of the exhaust pipes has also been mentioned. Other nicknames for the type included "crab", "clockwork mouse", "flying coffin" and "dung hunter" (these last two on account of the shape of the plywood cockpit - thought to resemble either a coffin or an outside toilet). The type’s unforgiving nature was probably behind yet another nickname, the "clutching hand", although this may also have been associated with its notorious lack of speed.


Here's a nice piece written in 2003 by a friend for his folks back home. 

I promised to talk about the "sandstorms" we encountered. I finally have time to keep that promise. Seems that supporting all those ground troops with our flights has kept me away from e-mail a bit. I have caught up, so here we go...

I had a mission that took us to the west coast of the Persian Gulf. I'd seen the news networks on the ship's satellite TV that there was a "big sandstorm" approaching from both up north in Iraq and to our west in Saudi Arabia. The news agencies typically will sensationalize things out here, so I didn't pay much attention to it.

Our weather brief before the flight mentioned reduced visibilities on the beach, but that wasn't uncommon as the winds had been blowing fairly hard over the past month. We refer to the "beach" as our divert airfields should we have a situation where landing on the ship isn't preferable. I realized before we took off that there was some windy and bumpy weather to be encountered on my flight as well as a possibility of some reduced visibility. No worries though, we are trained for this stuff and there wasn't anything to indicate that we would have any problems.

After my night catapult off the ship I climbed through some turbulence and got on top of what appeared to be a "haze layer" that was similar to what we have had for the several weeks prior. The moon wasn't very full so it was very dark... so dark that there was no horizon. We are trained to handle this so it didn't bother me or my wingman. As we conducted our mission, I could see that there was something interesting about the ground below. The oil rig lights and fires below were getting more and more dim, with a brown glow. Oil rig fires are normal as they are a process of burning off the unusable gasses from the "stuff" being harvested from the underground wells. I didn't think too much of this as the haze and some suspended dust from the dessert is a common weather pattern here.

Mission complete, time to return to the ship. We transited back home and did everything normal. Once on approach I could hear on the radio that the jets in front of me couldn't see the ship at the normal 3/4 mile 'ball call.' The 'ball call' is 15-20 seconds before you touch down on the back of the ship. The LSO (Landing Signals Officer) was having to verbally talk the pilots down to the back of the ship until they got close enough to see it. The LSO was able to see the light of the airplanes, determine glideslope and relation to runway centerline and therefore talk the pilot into the wires (arresting wires on the ship). The pilot is extremely busy controlling the airplane as well as looking at his instruments and typically doesn't pick up the ship in bad weather as quickly as the LSO can see the plane.

Once it became my turn to 'call the ball' we also didn't see the ship. We called 'CLARA,' meaning I don't see the ship or the visual glideslope reference. The LSO then gave me a good cadence of calls that told me where I was on the glideslope and centerline. I flew for about 10 seconds and then suddenly before me, I saw the lights of the ship. I called, "Ball" over the radio signifying that I saw my visual references and then trapped aboard the ship. I then said, "WOW!" to my right seater, signifying what an interesting ride that past 20 seconds had been. We then were taxied to our parking spot where we shut down the jet and got out.

Upon returning to the readyroom I had learned that the storm had just reached the ship and that each pilot returning had worsening and worsening conditions as each plane trapped. I was the last to land, so thankfully the worst was over... or was it? The next set of airplanes still had yet to land! Up to the LSO platform I went, to help my fellow LSOs land the next set of jets on the flight deck.

After flight operations were over and I had a chance to walk around the flight deck. I took a moment to feel exactly how eerie it was with all this sand suspended in the air. You could taste it in your mouth and could feel the grit in your teeth, not that I have ever purposely munched on a handful of sand before. My eyes were irritated by the sand and you could feel the sand sticking to any part of your body that might have a bit of moisture or sweat on it. It was as if there was a fog of sand that reduced visibility just like when ground fog sets in. I haven't seen anything this bad except for when the visibility goes to almost zero because of ground fog. On the flight deck, you could see where the jets had taxied as there was a slight tire track, as if a light snow had just fallen.

This was some of the most interesting weather I have seen besides my encounter with the thunderstorms out here. I am sure this region has more interesting experiences to offer. I know the heat, for one, is just around the corner!


• War record of 'Blue' Section

There is a famous photo of 4 spitfires flying side by side, someone has unearthed the blurb on the back that explains who these Heroic Pilots from the Battle of Britain were:

These four pilots cost £10,000 each to train. During that time they wrote off or otherwise damaged £160,000 worth of aeroplane. On operations they wrote off completely 3 Spitfire V’s between them at a total cost of £300,000. Their pay amounted to about another £22,000 during their service. They burned up about £25,000 worth of hi-grade petrol, and fired off at least £30,000 worth of expensive ammunition. They gave their C.O. and their Flight leader a nervous breakdown necessitating expensive medical treatment. Two of them were sent to an equally expensive Air-Crew Punishment Camp which had to be maintained at great expense for the likes of them. They stole at LEAST £10,000 worth of gear from the Royal Air Force during the five or six years that it managed to tolerate them. Between them they were solely responsible for no less than SEVEN illegitimate births, the cost of which devolved on the State which employed them. Between them they caused the break-up of three marriages, resulting in expensive divorce cases. Between them they contracted two cases of venereal disease necessitating expensive and time-wasting medical treatment. One of them wounded one of the others in an air-to air firing exercise. Two baled out over England, losing their aircraft which caused considerable damage when crashing, and both stole their parachutes on landing. One caused the Portsmouth gun barrage to fire off a great deal of expensive ammunition at him by getting lost and straying over the D-Day fleet. One shot up an RAF Rescue Boat under the impression that it was an E-Boat. One shot a hangar at Tangmere full of holes and turned a Flight-Sargeant Fitter’s hair white, by fiddling with his gun button which SHOULD have been set to SAFE. Each of these four required the services of 32 skilled men to keep them in the air, and these 128 men had to be paid, clothed and fed.

“Ah,” but you say. “But what did these heroes accomplish against the hordes of Nazi Germany when, smiling and gay they fearlessly (???) flew against the Hun”.

They shot down, or up, as the case may be, one F.W. 190, 3 gasometers (French), about 60 trains (all French), one church, about 200 lorries, one American Destroyer, at least one American Tank, a field latrine of doubtful nationality, and were only prevented from “having a bash” at the Eiffel Tower by the fear that their aircraft letters would be seen and reported.

In view of this enviable record therefore, we have no hesitation in laying the claim that these four pilots did the greatest service to the Third Reich and should have been awarded the Iron Cross First Class by a grateful Fuhrer and Fatherland.

• One of Those Days

It started out to be just one of those days.

Arrived at the airport for a 0900 'show time' for a 0930 takeoff on a one hour flight (an otherwise 6 hour drive) to Tehachapi in the C-45 to see one of our former Top Dog air combat pilots, now Student Test Pilot*, MAJ Matt Taylor USMC, sir. Also going to meet some of the honchos from Navy Test Pilot School (TPS) with an eye toward getting them to use our birds for handling evaluation flights.

Crew/passenger list: Jessica, a multi-engine instrument instructor as safety/co-pilot, our mechanic Skip and son/assistant Jason recently out of the Army, mechanic helper and passenger-loader Mark, plus Steve and Russell—two of the neatest kids I've ever met. Their grandma knew Pancho Barnes and was a DC-3 stewardess. She makes sure they hang out at the airport, "Where the good people are."

Mission: fly up to a glider strip near Edwards AFB to see Matt who is forced, as part of the TPS curriculum, to fly cool stuff like an Albatross HU-16 seaplane, a Beaver, an Otter and other esoteric flying machines, plus—at Tehachapi—gliders.

Only problem, the weather was dogshit (that's a scientific meteorological term) at 300 and half. So we all trudge up to the cafe for tales of daring-do aloft with American Airlines lineal number #3 pilot who said he landed in Hong Kong with a crosswind so strong that in the flare, before de-crab, the cockpit of the L-1011 was over the grass beside the runway although the main gear was about to touch down on the pavement centerline.

Coffee. Repeated checks of the ATIS by cell phone waiting for something to change. More coffee. No way we're going to launch with homebase and everything west of the mountains weathered in at minimums. If something happens where do you go? If we flew together everyday that'd be one thing. If we were flying a King Air that be another thing. But I'm not IFR current (1920s biplanes don't do IFR) and Jessica'd never been in a taildragger, much less a big 60 year old Twin Beech. Most conservative option: wait for it to clear up. Finally went to 900 and two and a half, and the inland fields cleared off completely so, "mount 'em up, move 'em out!"

Prestart and start go fine, Jessica snapping off checklist items like the pro she is. But we waited endlessly for other aircraft to request and copy clearances while we're solidly ignored. Finally we had a clearance, taxied, did our runups, and launched, into the wild, if not so blue, yonder. Route was radar vectors Oceanside, Victor 23 to Seal Beach just south of LAX, Victor something to Berri intersection near Hollywood thence Palmdale, home of the famous Lockheed plant, flight plan route (that is, direct). Climb and maintain 3000, expect 9000 ten minutes after departure.

On climb out we were IFR for maybe 2 minutes and then into clear blue skies, cotton ball fog below, with visibility more than 100 miles. Meteorological magic for the kids, this being their first experience breaking out on top. Radar vectors for traffic took us about half way out to Catalina Island, peak sticking up through the fog, and then direct Seal Beach. Glad we had to two big reliable Pratt & Whitneys rumbling outside the windows. Don't like swimming in cold water. Soon we're almost 2 miles high looking down at 747s as they approach LAX and I point out the huge HOLLYWOOD sign on the hillside looking tiny way below. With ground speed at 160 knots we were soon over Palmdale looking at the huge Edwards AFB dry lakebed, the Space Shuttle landing strip to the northeast, and Dick Rutan's base at Mojave to the north.

GPS said we were 20 miles out of Tahachapi, so we cancelled IFR but couldn't pick out the gliderport behind the ridge covered with a forest of huge white windmills. Calls on Unicom produced no response from anyone. Forecast and actual winds aloft were light and variable, and we quickly found the field. From an orbit overhead we hawked the windsock which seemed to be indecisive, and decided to land to the west, uphill. On short final a voice comes on the radio and recommends a landing to the east, so we buttonhook around, trying to avoid the mountains to the south and gliders to the north, airspeed high to avoid dangerous low speed steep turn stall crash burn syndrome and come screaming down final, engines at idle, everything hanging out wondering if 5400 feet is going to be long enough when 2300 usually is. But all's well that ends well, with nary a bounce, and we're down, taxiing in with wheels in the dirt on either side of the narrow taxiways. Jessica says something about that was exciting, never flew an approach quite like that before. I though she was being sarcastic, but the twinkle in her eye indicated otherwise.

Matt is waiting and proudly introduces us around as the crew disperses to find a bathroom to drain coffee and to look at airplanes and gliders. At 4200' MSL the sun is hot, the air desert dry, and it reminds me of learning to fly forty years ago in Santa Fe. But here we are out in the boonies. Not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from here, as they say.

Somehow you imagine test pilots decked out in G-suit, helmet under their arm, steely-eyed glint in their eye as they scan the skies. Not these guys. Fraternity brothers in Ray-Bans, jeans and ball caps. But the give-away is T-shirts that say Shuttle Test Team, and F-22 R&D, and Hooters with a picture of a double breasted twin engine rocket. Yup, just hanging out with the boys, your basic hometown Mercury 7 types. Regret not embarrassing myself and asking for a group picture with the two boys. In 10-20 years they'd be able to say, "See, there I am when I was 10 with John Glenn!" Or his 21st century equivalent, anyway.

Trigger and Mad Dog climb in the Beech and oogle the gauges and controls, commenting how much fun it must be to fly. That morning they were flying T-38C supersonic lawn darts doing special-waiver gear down Space Shuttle Approaches from 60,000 feet to the long shuttle landing strip at Edwards. Yeah, must be fun to fly!

Finally corral the honchos to talk a little business, and part way through what's turning into a sho-thing all we gotta do is get the paperwork handled, I realizing I'm sitting in my own big twin-engine beyond-my-wildest-adolescent-dreams 1942 C-45H a few miles from the dry lake bed where Chuck Yeager went supersonic for the first time, talking to the #2 man at the USAF Test Pilot School and the #3 man at the Navy Test Pilot school and it's all about a twice-annual week-long gathering with 3 of our planes at Edwards to fly with tomorrow's heros. Not only that, they'll pay us to do it. Holy Space Ship, Batman!

Nervous about recent weather trends at home and yesterday's change from CAVU to dogshit in 20 minutes. I don't feature having to bingo to Ramona and then rousting out the troops to come get us by car. So we all scramble back aboard, sweltering in the desert sun just like thousands of C-45 crews had done before us, fire up the P&Ws to the applause of a crowd of test pilots who appreciate good music when they hear it, and taxi out.

Chase prairie dogs across the field, bouncing through the dirt with a contrail of dust behind us. Run up over the one small piece of concrete we can find to protect the props from gravel nicks and GO right from the power check. Bend her around for the obligatory low pass salute, Matt jumping up and down in glee, waving like a mad man. Pitch up break and climb away, back to reality.

Flight home is uneventful except for cranky controllers who complain when we're 1.5 miles off the airway (how's a 60 year old airplane supposed to fly with 21st century precision?). Again over LAX watching the constant stream of heavies arriving from London, Tokyo, New Zealand, and Anchorage. Follow the beach south over the Queen Mary eying the encroaching marine layer fog, but happy to hear the Palomar ATIS report 900 and 2. We're vectored around endlessly, eventually within sight of the 200 inch Hale telescope observatory on Palomar Mountain way off to the east. Cleared for the approach. Report DEASY. Oops, we don't know where that is with only one VOR. Jessica is exasperated with herself (or me) for not catching that during our approach briefing. She asks the controller to call it.

At the last minute, everything otherwise under control, Approach asks if we can give her 120 knots to the marker and we agree adding power and fighting to keep the needles center. Jessica in best flight instructor voice orders me to watch my speed and get on that localizer, if you don't turn toward it you're just going to parallel it. Capture the glide slope, needles centered. "Marker Inbound." "Warbird One Eight Cleared to land." Going high, power back. Still high. Full flaps, still one dot high. "Field in sight, take over visually," she says. Grease her on, maybe best landing ever. Adrenalin will do that. Roll off at Alpha Three, cleared to the barn.

Former CEO of Polygram Records, acting now as lowly plane director, waves us into our parking spot. Shut down check list. Switches off. 3.1 hours on the hobbs. Applause from the back. Sure wish Kate could have enjoyed it with us; she's home doing the taxes. Some fun, that.

Arrive home and smell Kate's signature perfume. She looks up from her spread sheets, "You have fun honey?" Start talking about the beauty of a 'bread-and-butter' gig like a week of flying at government expense that would cover fixed costs. "Did you ask them if they could have any kind of planes they wanted what would they want?" We ponder what insurance on a $1.5 million, better than new, TF-51 would cost.

Later, after dinner, we getting ready for bed and the phone rings. It's Matt saying how much fun it was to see us, and how did the talk with the honchos go? Bring him up to date and chat about what he's going to be doing the next few days. Fun stuff he says. They have some of the F-18E/F software in the "baby Hornet" F-18C and they're gonna go do some high alpha stuff which is fully controllable 70 degree angle of attach hi-jinks. Even some tailsides, a definite no-no in the fleet—or practically any jet, actually, that depends on air coming in the front of the engine, not the back. Then some hi-alpha wifferdills in an F-16, which he's never flown.

But talk keeps coming back to the 51. He tells me he sat in one for the first time a few days earlier.

The two Italian guys with him got in trouble flying in a Falco without permission (their pink hairy bodies are valuable assets), but Matt said if they'd thrown him the keys to the P-51 he'd have run the risk of incurring the skipper's wrath. Says his assignment will be flight test at PAX River, the choice job for a new test pilot. Says it's bitter sweet though, 'cause "I won't be out there near you guys."

Hang up stunned. The best of the best, the next Chuck Yeager is disappointed with his assignment 'cause he won't be near us? Head back to the bedroom to tell Kate and she's asleep on the bed in the sexiest outfit I've ever seen. As I tenderly cover her up and apologize for letting plane talk interfere with her obviously attractive plans, she says, "That's okay honey, I just wanted to show you how proud of you I am."

What fun to fly that wonderful airplane. What a joy to share it with such good people. What a privilege, and how grateful I am, for Kate who understands and encourages it.


And now for the rest of the story: seems the honchos thought the low pass was a hot dog move. Don't need our boys flyin' with no hot dog. Actually, I think it was more that I made an ass of myself bragging to guys I wanted to impress about how lucky I was to have a wife like Kate and seven cool old airplanes to fly. Called Matt to see if he'd heard any skuttlebutt. He said no, he was shocked to hear they didn't want to play, and thought the low pass accussation was bogus. Will die still agast that I allowed my ego to screw up such a good thing.

*Matt went on to become one of the F-35 test pilots, and eventually Deputy Air Wing Commander at Eglin AFB where the USAF, Navy, and Marine pilots train to fly the F-35. Here's a picture from his retirement ceremony.

• Memories from 30 Years of Flying the Line

By Capt. Bill Austin
Flying Tigers/FedEx, Retired

  • A large handful of thrust levers, each one connected to 60,000+ pounds of thrust.
  • Rotating at VR and feeling 800,000 plus pounds of airplane come alive as she lifts off.
  • Hearing the nosewheel spin down against the snubber in the well after takeoff. A delightful sound signaling that you were on your way!
  • Punching out the top of a low overcast while climbing 6,000 feet per minute.
  • Cruising mere feet above a billiard-table-flat cloud deck at mach .86, with your chin on the glare shield and your face as close as you can get to the windshield.
  • The majesty and grandeur of towering cumulus. And maneuvering the airplane through canyons between them.
  • Cloud formations that are beautiful beyond description.
  • The delicate threads of St. Elmo’s Fire dancing on the windshield at night.
  • The twinkle of lights on the Japanese fishing fleet far below, and miles from any land, on a night crossing of the North Pacific.
  • Ice fog in Anchorage on a cold winter morning.
  • The patchwork quilt of the great plains from FL 370 on a day when you can see forever.
  • Seeing geologic formations that no ground-pounder will ever see.
  • The chaotic, non-stop babble of radio transmissions at O’Hare or Kennedy during the afternoon rush.
  • The quietness of center frequency at night during a transcontinental flight.
  • Dodging colored splotches of red and yellow light on the radar screen at night.
  • Lightning storms at night over the Midwest.
  • The welcome view of approach lights appearing out of the mist just as you reach minimums.
  • The soft, comforting glow of the instrument panel in a dark cockpit.
  • The dancing curtains of colored light of the aurora on a winter-night Atlantic crossing.
  • The taxiway names at O’Hare… before they were renamed: The Bridge, Lakeshore Drive, Old Scenic, New Scenic, the Bypass, Cargo, Outer, North-South… Anything to drive newcomers and especially foreigners crazy.

  • The majestic panorama of an entire mountain range stretched out beneath you from horizon to horizon.
  • Lenticular clouds over the Sierras.
  • Mono Lake and the steep wall of the Sierra Nevada range when approached from the east.
  • Yosemite Valley from above.
  • Sunsets of every color imaginable.
  • Seventy-thousand-foot-high thunderstorm clouds in the tropics.
  • The deep blue-gray of the sky at FL 430.
  • The Alps in winter.
  • The lights of London at night from FL350.
  • Squall lines that run as far as you can see.
  • Watching the lightning show while crossing the ITCZ at night
  • Exotic lands with exotic food.
  • Old Chinatown in Singapore… before it was torn down, modernized, and sterilized.
  • Long-tail boats speeding along the klongs in Thailand.
  • The quietly turning paddle fans in the lobby of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
  • A cold San Miguel in Hong Kong after a long day’s flying.
  • Ocean crossings.
  • The sound of foreign accents on the radio.
  • Luxury hotels.
  • To paraphrase the eloquent aviation writer, Ernie Gann, “The allure of the slit in a China girl's skirt.”
  • The taxiway sentry (with his flag & machine gun) at the old Taipei downtown airport.
  • Sipping Pina Coladas in a luxury hotel bar, while a typhoon rages outside.
  • Chinese Junks bobbing in Aberdeen harbor.
  • Watching the latitude count down to zero on the INS, and seeing it switch from "N" to "S" as you cross the equator.
  • Wake Island at sunrise.
  • Oslo Harbor at dusk.
  • Icebergs in the North Atlantic.
  • Contrails.
  • Pago Harbor, framed by puffy cumulus clouds in the late afternoon.
  • The camaraderie of a good crew.
  • Ferryboat races in Sydney Harbour.
  • Experiencing all the lines from the old Jo Stafford tune…
  • See the pyramids along the Nile.
  • See the sunrise on a tropic isle.
  • See the market place in old Algiers.
  • Send home photographs and souvenirs.
  • Fly the ocean in a silver plane.
  • See the jungle when it’s wet with rain.
  • White picket fences in Auckland.
  • Trade winds.
  • White sandy beaches lined with swaying palms.
  • The endless expanse of white on a polar crossing.
  • The hustle and bustle of Hong Kong Harbor.
  • The bus ride to Stanley...on the upper deck front seat of the double-decker bus.
  • The Star Ferry in Hong Kong.
  • The Peak tram in Hong Kong.
  • The bustle of Nathan Road on a summer day.
  • Bangkok after a tropical rain.
  • The Long Bar at the Raffles.
  • Heavy takeoffs from the reef runway at HNL.
  • Landings in the B-747 when the only way you knew you had touched down was the movement of the spoiler handle.
  • Jimmy’s Kitchen.
  • The deafening sound of tropical raindrops slamming angrily against the windshield, accompanied by the hurried slap, slap, slap of the windshield wipers while landing in a torrential downpour in Manila.
  • Endless ripples of sand dunes across the trackless miles of the Sahara desert.
  • Miller’s Pub in Chicago.
  • German beer. Even in the Bitburg Garden in HKG.
  • The white cliffs of Dover.
  • Oom-pa-pa music at the "Gemaltes Haus" in Frankfurt.
  • Double-decker buses in London.
  • The “Gas Station” in Frankfurt.
  • The Eiffel Tower.
  • Fjords in Norway.
  • The aimless compass, not knowing where to point as you near the top of the world on a polar crossing.
  • Breaking out of the clouds on the IGS approach to runway 13 at Kai Tak, and seeing a windshield full of "checkerboard" and as you approach into Kai Tak in a B-747 with your wingtip skimming the rooftops of Yau Yat Chen as you make the steep turn to final.
  • The old Charlie-Charlie NDB approach into Kai Tak.
  • The Burma Road.
  • Flight bags crammed with charts to exotic places.
  • An empty weight takeoff in a B-747.
  • The rush of a full-speed-brakes descent at barber pole in a B-727.
  • Sliding in over Crystal Springs reservoir for a visual approach and landing on 1R in SFO.
  • The smell of tropical blooms when you step off the plane in Fiji.
  • The quiet of a DC-10 cockpit.
  • Main gear touching down while the 747 cockpit is still 70 feet in the air.
  • The coziness of a B-747 cockpit.
  • Good co-pilots.
  • Good flight engineers.
  • Deadheading in First Class.
  • The Canarsie approach into JFK.
  • Max gross weight takeoffs.
  • Cross-wind landings.
  • The brief, yet tempting, glimpse of runway lights…. after you’ve already committed to the missed approach.
  • The tantalizing glow of the flashing strobe lights just before you break out of the clouds on approach.
  • CAT IIIb autolands in the DC-10 on a foggy day, when you feel the wheels touch before you ever see the ground.
  • “Leak-checking” your eyelids on a long night flight but then.....
  • Sunrises seen from the high flight levels that make the heart soar.
  • And, as one friend so perceptively pointed out, payday

© Bill Austin, March 2, 2006

• Aviation Photo Contest

It's San Diego Air and Space Museum Amateur Photography Contest/Exhibition time again.

This year’s theme is “It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane…” So break out your cameras and start taking pictures.

Entries can be submitted between October 28th and November 4th. They will be on display from November 12th to December 31st.

There are two chances to win and anyone who doesn't make their living taking pictures can enter.

Entry form is here.

• Da Vinci Reborn?

Strictly speaking, this has nothing to do with aircraft and first person accounts of aviation adventures. Nor does it have anything to do with learning from someones else's experiences. Still . . . .

See his website and wikipedia article for more.

• Low Pass

The picture is the story . . . .

Well, almost. A friend—a former 747-400 captain and current Yak-52 owner—writes:

On Saturday night, I had dinner with the Chief Test Pilot of the Sukhoi Design Bureau (and his family) at their dacha in the forest near Zhukovsky east of Moscow. . . .This guy, Slava (at least at his dacha that is his name), is an interesting guy. He is "Hero of the Soviet Union", and, you will probably recall the absolutely fantastic display that has been going around the web of an Su-30MK doing ultra low speed high AOA maneuvering while putting out good smoke so that one could see, very graphically, what the airplane was doing. He's the guy flying the airplane....and in the back seat was his son, also a test pilot at Sukhoi on the Su-30 program. Last month, he was promoted to president of Irkusk Industry, which is the production company of the Sukhoi fighters....while retaining his flight status and Chief Test Pilot status.

Said video:

• Falcon Codes

Back in the olden days—the Vietnam War Era, the text books call it now—we developed an effective way to communicate the essence of our thinking with minimum concern that the meaning would be lost or someone's dainty ears would be offended.

They were called Falcon Codes, and we all had a card on our knee-board with a condensed list of the most useful ones. Here's the whole collection.

If you're offended by sailor talk you best stop reading now.


• Night Bombing

This from an active duty Navy Captain, academy grad, fighter pilot, squadron skipper that blogs at Neptunus Lex. If what you read here is of interest, you'll want to visit his site often. He's prolific and opinionated—and often right.

It strikes me as kinda funny that he calls a mission with four 500 pounders a 'heavy.' An A-6 would carry 16 and two drop tanks. But then it couldn't go supersonic or shoot things down either.

I think it’s safe to say that while it’s not true that every night bombing hop ends up as a fiasco, it’s also true that a disproportionate number of fiascoes seem to occur during night bombing evolutions. There is something about hurling yourself at the ground at a 45 degree dive angle at 500 knots while chasing HUD symbology towards a successful release on a poorly lit target in the absence of any visual reference cues while the altimeter unwinds like a yo-yo in the presence of mountainous terrain that tends to capture a man’s attention pretty comprehensively. Sometimes? Between attack runs?

It can be hard to pull your head out of the merely personal and rebuild the “big picture.”

My first night bombing hop in the Hornet occurred when I was a junior officer going through training in the Fleet Replacement Squadron many years ago, back as the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the lands. Our instructor pilot and flight lead for the event was a former F-14 jock whose call sign was “Legion.”

Actually, no. But it might as well have been.

You see, back when the Hornet was brand new and the writing was not yet on the wall we got two sorts of instructors from the Tomcat community: Hard charging guys who wanted a chance to be on the leading edge of a new program and people whom the F-14 bubbas didn’t mind losing to the “other” team. Some of the latter guys had “personality issues” and others were merely slackers. Legion fell in the second category, a essentially capable guy whose destiny it was not to be named a superior flight lead. We are not all of us called to greatness.

Our mission was a four-ship “heavy” ordnance mission against the Bravo 17 live impact area in Fallon, Nevada. If we three students were mildly (or otherwise) surprised to discover that we’d be dropping live ordnance for the first time - and that at night - we didn’t show it. I mean, these instructors were pros, right? They knew what they were doing. And anyway, questioning their authority when it came to physical safety was considered borderline wanking.

They took points off for wanking.

So we tried to take it all in stride with maybe 50 hours in the fighter and - for most of us - no more than about 300 total hours of flight time. Which may sound like a lot if you’re paying for it out off your paper route earnings, but is considered pretty meager for military types. Dropping live ordnance. In mountainous terrain. At night.

For the first time.

“Legion” briefed a 300 knot rendezvous from a 10-second separation, afterburner take-off. I was dash two, and - having waited the appointed interval - plugged the blowers in for to make the expeditious rejoin. Which, in the event, was a great deal more expeditious that I had expected since Legion, sensitive of a thundercloud formation outboard of the rendezvous circle, had slowed his jet to 230 knots, greatly diminishing the turn radius. He also wrapped up the turn from the briefed 30 degrees angle of bank to about 45 degrees or so to avoid going into the weather. Good headwork as far as it went, but even better would have been to communicate this deviation to the plan to the rest of us. This was, as it turned out, asking rather too much our man.

That whole “called to greatness” thing.

I could tell that something was amiss when I found myself at an 80 degree angle of bank turn, peeking over the left leading edge extension while slamming the throttles to idle and extending the speedbrakes in a desperate attempt to avoid hitting my flight lead. At night. Carrying four 500-pound live bombs. I was intuitive that way.

It did not much help matters that, just as I was congratulating myself on having miraculously arrived in stabilized formation, Legion roused himself from whatever deep distractions kept him from, you know, leading his actual flight to ask of dash three in a conversational tone whether or not he had two in sight? At all?

Two was your humble scribe hisself, so, being as self-interested as the next goober, this was a question whose answer I eagerly attended to. “Mrmph!” came three’s cogent reply even as I witnessed the light pattern from his airplane go slashing underneath my jet mere feet away, thirty degrees offset from the lead’s flight path before disappearing into the weather on our port side. Whether dash four was wiser from three’s experience or merely unmanned from having nearly witnessed a three-plane midair collision (carrying live ordnance, at night) he bailed out of the rendezvous attempt entirely, reversing his turn to the left and promising to catch up. In time. If he could. Three ended up joining out of the weather carrying a vicious case of vertigo at about the same time as four caught up on the starboard side some minutes later.

Somewhat troubled at heart but silent on the radios we pressed on to the target. Surprisingly, that part of the mission went famously, leaving us to rejoin again overhead the target when the mission was complete. This I approached with a good bit of caution, but three - distracted by the lights of the nearby metropolis of Fallon (population ~ 7500) - managed to blow the rendezvous entirely taking four with him off into the moronosphere. It was at just that moment when the O-2 that had been arcing around at 3000 feet above ground level in order to 1) spot our hits, and 2) bust our chops in the event of a minimum altitude bust decided that dropping a LUU-2 flare would be just the thing to get us all sorted out.

LUU-2’s had been used during the Vietnam war to illuminate target areas for high angle dive bombing by A-4 and A-7 attack aircraft. They were parachute retarded and brilliantly incandescent. Being up to this moment blithely unaware of their existence however, the sudden appearance of a miniature sun below our aircraft served only to confuse we few, we goofy few, we band of students even more. Both three and four - who had been on the very cusp of gaining a degree of situational awareness - felt their eyes irresistibly drawn to the paraflare below, instantly losing whatever night vision they had arduously built up over the preceding forty minutes. For my own part, glued as I was to my lead, I merely suffered from an almost debilitating bout of nausea-inducing vertigo, as the world appeared to turn upside down, the g-forces holding me down in my seat warring with the sunlight below my wing in competition for the attention of the little bones inside my ear that tell me when I’m sitting upright, or not.

Finally concluding that the briefed mission was irrecoverable, at least from an administrative standpoint, Legion wisely detached the still-mesmerized dash three and four to follow us back to the field. As we turned away from the now-guttering flare, I regained some sense of up and down, at least sufficient to fly Legion’s wing back to the overhead pattern to break downwind and land with three and four behind us a couple of miles.

As I configured the jet for landing, “Bitchin’ Betty” announced to me that we had a “Flight Controls” issue. Indeed, there on the right digital data display I noted that my trailing edge flaps were showing “X’s” indicating that they were not scheduling properly based on airspeed and angle of attack. I suppose I should have taken the jet around for troubleshooting, with lead joining on my wing while I did so, but at that point I wanted nothing more than to be on deck and the jet was flying perfectly well, albeit at a somewhat higher than normal airspeed. I kept my mouth shut, gave lead a little more interval off the approach turn and made my own approach to land on centerline.

I landed hot of course and, concerned about blowing a tire, left off for a moment tapping the brakes, very happy just to be on deck. The tower controller interrupted my sigh of relief by keying his mic and calling on the radio in evident alarm, “Three, you’re overtaking two rapidly on the landing rollout!”

“Three is still on downwind,” came the protesting reply. Still airborne in other words.

Now, math is not my strong suit gentle reader, but I was nevertheless grounded in the basics enough to know that if it was not three overtaking two then the only alternative was that two - your humble narrator - was overtaking one. Who, it turns out, had chosen that particular evening to sample the pleasures of a max-brakes full stop landing. With nearly all of his external lights out. All of them but for a wee-bitty tail light that got rather closer to our own nose than our friends could have wished for, even given the fact that I stomped on the wheel brakes with everything I had.

Fortunately, Legion could work the math as well and gave up his unbriefed performance demo by giving his own jet a shot of power to keep her rolling. We turned off the runway at the end almost together, his eyes as big as saucers in the glow of the taxiway lights.

For many years that was the worst flight I ever flew. But I did learn about flying from that.

Used with permission.

• I'd do it again

Flight is freedom in its purest form,
To dance with the clouds which follow a storm;
To roll and glide, to wheel and spin,
To feel the joy that swells within;

To leave the earth with its troubles and fly,
And know the warmth of a clear spring sky;
Then back to earth at the end of a day,
Released from the tensions which melted away.

Should my end come while I am in flight,
Whether brightest day or darkest night;
Spare me your pity and shrug off the pain,
Secure in the knowledge that I'd do it again;

For each of us is created to die,
And within me I know,
I was born to fly.

— Gary Claud Stok

• The Head On Shot

The following is a natrative that Col. Meldeau wrote before his death about one of his experiences as a combat pilot while in North Africa. It was never published and was transcribed by his son Anthony after his death.

Having been trained in Canada as a member of the RCAF,and with 55 missions in Spits in England, I transferred to the U.S.Army Air Force in September, 1942. The assignment was to the 309th Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, back in West Hampnett which was lucky as the 31st had Spitfires and unlucky as we were on the invasion of North Africa and my wife of the WAAF was stationed at 11th Group, Headquarters RAF in London. I would not see her again for more than a year.

Arriving at Gibraltar, we put the wings on our planes and flew to Oran in North Africa. Feb.6 found us at Thelepte in Tunisia just in time to get our Aerodrome, captured by the enemy on 17 February during the Battle of Kasserine Pass.

After we retook the airfield, we resumed operations from Thelepte. By April 1, I had 20 missions in Africa to my credit including one Me-109 at El Guittar. The air battle heated up and we had gains and losses daily.

The enemy was now operating from 3 airfields at La Fauconnerie, east-southeast of us. And to make matters worse, they were attacking the base at Thelepte daily with large gaggles of Me-109's and bombers at night. Our losses were starting to grow.

This was due to the fact that our Spitfires Mark VB did well with the Me-109E, especially when we could lure them into an all out dogfight. However, the Germans had sent down from France several of their top scoring aces (I believe there were three ) so as to build up their high scores.

Their aircraft were Me-109G models and were conspicuous with their gold painted noses.

The enemy tactic was to engage us with their Me-109E in volume while the hunter killer aces flew thousands of feet overhead and came down fast after the loners.

By now, Joe Byrd, Lt. Juhnke, Berry, Chandler, Bob Mitterline, Joe Kied, Thomas Barber, Sgt. Early, Lt. Strode, and Strode, and Tiger Wright had been shot down. However many returned on foot only to go down again on another day. April 1 I lost my good friends, Francis Strole and Lt. Juhnke east of El Guittar.

During the mixup before departure Lt. Juhnke took my plane WZO together with my helmet and parachute and I got off late as 13th man flying WZZ.

Lt. Juhnke was shot down by a plane with a "yellow nose". This was the third time he had been shot down, but this time his parachute failed to open. My chute!

After the mission I was given Lt. Juhnke's plane WZZ as a replacement for WZO. I also inherited his parachute, helmet, and mask which were too big and later the mask keep sliding down when pulling high Gs in battle.

That night everyone was despondent by the deaths of Strole and Juhnke, especially depressing was the futility of combat with that Me-109G with our Mark V Spitfires. He simply swept down at high speed, killed his prey, and then went straight up several thousand feet for another pass.

I will always remember one special thing about that evening. A number of the pilots, John Paulk, Henery Huntington, Bryson and others were around the fire to keep warm. The conversation was how to deal with that Me-109G.

Someone suggested that we go for him head on reducing the odds to 50-50. Everyone got enthusiastic about this, but I remember having misgivings. I preferred to stick my nose down and pick up speed until my prop was clipping the shrubbery.

Later I went to my foxhole and had trouble sleeping with Lt. Strole's empty cot and Lt. Juhnke's gear beside me.

April 2 Mission: Escort 48 A-20s and 4 P-39s for an attack on the airfield at La Fauconnerie. The bombers got there [not always the case]. I was to lead an element of Blue flight 309th Squadron (307 and 308th also had aircraft on this mission).

After joining the bombers, we proceeded to target. The advanced P-39s reported no targets on the airfield and no wonder! Visible was an immense dust cloud from the area to the north. The enemy had moved their aircraft and were coming up to do battle.

The bombers dropped their bombs on a useless target and turned full bore westward toward safety. I don't remember what happened to the low P-39s but I suppose they were all shot down as usual.

Shortly after turning west, we were attacked by about 20 Me-109s and engaged in a fierce battle to protect the bombers. One A-20 bomber was badly hit and dropped back in slow flight to await the inevitable. Colonel Fred Dean, our lead, ordered several of us back to defend the bomber. Arriving at the A-20 bomber we found that he was badly hit and slowly losing altitude.

Suddenly we were attacked by another formation of German Me-109's. Did I count them? Hell no! I remember that there were only 4 of us back there. Henry Huntington, Brown, myself, and the other Spit.

Faced with this we turned and tore into the enemy. Henry Huntington got one on the first pass and I saw hits on my target.

The battle really wound up with the Germans willing to dogfight with their great numerical superiority. Planes were going around and around to the left, to the right, and the whole mess was tumbling over and over and over.

As I dove on one aircraft from the main combat area and prepared to help him become a dead hero, I was suddenly fired upon from above. The new enemy was in too close because I received no hits. His tracers were straddling my fuselage at arms length.

As he swept down on me, I saw his gold colored nose and recognized Me-109G (Abbeville Boy). After he passed me going absolutely straight up to several thousand feet above. I lost him in the sun until there he was again moving down at 400 plus with vapor trails coming from his wingtips.

These trails were typical of the Me-109 during high G-loads such as pulling through from a high-speed dive. When his vapor trails ceased, I broke hard right as I knew he had completed his pursuit curve and was on a collision course necessary to fire. Again his tracers passed to my left and back only inches from a hit.

Just after he went by again, I was attacked by several Me-109s but was able to turn left hard enough to avoid a hit. However, all this maneuvering had my Spitfire down to an unacceptable speed. During a opportunity for a shallow dive to pick up speed I remember hoping that the "yellow nose" would pick on somebody else to give me a rest.

I was now down to 3000 or so feet which was good because that useless mask and goggles slipping down was no help. The few seconds break was short-lived. I looked up and saw the wingtip vortices of that yellow nose devil on his way down, I had a feeling that "This is it".

At that moment I suddenly recalled the "head-on" proposal of the night before and, with the pitiful speed I had left, I pulled the yoke straight back and up. Win or lose, I was too tired to take it any more and just wanted to get it over with. My guns now centered on the enemy, I waited for him to get in range. I had to fire first when his vortices ceased but my speed was dropping too fast and I opened fire with all four machine guns and two cannons when he was still at a slight deflection angle.

As I fired, I saw he was in exact range as my hits were solid for all guns. He had not quite completed his pursuit curve as all firepower was going under me. Suddenly he snapped over on his back and went underneath me which was lucky for both of us because the recoil of firing all guns had just about stopped me in midair with no control left to avoid him.

As the enemy went by spewing smoke, fire, and debris, my Spity went into a spin. Luckily, my pass had taken me to about five thousand feet, just about enough room to recover. On the way down, I saw the enemy plane crash in a flat spin and a parachute went by. By this time, the poor A-20 had taken many more hits and was forced to crash land short of Thelepte. The pilot survived to confirm my victory.

This story was writte by Col. Leonard Houston Meldeau and was transcribed from his notes by his son after his death on May 31, 1995.