“Episode at South Whiting” *
In the spring of 1950, South Whiting Field was grinding out beginning student pilots by the hundreds. At the beginning of each flight the silver SNJs would rise from the runway in a seemingly endless stream, then split up and proceed to the various operating areas and outlying fields. To get this mass of airplanes back in at the end of the period without crashing into each other was no mean trick. An outlying field, Pace, was designated as the beginning of the channel into South Whiting. You were supposed to very carefully approach Pace, looking in all directions, and when you found an opening in the traffic, jump in. Then at exactly 1000 feet above Mean Sea Level and exactly 120 knots, you would proceed on a heading of exactly 090 degrees. That would lead you to a point just south of Whiting. You would then circle the field counterclockwise until you came upon the active runway and land. One time an underpaid Flying Midshipman (mel was taking off in that stream of aerial humanity for an hour of solo landing practice at an outlying field.
The takeoff run was uneventful until I noticed that, although my indicated airspeed was over 100 knots I was still heavy on the runway. Things were getting a little tense when I suddenly lifted off and began climbing out. After that everything seemed to be all right, so I flew to an outlying field and shot a bunch of landings. On the way back I easily found a place in the channel and was put· putting along eastbound when I saw a strange sight. Another SNJ was flying a hundred feet or so above me, ahead and to the right. The really strange part was that the instructor was leaning out of the back cockpit shaking his fist at me! What the heck?! I checked my instruments again and I was indeed on altitude, airspeed and course. After a while the plane pulled away, with the instructor still gesticulating wildly out of the cockpit, and left me to proceed alone to the field. As I got closer it became apparent that all the other planes were about 300 feet above me. I finally began to realize that maybe my altimeter and perhaps even my airspeed indicator were malfunctioning. I finally used all the other planes to establish my proper altitude, left on more power than usual, carried what I judged to be a little excess speed, and landed. The roll-out was long but otherwise no problem. With a huge sigh of relief I taxied back to the line and shut down.
By that time I had completely forgotten about the other plane and the wildly raving instructor. Not so to him. I hardly got out of the plane before he was all over me like an African ocelot, lashing me with … slipshod flying … a danger to yourself and to all others in the pattern … ought to be immediately drummed out of the service … etc … ad nauseam. His student was standing back of him rolling his eyes and quietly gagging. I never got a chance to say anything but the obligatory, "Yes Sir … No Sir … Yes Sir.” He immediately dragged me up to the Safety Officer and went through his entire litany, perhaps even madder this time. I could see the Safety Officer nodding, frowning, accusing, judging and sentencing. Before the day was out he would have me on a train back home. A couple of enlisted men in the background were quietly rolling their eyes. Finally, after a while, everybody seemed to run out of gas, and began quieting down. Almost as an afterthought the Safety Officer asked if I had anything to say for myself. Trusting that the best defense is a good offense I charged in with, "Yes SIR! I believe the pitot-static line on my plane was plugged, giving erroneous airspeed and altitude readings. I am not sufficiently experienced to be able to properly diagnose such problems in the air. At the time the lieutenant waved at me my instruments were indicating 120 knots and 1000 feet. I believe this was a very dangerous situation and I could well have been killed." The two officers looked totally stunned. For several seconds they didn't even move. The enlisted men were engaged in an eye-popping struggle to keep from laughing. Total silence engulfed the room. Then the Safety Officer began looking for some way out of the hole they had dug for themselves. How could they gracefully recover without letting it appear that they might just possibly have been a bit over-zealous? Finally he said, "We will check this out and if you are right you will hear no more about it. Dismissed." The instructor was still just standing there, with his eyes bugged out and (I like to think) a small drool running out of the corner of his mouth. I smartly executed an about face (turned around without falling down) and departed. I never heard from them again so my guess must have been right. There is no indication in my flight jacket of any problem or action, right or wrong. Once again I had (just barely) dodged the silver bullet.
* Aviation Midshipmen LOG, summer 2001; © 2001.
Hey, you guys, it's Feb. 18, 2002. Do you all realize what an historic day this is? It was exactly a half century ago that I first landed a Corsair aboard the Princeton! Shouldn't the banks take a holiday today (vice yesterday)?
My logbook says that I made 12 landings that day, February 19, 1952, and 4 the next day. On the last of those 4, I was moving too fast, couldn't get the plane down on the deck quick enough, caught the very last wire, and rolled into the barrier. (Hear a deep gravelly voice: "There's them that have hit the barrier and there's them that are goin' to.")
I belong to the Southern Oregon Warbirds and we were advertising our new book, Crews of the Big Bombers: B-17, B-24 and B-29 (5x8 paperback, 204 pages, 30 I was there" stories, 40 pictures - $9.00). The local paper sent a reporter and photographer over to the house to interview a few of us on the subject. The attached picture appeared on the front page of the weekend insert Currents. You can find those stories, plus more, on our web site www.southernoregonwarbirds.org.
Next big 50th anniversary, May 2·5, 50 years since: 2nd: first combat; 3rd: bullet hole in my tail (the plane's); and 5th: my flight leader shot down. It's going to be a long war!