Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Flying Jacket

The simple truth is that we were both bored silly. Even in the best of circumstances practicing law is no fun and sometimes it is truly boring. It was Thursday afternoon and I had appointments till six o'clock and I did not want to deal with any of them. I wandered into my dad's office and found him staring off into space. Obviously, neither of us wanted to do any work.

"I am bored," I said.

"Me too," said Dad.

"Let's go flying somewhere fun," I suggested.

Instantly, Dad perked up. "Good idea," he said. Put two pilots together and you have the potential of two brains engaged in concocting an excuse to skip out and go play with an airplane.

"Where would you like to go?" asked Dad.

"Somewhere warm and on the ocean," I said.

"How about we fly down to Pensacola, Florida and tour the Naval Aviation Museum? Get out of here tomorrow night and make a weekend of it. Get your brother and be ready at 1800 tomorrow," Dad ordered.

Friday afternoon before we left, I stopped over at my parents' house, ostensibly to see my mother, but what I really wanted was my dad's leather flying jacket. If you do not know what this jacket is, let me clue you in. In the trailers advertising the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise is wearing one. He also wears it in the movie while riding his Kawasaki crotch rocket. William Holden wore one in the movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri. If you qualify as a Naval Aviator, you get a leather flying jacket. Nobody else gets one. You get to sew on your gold wings and rank emblems. Your squadron patch goes on it, as well as patches noting where you have served. The more patches, the cooler. Some are cool just by themselves. Like one that showed a pilot caricature dripping wet with an inner tube around his middle and a caption that said "Tonkin Gulf Swim Club."

You did not get that one without getting shot down off Vietnam. Very cool. My Dad's jacket was neat because he was the squadron commander of a Navy jet fighter squadron. Being commander got you another patch. I wanted to take that jacket on the trip with us, because I had a plan. I sneaked it out of the house.

The next day we started the engines at 1800 hours. The wheels were in the wells at 1805 hours and we were climbing at 1500 feet per minute with an instrument clearance direct to Pensacola, 900 nautical miles away. The cockpit was stocked with Coca-cola and peanuts, survival food for generations of aviators. We leveled off at our assigned altitude, set the autopilot and began our vigil of monitoring the systems, tracking our course and communicating with a series of controllers who were observing our progress. For pilots it was heaven.

The evening air was smooth. Flying the plane was like sitting in your easy chair at home. Just a gentle rocking of the wings and the steady drone of the engines. The sun went down and the instrument lights softly glowed in the dark. Far below you could see clusters of tiny yellow lights which were identifying cities and towns we fly flying over at 250 knots.

Occasionally a needle on an instrument would flicker almost imperceptibly. An aviator's attention and familiarity with his aircraft and its instruments is so intimate that the least little change in the sound of the engine or the minute flickering of a needle of an instrument is instantly noted. Not because a change in sound or the movement of a needle is a warning sign, although both can be, but because a true aviator knows that his ship is not just a manmade machine or a collection of parts. All pilots know inherently that their airplane is a living, breathing woman. And like all women, all airplanes have their little quirks. They make subtle noises when flown properly and they always respond to a gentle touch. Sometimes, they almost purr. Pilots never refer to their airplane as "it" or "him." The airplane is always "she" or "her." Occasionally "the bird," but always a term of affection.

We made Pensacola in a little under four hours. A completely uneventful, fun flight. Now we needed to get a rental car and food. Accomplishing these two little things with my Dad was going to be interesting because he was a child of The Great Depression, and it had greatly affected him. He had a problem with spending money unnecessarily or on what he would characterize as pleasure. He expected me to rent the cheapest car the rental company had. If left to make a choice about where we would eat, I knew it would be Burger King or the local Chinese place. My brother and I were both working and were making a few bucks in our jobs. This was the first "father and sons" trip where everybody had some money.

I told Matt and Dad that I would cover the rental car. Matt said he would spring for dinner. Dad would cover refueling the plane. I went to the terminal to find a car.

I love cars. I am always in the market for a new car, even though I rarely buy one and never would buy one on a whim. When I asked the rental car agent what kind of cars were available, I was told that they had a new v-8 Lincoln Continental. My favorite magazine, Road and Track described it as a gentlemen's hotrod. Why not? It was only a little more money. I rented the Lincoln. When I rolled up to Matt and Dad, the first thing Dad asked was how much the Lincoln cost to rent. I told him to not worry about it. Dad was not amused, but then he started messing with all the bells and whistles on the car as we headed for a late dinner.

Before I go further on about dinner, let me remind the reader, some of whom did not know my Dad, that he was very frugal. Let me give you an example. Many years ago on the corner of Washington and Sycamore, there was a hamburger joint named Scotty's. It was a low budget competitor of McDonalds, except not near as classy. Occasionally they would hand out coupons where if you bought a sandwich, the next time in you could get two sandwiches for the price of one. My Dad quickly figured out that after you had bought the first sandwich, from then on as long as they were handing out the coupons or chose to honor the coupons, no matter how old, for the price of an extra soft drink, two people could have lunch for the price of one. I will not embarrass my Dad's regular lunch partners as some of them read this blog, but allow me to simply say that a coupon was used every day. When there were three people having lunch together, Dad talked the manager into allowing a single ticket to be used for three people, as long as three soft drinks were purchased. It got worse. Eventually one of the workers told Dad that the two-for-one deal was going to be stopped. (Gee, I wonder why?) However, the old coupons would still be honored. Somehow, Dad ended up with what had to be a couple of hundred coupons. He and his cronies ate there for years on those coupons. Ultimately, they did not even ask him for a coupon, they just gave him the two-for-one deal without asking. Now, I wouldn't say my Dad was cheap, but I would say he knew how to maximize a good deal and he probably was instrumental in Scotties going out of business. With aforesaid in mind, I will return to my story.

Like I predicted, as we rolled out onto the main highway, Dad saw a fast food place and suggested we stop for dinner. I was driving so I responded by saying it had been a long flight and I was interested in something more substantial for dinner. I kid you not, he next spied a Chinese place and suggested it. Irritated I said that I had not flown 900 miles for junk food. I said I wanted a salad with French dressing, a steak, a baked potato, and it had better be in a restaurant with a pretty waitress and a tablecloth. Within a few blocks, I saw a restaurant that looked decent and had a sign that said they served steak and seafood. I pulled in and announced that this was where we were eating.

"It looks expensive", said Dad.

"Don't worry about it," I countered. "Matt's paying for it."

I need only tell you that (big surprise) we all ordered steaks. That would have been the end of it had not the waitress came back and asked if we wanted dessert. I do not ever recall going out to eat with my Dad in a place that would even serve a separate dessert, let alone be allowed to order one. Quickly, I replied that I wanted dessert. I chose apple pie, as did my dining companions. When she asked if I wanted it with ice cream, I said yes. I could almost see Dad squirming at the expense. When she brought the bill, Matt snatched it up and paid it. Dad asked Matt how much it was and was told that it was paid, so who cares? Dad was not amused with his "spendthrift" sons, who he thought he had raised better.

After a night's sleep in a motel, we headed to the Naval Aviation Museum. Nearly all naval aviators learn to fly at some point in Pensacola, which is also the home of the Blue Angels. The museum keeps a large number of airplanes that are restored, but the museum is not large enough to house them all. So, they rotate the airplanes on display. I was concerned before the trip that they might not be displaying the airplanes that my Dad flew. Purely by luck, I couldn't have ordered a better display. The airplanes on display were a lineup of what Dad had flown. It started with the old Stearman biplane, on to the Vultee Vibrator, to the T-6, to the Wildcat, Hellcat, Corsair, Bearcat, Dauntless, Helldiver and then to the jet fighters. There was the Phantom I, Banshee, Fury, and Phantom II.

Each of the airplanes had been carefully restored and painted in a former squadron's colors. Even the name of a pilot who had flown that very plane was painted on the side.

As we walked along, Dad would point out the names of some of the pilots, who he knew. He said several were squadron commanders; he had flown as wingman with some of them and they with him. He started to tell stories of their legendary flying abilities, as well as their limitless ability to drink alcohol and still fly. He told stories of hair raising missions flown, of crashes, most fatal, but some not, and of terrifying night traps on stormy seas. He was in pilot's heaven.

About this time I asked Matt to go out to the car and get Dad's flight jacket which we had kept hidden. When Matt brought it in and handed it to Dad, I said, "Put this on and go stand over there by the Bearcat (Dad's favorite plane) I can take your picture so your grand children (there weren't any at the time) can see what you flew.

Dad said, "Where did you get that ratty old thing? I am not putting it on."

"Well, at least stand by the airplane and hold it up," I said.

Dad walked over and kind of half-heartedly held up the jacket as I began shooting the pictures. And then it started to happen.

An older, gray-haired man, spying the flying jacket, walked up to Dad and noting Dad's squadron patch, the Sky Giants, said, "I used to fly with the Pukin Dogs. Dick Schmutchler was skipper of the Sky Giants, wasn't he?"

"Yes," said Dad. "I was the executive officer and flew wing with Dick for a while."

"I remember Dick sure could drink when I flew with him. He used to get in the plane fifteen minutes early just to breath oxygen through the mask to sober up. He ever do that with you?"

"Sure did. A couple of times, but Dick always said he could fly better drunk than I could fly sober. I used to tell him I had never seen him fly sober, so I couldn't compare." At this they started to laugh.

And then another guy walked up and said that he flew with the Jolly Rogers. Did they know his commander? And another guy appeared and said that he flew with the Red Rippers and before we knew it, there were seven or eight old naval aviators standing there talking about the War --- who survived, who didn't, the long cross country flights, the countless night hops, the carrier landings and what they had done with their lives after the Navy.

I quietly motioned for Matt to move away from them and we sat on a bench and watched them remember the days when they were twenty- two and fearless, and were going to live forever. The moment was priceless And it all happened because Matt and I insisted that Dad hold up the jacket for a picture.

That photo sits on the bedside table in my bedroom at Winona Lake. The picture is one of my most prized possessions, along with that flying jacket. I often look at that picture and remember my Dad, who has always been my hero. He still is.

As we left the museum, Dad asked me what I was going to do with the flying jacket. I told him I was going to put it back in the closet in his house.

"Don't do that," he said. "Your mom will probably throw it out someday. You keep it and give it to someone in the next generation of aviators, who will appreciate it."

So I have kept it all these years. Seeing as how my life is just about over, I have to decide what to do with it. What a lot of people do not know is that from the day I buried my Dad I have kept a model of an F8F Bearcat on his headstone. I bought 50 of the kits and have faithfully replaced each as the weather takes its toll on them. I suppose that the replacement of the Bearcat will come to an end at my death, but I still have to deal with the flying jacket. I have a couple of ideas, but I just can't decide what to do with it.

Mike out.


  1. Mike, Thanks for sharing about your trip. Just love that you keep a F8F Bearcat on Owen's tombstone. So cool...your dad would love it! XXO Kris PS: Rejoicing with you over your great medical report!

  2. Mike,
    I loved reading the story of your Dad's reliving his military days long after they were over. Yesterday was the 1 year anniversary of my (USAF fighter pilot) Dad's death and I recognize the character. Thank you for the descriptive memory. Hope to see you soon, Lauri Hoover