Thursday, January 28, 2010

They Will Find Him Some Day

My dad and I often found reason to fly to Chicago and parts north of there, usually to Oshkosh for the air show. Meigs Field was a short, public airport literally out in Lake Michigan, running parallel to Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. We often flew in to have dinner or to sight-see. Since the runway was surrounded by water on three sides, and was just a few feet above the water level of the lake, it was almost like you were at sea trying to get back aboard the carrier.

Many times we would be flying over Lake Michigan, usually on autopilot, just monitoring the instruments and the systems. Occasionally, like all pilots do, we would look out at the water or the shoreline passing by below and comment on how big Lake Michigan is.

Every time we flew over Lake Michigan, my dad would say the same thing. "John's still down there. Someday, they will find him." And on we would fly. I did not think much about his comment until one evening as we were headed back to Kokomo, out over Lake Michigan, just cruising on autopilot, I asked who John was and why dad always said that. This is the story he told me.

My dad, Lieutenant Commander L. O. "Bo" Bolinger, was the executive officer of a Navy jet fighter squadron based at Glenview Naval Air Station, which is right on the edge of Lake Michigan and about five or six miles north of the Chicago Loop. The squadron was commanded by Commander Richard Schmutzler. The squadron had gone from flying piston-engined fighters (the F8F Bearcat) to the Banshee, a primitive jet fighter, infamous for its engine and hydraulic system failures, both of which were unpredictable.

Lt. John was a WW2 veteran and often served as my dad's wingman. John, like my dad, simply loved to fly. They both often said that they could not believe they were getting paid to fly, as they would have done it for free.

It is widely known that Carson's Restaurant in Chicago has great ribs. It was widely known that the shrimp boats around Pensacola, Florida, have caught a shrimp or two. It is also widely known that Naval aviators like ribs and shrimp. The problem was that the aviators in Chicago wanted shrimp, while the aviators in Pensacola wanted ribs. What to do?

The remedy for this problem was simple. Send somebody in one of the fighters to get the shrimp or the ribs. This had been going on for so long that a system was in place to establish whose turn it was to fly the food. After all, what could be better than a solo, cross-country flight in your very own, I-can-do-what-I-want-for-awhile, no-pesky-wingman, no-flight-leader, no-training-mission, fighter jet?

Schmutz told my dad, "Bo," that the squadron morale of the Sky Giants was in need of improvement and to inquire whether the Jolly Rogers in Pensacola might be interested in trading ribs for shrimp. Appropriate calls were made between commanding officers and it was determined that in fact a trade of ribs for shrimp was in order, as the morale in the Jolly Roger's Squadron was also in need of improvement. Once a deal was made, the system went to work.

As it was the Sky Giants turn to fly, Schmutz ordered dad to assign a pilot to make the hop to Pensacola. Dad chose John from among a number of eager volunteers. Dad then went to pay a call on the Chief Petty Officer in charge of maintenance of the jet fighters to inquire as to whether one might be available for a shrimp hop. After the Chief consulted with the other Chiefs, it was determined that there just might be a jet available to make the hop…for a price, which was ten pounds of the shrimp cargo. A deal was made, but only after the officers of the Sky Giants agreed to spring for the ribs for the Chiefs in Pensacola. As Dad used to say, no ship will sail or airplane fly without the Chiefs' approval.

John strapped in and launched for the hop to Pensacola. Now you might think that the flight was pretty simple. Take off, fly south and turn left or right went you got to the Gulf of Mexico, depending on which way the wind was blowing. Not true. This was back in the day when precision navigation was in its infancy. Aviators still plotted courses based upon forecast wind (often forecast wrong) and timing the various legs of the flight. In other words there was a lot of room for error in going from point A to point B.

To make matters worse, there were those pesky regulations. The rule was that you had to have enough fuel in your aircraft to get to your intended destination, then divert to your alternate airport, if the weather at your intended destination was bad, plus 30 minutes. It sounds reasonable. Except that the Banshee would not hold that much fuel and everybody knew it. So, the regulations said that you needed to stop to refuel at Wright-Patterson Air Farce Base. Except that all the Navy aviators were hated by the Air Farce pilots, who always found a way to delay the refueling transient, interloping Navy guys. Not good.

However, the Banshee would make the trip to Pensacola on one tank of fuel, if you forgot about the regulations, providing the wind and weather cooperated. The problem was that it would only just make it. By a hair. with ten minute's fuel remaining, providing everything went right. So, the aviator would file a flight plan for Wright-Patterson, going and coming, and then just fly straight to Pensacola and then back to Chicago, ignoring the regulations. If anything went wrong, the commander was off the hook for authorizing an illegal flight, as he could always say that he approved a proper, within-the-regulations flight plan, which the pilot chose to ignore.

John managed to find his way to Pensacola, where the Jolly Rogers Chief was waiting on the ramp with the refueling truck and a bag for the ribs, which had been stowed in the ammunition bays in the nose and wings of the Banshee. Out came the ribs and in went the shrimp. John never even got out of the plane. Refueling complete, John launched for the return hop to Chicago.

All went well until John was about 150 miles out from Glenview. It started to snow. Heavily. Unpredicted. Inbound came John.

This was in the day that there were no fancy instrument landing systems like there are now. You called the tower and asked for a ground- assisted approach. What this was is where a controller would tell you what direction to fly and when to descend so as to line you up with the runway at the right height to land. It might sound easy and the concept is simple, but it is not so easily done on dark, snowy nights when your fuel state is critical.

John reported in and was handed off to the controller, who began giving John directions for the approach. As John got closer to the end of the runway, the corrections on the heading of the airplane were as little as two or three degrees left or right. Cleared to descend to four hundred feet off the runway, John flew a textbook- perfect approach. Except it was snowing so hard that John flew the length of the runway level at four hundred feet and never saw the runway lights. Everyone heard him go over. Schmutz and Dad, growing more concerned by the minute, were in the control tower.

John declared a missed approach, which meant that he could not see to land. Going below four hundred feet, called "busting minimums." was strictly prohibited as the runway was surrounded by civilian housing. He poured on the power and pulled up, telling the controller to give him a tight approach for another try. The controller asked for John's fuel state. John responded that he had enough for another pass, but not much more.

The controller gave John as tight and quick an approach as he could do. Once again, John shot the approach perfectly, but flew down the runway unable to see it. The unpredicted snow had increased to a near blizzard as can only happen on Lake Michigan. John poured on the power and pulled up into the swirling, cold snow.

The controller asked John was his fuel state was and John replied calmly that the warning light was on and he expected to engine to flame out within a few minutes.

The controller then said, "State your intentions, Navy flight 246."

Dad said there was a momentary hesitation, then John matter-of-factly said, "Give me a vector for the lake. Tell mom I love her." And nothing more was ever heard from him.

In the days and weeks that passed, there was discussion among the aviators about John's options that night. He could have ejected, which would have put him into the lake in the winter. He would have lasted maybe twenty minutes floating in the frigid water. But in those days ejection seats were not as good as they are today. An ejection would guarantee a broken arm or leg. He could have tried to ditch the plane in the lake, get out and into the dinghy, but that was almost an impossibility. He could have just waited for the engine to quit and flown it into the lake in a glide, only to sink beneath the dark waves of the lake. Or he could have nosed it over with the engine running and bored straight in. A quick and final end.

No one knows what John did. But what we know was that John knew he had danced one too many times with Fate. His number was up through no particular fault of his own. There was not going to be a happy ending. What we also know is that John did not try to land and risk killing civilians. It takes a man with character to make such a decision. There were no medals given to John posthumously for making such a courageous and selfless decision. His death was attributed to a "training accident compounded by unexpected adverse weather conditions."

All of us will one day have our "rendezvous with death." I hope all of us will have the courage that John had that wintry, Chicago night.

Mike out.