Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Another Mostly True Flying Story (for Randy and Chuck)

My dad flew in the Naval Reserve on weekends out of Glenview Naval Air Station, which is on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago, about 20 miles from the Loop. At the time Dad, call sign “Bo,” was the executive officer of squadron VF 727, the Sky Giants, which was assigned to fly the F8F Bearcat. The squadron CO was Eugene Smith, call sign “Smudge.” (Name changed to protect the curious.)

For those readers unfamiliar with naval aircraft, let me simply say that the Grumman Bearcat was and is the fastest, most powerful piston engine fighter ever built. It’s the Ugly Duckling of aircraft with its short and stubby frame and with a wide landing gear. Frankly, it will never be mistaken for a P51 Mustang or a Spitfire IX. However, it makes up for its homeliness with a 3200 hp motor. Even when flown by an amateur, the Bearcat can eat a Mustang or Spitfire flown by a pro. The Bearcat will outturn, out climb and outrun either of those famous dogfighters. The Bearcat is an animal of an airplane, yet it’s very basic and easy to fly. Also, it forgives a lot of pilot error.

The Bearcat has only one treacherous quality. It produces so much torque from the engine and the huge propeller that it you take off with full throttle, the plane would snap roll as soon as it got off the ground. This killed a few pilots at first.

It had that much power. Consequently, you never took off with full power and all climb outs mandated a healthy boot full of left rudder. Ignoring that rule could cost you your life. Naval aviators figured out early that if you were at altitude cruising, feeding in a healthy amount of throttle without the use of left rudder would result in a very nice, lazy slow roll. Hence, the plane developed a reputation for being able to do a “torque roll” any time the fighter jock requested it. As you will soon see, if you read on, this trait was not left unexplored by our intrepid naval aviators.

Since it was Dad’s weekend to fly, he called the operations officer after work on Friday to make sure he was on the schedule for a “hop.” The ops officer said that Smudge had already checked in and scheduled a flight for him and Dad, but he did not know the destination. Dad asked the ops officer to put Smudge on the line. After a slight hesitation, the ops officer advised Dad that the CO was “off base.” Under the regulations, the squadron CO has to leave word with the ops officer where he will be. He also has to supply a means to contact him at all times he is in command and on duty.

Knowing Smudge’s history, Dad asked for the phone number of the motel or bar Smudge would be patronizing. Then he called and got connected to the target motel room, Dad discovered that Smudge was drinking and entertaining a lady friend; and tomorrow’s hop would be “Wheels up at 0630” for Cherry Point, South Carolina, where, upon arrival, the real Naval aviators would show those pesky, impertinent Marine pilots how real fighter pilots can fly. Dad anticipated that Smudge had something interesting in mind for the next day’s hop.

Dad walked out onto the flight line at 0600 Saturday morning and began to preflight his Bearcat. When he finished, he signed the sheet saying that he accepted the condition of the aircraft as being airworthy. Since Smudge had not yet appeared, Dad began to preflight Smudge’s plane. At about 0620 Smudge appeared, walking with a definite “list to port.” Dad advised he had finished the second preflight and Smudge signed off and started to climb aboard the aircraft. He slipped and fell. Dad helped him up and inquired whether Smudge was drunk.

“No I am not drunk but I was last night and now I am just hung over and I can fly better drunk than you can sober and help me get into the cockpit so I can breathe some oxygen so I can sober up.”

Dad began helping him get up on the wing and said, “Are you sure you want to make this hop? You don’t look too good, Smudge.”

“Bo, you are not half the pilot I am when you are sober, and I can fly better than you even when I am drunk.”

Dad said, “Well, you sure have had a lot of practice flying drunk, so that may be.”

Somehow they managed a good formation takeoff, took up a proper heading to Cherry Point and leveled off at their assigned cruise altitude. Dad took up his wingman position about ten feet off of and slightly behind the starboard wing of Smudge’s Bearcat. Whereupon, Smudge performed a perfect torque roll to the left which Dad followed in position. Then Smudge did another slow roll which Dad mimicked in formation. And another. And another. And another… all the way to Cherry Point. They never stopped rolling the entire hop and did one last roll at low altitude on final approach to land.

They refueled and headed to the Officers’ Club. Smudge closed it down, as usual. They spent the night and flew back to Glenview the next morning. This time the hop was straight and level.

With this story in mind, fast forward about forty years. Dad wanted to get his beloved Cessna 310Q repainted. As anyone familiar with private airplanes knows, the place to get anything done to your personal bird is Mena, Arkansas. Mena is smaller than Kokomo and has a smaller airport. Yet, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Mena’s airport has attracted the finest aircraft repair specialists in the country.

Want your engine rebuilt or replaced? Go to Mena. Want a custom interior? Mena. Want a repaint? Again, Mena. Want bigger motors or new radio gear? Mena. Want your plane modified, legal or not? Mena is Mecca for airplane hot rodders.

Dad decided that we would fly there and back on Saturday. I was detailed to fly a Piper Lance and would leave an hour and a half before Dad, since the Cessna was much faster than the Lance. I had not flown the Lance before. If I had, I might have refused the hop. It took me about ten minutes to develop a deep and intense hatred for that plane. First, it was slow. 150 knots. Second, it was loud. I mean deafeningly loud. Awful! Third, it flew like a log wagon in the snow. It wouldn’t roll worth spit. It turned, kind of, but only if you worked at it. It was designed to be a stable cross-country machine for someone who had no flying talent, who was going to take off, climb to cruise altitude and turn on the autopilot. Boring! That plane was a pig!

But, off I went. The weather was good and the trip uneventful until I lined up on final approach for the landing.

Me: “Mena Unicom, there seems to be a dog lying on the runway.”

Unicom: “Roger. That’s Ol’ Red. He’ll move by the time you set down.”

Sure enough, I touched down and Ol’ Red slowly got up, ambled off the runway and flopped back down in the dirt at the side. Definitely my kind of place. As Dad had passed me 30 minutes earlier, I taxied over to the gas pumps to refuel, while Dad took care of last minute painting instructions.

As the line guy was pumping the gas, I noticed a Grumman Goose over by the engine builder’s shop. (A Goose is an old, high winged, twin engine airplane designed to take off and land on land or water carrying a large cargo. It is an unusual, rare and seldom seen antique airplane.)

Me: “What is being done to the Goose?”

Line Guy: “Two new engines three sizes bigger and an internal 200 gallon fuel tank and a GPS navigation system.”

Me: “Unusual modifications. What is it going to be used for?”

Line Guy: “Well, think about it. It’s going to fly long distances without refueling, over the water, with a large load where there is no land radio stations to use for navigation. You figure it out.”

Me: “I got it.” It is a long flight from Columbia to Florida.

Like I said, you can get anything you want done to your airplane, legal or not, for any purpose, legal or not, in Mena, providing your checkbook can handle it. I suspect the Goose’s owner paid in cash, if you catch my meaning.

Dad and I loaded up and headed back to Kokomo.

After take-off and reaching a cruise altitude of 9500 feet, Dad said he needed a nap. He crawled out of the front right seat into the back seat, folded the rear seatback down and stretched out. He promptly began to snore. (By the way, I regard his statement and action the greatest complement on my flying ability I have ever received. He trusted me.) On I went in that obnoxiously loud, pitifully slow excuse for an airplane.

I was starting to get a headache from the engine noise when I saw the Mississippi River in the distance. I decided to go “play in the weeds.” (All pilots love to go low and fast. It is just so very dangerous, but I did not care.) I throttled back and dropped like a rock out of the cruise altitude until I crossed the river bank about 200 feet off the river. I threw the plane into a hard left turn and flew up the river at 150 knots.

Alone in the pilot’s seat, suddenly I was not flying a Lance anymore. I was now Mike Mitty and was piloting a Grumman A-4 Skyhawk with the guns armed. The Mississippi vanished and in its place I surveyed the Mekong Delta. Aha! Up ahead was the target! A enemy sampan cleverly disguised as a Mississippi tugboat pushing about 20 coal barges up river. Just as I was about to strafe the tug, I veered sharply right and flew along side. The tug boat captain had to have heard me, as he turned and waved. I waggled my wings, waved back and pulled off the target in a climbing right turn headed back to cruise altitude.

Dad woke up as I was climbing. He slid back into the right seat. “Where are we?” he asked. I pointed on the map to a little town in Illinois.

“Are you sure that is where we are?”

I affirmed.

“Land there.”

I told Dad we had plenty of fuel to get home and asked why we were stopping. “Because my old wingman runs an air charter business out of that town’s airport. Let’s see if he is working today.” So I landed.

As I rolled up to the fueling station (Golden Flying Rule Number Two: never pass up an opportunity to fill the tanks, because you never know when you might need the extra gas.), Dad got out as a Dad-clone walked out of a nearby hanger. Same height, same weight, former jock, no glasses, and you could tell he had a self-confidant I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude.

Dad yelled, “Slick, is that you?” The man looked toward Dad without recognition for a split second.

“Bo Bolinger, it’s been years! How have you been?” There was much handshaking, backslapping, mild cussing (on Slick’s part, only) and copious reminiscences for ten minutes or so. Slick said his small company was flying printing plates all over the Midwest for a company which printed Time and Life magazines, as well as the Sears catalog. Most of the flights were at night and almost every night.

Dad asked, “I heard Smudge was working for you. True?” Slick was startled at the question. He glanced down and then back up.

“Smudge isn’t with us any more, Bo. He got killed a couple of weeks ago.”

“I didn’t know that,” Dad said. “What happened?”

“I don’t care what the FAA says. Smudge wasn’t drunk when he went down. Well, they did find a pint of Jim Bean between his knees, but that doesn’t mean he was drunk. I mean I know the seal was broken on the bottle and he could have taken a few sips, but that doesn’t mean he was drunk, does it?”

“No, I guess not,” said Dad. And then the inevitable aviation tradition began: the post mortem of Smudge’s death and the minute examination of the mistakes that led up to it.

Slick turned and pointed to a distant hill that had an aerial on top of it. “See that hill with the aerial? We do not have a regular instrument approach here. So we home in on a radio station in a town about twenty miles away. When you fly over the radio station's antenna, you take up a heading of 290 and fly for 4 minutes on that heading. If the wind is not strong, you pass right over the blinking red light on the aerial on that hill over there. When you pass over the red light you turn on final to 270 and hold it for 2 minutes. It will bring you right to the end of the runway. Then land.”

“I’ll bet the FAA loves that. Your own secret ILS approach.”

“They don’t know anything about it. It’s none of their business,” said Slick.

“Did he make the approach? Bad weather? Equipment problems?” Dad asked.

“No one is sure. The airplane flew the approach like normal. The weather was good. It belly-landed in a field about a mile off the end of the runway. The throttle was back and the flaps were half down. He was set up to drop the gear and land. But he didn’t. He landed pretty as you please in the field, wheels up in a perfectly trimmed airplane. He would have walked away, too, if it hadn’t been for that damn ditch. He was almost stopped when the nose of the plane hit the ditch. It flipped the plane upside down and broke Smudge’s neck. I think he had a heart attack. No way he was drunk.”

“That’s too bad,” said Dad. “Smudge was a great pilot. One of the best I ever flew with.”

“Bo, there is something I have always wanted to ask you.” said Slick.

“Sure, Slick, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, I was talking with some of our old Navy buddies at Smudge’s funeral and I told them that two guys made a hop in Bearcats to Cherry Point doing torque rolls all the way. None of them believed me. I told them I knew Smudge was one of the guys. Do you know who the other pilot was?”

“Sure,” my dad smiled. “It was me.”

“Then the story is true,” smirked Slick. “That’s good to know. A legend.”

“I don’t know if it is a legend, or not, but we did it. It was quite a hop.”

Dad and I loaded up. We took off and flew back uneventfully to Kokomo.

Mike out.

P.S. Golden Flying Rule Number One (which Smudge broke) is: the ground never loses.

P.S.S. I often wonder where our country gets guys like Slick, Smudge and Bo. They saved the world once. Most of us have forgotten that. I am not sure such men exist anymore. I would like to think they do.


  1. The greatest generation, that is so true. Great tribute to those men, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

  2. Love this remembrance Michael, thanks for sharing! XXOO Kristine