We had a little area of our own with a ready shack. We had a
grounded bomber pilot lieutenant as our engineering officer. We had a time gelling into an outfit.
The maintenance was not very consistent or "dedicated". It was as if everybody resented being
Things kind of came to a head when one of the pilots brought a P-40 back with a "rough engine". The crew chief checked it out, could find nothing wrong and cleared it for flight. Another pilot took it up and brought it back immediately, writing in the log that the engine was "very rough". They checked it again, found nothing wrong and cleared it for flight. We said, "No." There's something wrong, we won't fly it!" And they wouldn't work on it! So it sat there. Finally Capt. Watson said he would take it up. He got about 500 feet in the air on takeoff and the engine quit. He did not do what he was suppposed to, go straight ahead and belly land it in a field. The worst thing you can do at this point is to turn around and land back at the field. Most people who try never make it. But he got away with it. It was towed back to the line. The cowling was removed and the sparkplugs. Wires were put in the cylinders and the prop turned over. There were twelve cylinders and the wire in #4 left didn't move. No piston was going up and down in the cylinder!
With this we lost complete confidence in the maintenance. I had gotten to know the assistant Base Maintenance Officer in the club. I saw him that night and described the problem. I asked him if they could transfer this engineeering officer somewhere and give the job to me. He thought he could arrange it and two days later I was Engineering Officer, OJT(On Job Training). I called the mechanics into my office and explained what was going on. I told them that I was a pilot and didn't know very much about maintenance but that I was going to learn as fast as I could. They were to keep things going as they had been and when I saw something I didn't like or understand, I would tell them. They were then to give me their opinions and then I would make up my mind and we would do it my way. I told them that I would test hop all planes in the future and that if I had to fly them I reserved the right to make the decisions. They appeared to respect that and most of our problems seemed to disappear.
High performance aircraft are made of strong but light materials. A lot of aluminum was used and a lot of brass fittings. If one is not really careful about torquing things it is rather easy to strip them out and then we have a problem. So one of my "cute" ideas was to post a board in the ready room with all the mechanics names on it. When someone did this, and it is quite easy to do and will happen occasionally, I would put one of those third grade gold stars on the board. They knew this was a good natured reminder to be careful. One day I stripped one! When I went back into the ready room, there was my name on the board with a gold star! I was really pleased that they felt comfortable doing it. I just laughed of course.
I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. The crew chiefs got me a set of coveralls with the legs and arms cut down to my size. I would go out when they were working on an engine and climb up on the rack on the other side. Then I would do whatever they were doing on their side of the engine on my side. One day one of the mechanics from another outfit down the line came over to the plane we were working on. He started griping about the officers in his outfit to my mechanic. I was in coveralls. I had my officer's cap on but it was pushed back so it wasn't very visible. After he had gone on for awhile, my mechanic with a bit of a smile said to him," Oh by the way, this is Captain Dills." The visitor looked a bit struck as though he was going to be in trouble. I laughed and told him not to worry, that he hadn't known who I was.
We sent another P-40 down to the hangar for an engine change
because metal particles had been found in the oil filter. I had taken a sample of the oil, added
gas and filtered out some metal particles. I had had a course in Qualitative Chemical Analysis
just before going into the Air Corps in 1942. I went up to the hospital and borrowed a few
chemicals, trying to find out what the particles were. I didn't have the right ones to do a proper
analysis. But I was able to show that chloride ion produced no precipitate which meant there was
no silver. This meant that the silver coated bearings were not failing. When I made a portion of
the solution alkaline it threw down a white gelatinous precipitate. Aha, that showed the particles
were probably aluminum. The only aluminum system in contact with oil was the oil cooler. The oil
cooler was filled with aluminum tubes (inside the cooler) that the air went through in flight. The
hot oil would trickle down over the outside of these tubes and get cooled. I looked in the tech
orders and found statement that when an engine was changed for metal particles, the oil cooler had
to be changed as well. They claimed that the cooler could not be successfully flushed but had to
be disassembled, cleaned and reassembled. This was on top of the evidence I had that the metal
particles were aluminum. It was very likely that the metal particles were coming from the oil
cooler, flaking off inside and not from the engine at all. But we had to change the engine anyway.
When there is only one engine, you don't take any chances or cut any corners.
I had a new cooler with brass tubes. So I sent the plane down to the hangar for engine change. I sent the new brass cooler along. They had to take the old cooler off to change the engine. They could just replace the aluminum cooler with the brand new brass one
I hung around the hangar occasionally while they changed the engine. I had sent a brand new brass oil cooler down with the plane but they re-installed the old aluminum cooler. The man in charge of engine change at the hangar was a Warrant Officer. I went in and asked him to change the cooler to the brass one. He said the aluminum one was OK, that they had flushed it out. I told him that Wright-Patterson had put in the tech orders that they couldn't be flushed, that particles would remain and they had to be disassembled and rebuilt. I also told him that I had reason to believe the metal particles came from the cooler and they would be getting the plane right back for another engine change if they left that cooler in it. He obviously resented my "interference" and told me that when it was in the hanger it was his plane and that after I got it back I could do what I wanted. In the meantime he was going to do it his way. I told him that if he as much as turned over the propellor, the plane would never fly because I would not test hop it. And if I didn't test hop it no one of the others would fly it. And I left!
I kept keeping an eye on things. And, sure enough, they rolled it out on the line preparing to start the engine. To give him his due, the Warrant Officer himself climbed into the cockpit. I was boiling mad by this time. I walked out in front of the plane on the left side. The Warrant Officer had his head of the cockpit and I spoke to him. "This is a direct order! Do not turn over the propellor. I will get the Base Engineering Officer, Major Etheridge and let him decide." The idea of a direct order is abused and trivialized in the movies. They are really very rare and have great force. Violating a direct order carries the potential of a heavy penalty. I went and found Major Etheridge and brought him out to the plane. I explained to him my view of the problem and asked that he transfer the plane immediately to me to have my crew chiefs change the cooler and finish the job. He said nothing while I was talking. When I finished, he turned to the Warrant Officer and quietly and firmly said, "Change the cooler." I left. Several days later we got the plane back with the brass cooler.
But frankly, I didn't trust them so I asked the crew chiefs to give it a shakedown inspection, as they would a new plane! Our name was mud down there after this and we had to shakedown inspect any plane that came back from the hangar. We had two incidents afterward. A P-40 came back from the hangar once and the upper cowling with the airscoop was supposed to be fastened to the top of the carburetor. It wasn't. Another time a plane came back with a wrench lying between the cylinders.
Yes, we did have a few problems. I had one goof-off that could
lie on the concrete with his hands locked up in the tail wheel well and go to sleep!
I was 23 at that time and a Captain. I had a 42 year old pfc (private, first class) from the mountains in Tennessee. He had been made a mechanic but he didn't like airplanes or being a mechanic. He did the work but rather grudgingly. We had eight airplanes so each one had its own mechanic. We had a tech sergeant line chief. That left three as floating mechanics to work where they were needed for the harder jobs. We had a somewhat worn gas powered compressor that was hard to start. This 42 year old mountain man was the only one that could start it easily. I noticed that he would sit on a bench and watch as someone fiddled with it and when they were disgusted and ready to quit trying he would get up, amble over, make a few adjustments and start it! I got him in my office one day and told him I knew he didn't like working on the airplanes and that I noticed he could start the compressor when the others couldn't. Then I showed him the inpection reports I had been getting. And we were always getting dinged for dirty carburetor bowls in the auxilliary equipment and having grease too close the oxygen, etc. I put him in charge of the auxilliary equipment and told him to keep the inspectors off my back and that he wouldn't have to work on airplanes unless we really needed him. From then on, he was happy as a clam, even planting flowers around the ready shack.
The army runs on reports and statistics so when we had one plane down, that meant that 12% of our planes were on the "deadline". That's very high for outfits with many planes. But we were afraid the statisticians wouldn't bother to notice that we only had 8 planes so we got them back in the air as soon as possible. Parts were a real problem though. Since we had fighters on a bomber base in a bomber command they had no parts for us. But military requirements were that I had to request them through the local supply channels. This just couldn't work as they never had them. I needed an alternate method. I finally found Sergeant Beck in supply that understood my problem. So when I needed something, I called him. He would call around, find the part and have it sent to their loading dock in my name. I would then fly over in my P-40 and pick it up! This was a godsend. It solved our problems.
He found out that a local P-40 base was getting rid of the planes so he arranged for me to go over and take what I wanted from their supply. I should have gone in a truck but I went in my P-40. I got a couple tires a bunch of large flexible tubing and a bunch of other stuff. I piled them in the radio compartment access door. I tied a tail wheel tire to the headrest in back of my head. I held a box with a fuel tank guage against the side of the cockpit with my right knee and flew back home. I made a smooth very gentle landing. I was afraid something might shift and bind up one of the controls. It was dumb but I was invincible as are all people under thirty!
I was trying to think of a way to make our P-40's special. We were
almost embarrassed to be still flying P-40's in 1945. I went to find the guy in charge of the
"wash rack". I asked him if he could take the OD camouflage paint off. He said that it was no
problem so I sent mine over. It came back a couple days later and it was beautiful, bright silver
with bright red spinner and wingtips! I think it might have been the only silver P-40 on active
duty with the Army Air Force.
About this time I got permission to fly to Seattle to visit friends. This was an authorized navigational exercise. The first leg was to a field at Wink TX. It went smoothly. I gassed up and took off for Williams AZ.
And here's where the navigation training kicked in. It's a little difficult figuring out where you are in a trackless desert. It was beautiful in its own forbidding way. We used to kid about calling a railroad an iron compass! There was an east/west railroad and a north/south railroad that crossed at Williams. One of our navigational tricks at a time like this is to purposely fly off course a little so that when you found the railroad you would know which way to go. I couldn't make a mistake here with two railroads intersecting at my destination. I flew to the left side of the course to find the north/south one, turned right and found Williams and the field. You can see the crossed railroads just to the west of Flagstaff. It was nice to see the meteor crater from the air!
The next morning I went down to Operations to file a flight plan
to Mojave CA. They wouldn't let me go. They said there were clouds over the Tehachapi Pass. I
said, "So what?" I had an instrument license and the needed instruments. They had no right to deny
me the flight plan and they finally agreed. It made me wonder what kind of fighter pilots they
were training in the 4th Air Force.
That afternoon I flew to Mojave CA. It was uneventful till I got ready to land. I was coming in on the approach and there was a strange plane ahead of me on the approach. It was a Bell Aircomet, the first jet! It was generally known only as a rumor. They used to truck it around with a propellor attached and under canvas so people wouldn't know. I was paying so much attention to that plane that I almost came down short of the runway. I gave it some throttle and got onto the field. I stayed in the visiting BOQ (Bachelor Officer's Quarters) overnight.
The next morning I was waiting at the end of the runway for takeoff clearance when a voice came over the radio asking for an emergency landing because he was "siphoning kerosene". Not much doubt about whether or not it had a propellor.
As I remember there were 4 Air Forces in the continental US. The First was in New England, the second in the upper Midwest, the third was in the southeast and the fourth was on the Pacific coast. I mention this because it will come up later.
So I took off for what I remember as Hammer Field in Sacramento. And again I ran into a problem. There were clouds over the mountains in northern California (Lassen and Shasta area) and they were adamant. I finally walked away from the counter in frustration and disgust. Then a man from behind the counter came out and found me and whispered to me that I should go up to the P-38 base at Chico, the operations officer up there wouldn't care and would clear me out to Portland! So I did and he did!
There were a lot of clouds but it was no problem. I remember it cleared briefly around Medford and I was impressed. It looked like a very pretty town in a large mountain bowl. It even occurred to me that it would be a good place to live sometime, after the war! I really don't remember Portland but I filed a flight plan to Tacoma. Tacoma was about thirty miles south of Seattle and had military gas and Boeing Field didn't. I approached McCord Field in Tacoma and went into a circular pattern to the left. I called in for landing instructions and requested a 360 overhead approach. They agreed and gave me the runway number. And there it was, right off my left wingtip. So instead of making another turn around the field I heeled up into a hard left turn, went in and landed. While my plane was being gassed I went in to fill out a plan to Boeing Field. As I was filling it out, the operations officer got a phone call. He visibly stiffened up and said something like the following. "Yes sir. Yes Sir, he's right here sir. Yes sir. Right away sir!" and then he hung up, turned to me and said the Col. somebody wanted to see me up at headquarters. So I took off my flight suit and they took me to headquarters. I went into the Colonel's office, saluted and sat down after being invited. Then he started off with a patronizing lecture about how appreciative everybody was but that I was back in the States now. I finally asked what was wrong, what did I do? And he said, "That was a very steep turn you made coming in to land!" I said, "But it's a fighter plane, that's the way you fly them!" He asked where I was from and I told him Alexandria LA, the third AF. He said, "That's a good thing. If you were from the Fourth AF you'd be in trouble." I said nothing further, saluted, left and flew to Boeing. It made me wonder again what kind of fighter pilots they were training in the 4th AF.
I landed at Boeing and parked. A couple of guys came out of one
of the buildings to come over and look at a silver P-40. We talked a bit and then I went on my
way. Many years later, in the late 90's I was in a WWII Veterans luncheon group that met about
three or four times a year. We had a speaker telling about his experiences in WWII and he
mentioned being at Boeing Field. After his talk I went up and asked him if he had been there in
the summer of 1945. He said yes. I asked him if he remembered a silver P-40 landing there. His
face brightened and he said, "Yes, I went out and talked to the pilot!" He was as shocked as I was
when I told him it was me!
I spent most of that night talking with my friends in Seattle. And the next day I was taken around Seattle and to the hospital where her father was business manager. He had them give me a shot of 25000 units of Vitamin 'something' to help me continue to function. We went out to eat with her and her mother and father. Then Patty and I went to the Showbox Theater where Patty played saxophone in a girl's band! (wartime, you know!) I enjoyed the show. One of the performers was Sally Rand, doing her famous Fan Dance!
I got up early the next morning and went out to take off on my way back. I took off about 8:00 with a very low ceiling. I was heading south, skirting the bottom of the clouds. All of a sudden, at 700', there was a stone cathedral right in front of me. A hallucination, no doubt! It was so vivid and so real that I pulled up into the clouds. Wow, I had no choice but to climb. I broke out on top, wondering how I was going to get down. I was acutely aware that Mount Ranier and a number of its friends were in the vicinity. So I continued south toward Portland. And, lo and behold, there was a huge hole in the clouds right above the Columbia River. I went down and followed the river to the ocean and then followed the coastline back to Boeing Field. I went back to the house and fell asleep on the sofa. A couple hours later, they woke me saying that the clouds had opened up and that if I didn't go then I would probably be stuck for a week. So I left.
I don't remember much about the return trip as nothing untoward happened. The only unusual thing was a temperature inversion I encountered over eastern Texas as I was letting down from altitude. There were lots of clouds around but I was able to stay clear of them. Suddenly it got really hot and I briefly wondered if I was on fire! Then I realized it was a drastic temperature inversion.
Many times when I landed people would come out and ask what kind of plane it was. They had never seen a silver one and wondered what it was.
I think I visited them again on leave. It is amazing how little I remember of it. I was stuck in Dallas over night, waiting for an early morning flight. I went into the bar. While sitting on a stool I noticed a man two bar stools away. We both felt we had met before but couldn't remember where. Since we had nothing better to do we decided to try to figure out where. We went in to dinner. After about an hour and a half we finally figured out that we had met in a record store in Jackson MS a year and a half before and talked for probably an hour!
We were the fair-haired boys and we could do no wrong. We did a lot of dumb things. One day we took off in four ship formation! We would stage dogfights at 3000 feet over the middle of the field, never a peep from anyone.
I think every bomber plot on the base wanted to be a fighter
pilot so they would never complain, whatever we did. As a matter of fact they egged us on. While
we were making passes on the bombers we couldn't keep track of where we were. The navigator on the
target plane would arrange their path so that we would be near the field at the end of the
session. One time I was getting short of gas. They brought me to the field. I was a little higher
than they were so I called the pilot and asked him if he had ever seen a plane going straight
down. He said he hadn't so I told him to watch. I heeled over and went by them going straight
down. I got going pretty fast and when I pulled out I apparently strained one of the gas tanks so
that it leaked! The P-40 underwent a number of changes from model to model. The heaviest one was
the F model and then they started to slim it down. The K was probably the best compromise of all.
But they continued to try to reduce weight and the N was the ultimate attempt to make it light. I
think they gave up a bit of strength but it was all right. I liked the airplane although I don't
think it would have been good in combat.
Yes, yes, I was young and stupid. Looking back from the vantage point of considerable age, I can admit it.