Chapter 26: Ride in a Fighter. Repairing My Plane. Landing Techniques. 460 MPH Beat-Up
Sept 21,1943: Rocco Bernardo, Italy. We started work early today, trying to get some of the airplanes back on "flight status"
I helped the crew chief of Plane No.81, and others were also helping out wherever they could.
My airplane has not returned yet, and I was told that the pilot had to make a forced landing on the 7th South African Airdrome.
Lt. Benedict flew me in Plane No. 80 to that airdrome so I could assess the problem
with a view to repairing it. Remember now, these P-40s are single seater fighter planes, so how could this be done ? Very simply, I sat in his lap, actually sitting on his right leg,
and facing left. Had he been smaller than me, he would have sat on my lap the same way.
Since there was not enough room for both of us and his parachute, he had to leave it behind. In my seated position, the right side of the cockpit was therefore not reachable by Lt. Benedict, requiring me to act as his co-pilot, and operate the landing gear, flaps, and aileron trim tabs. These chores I performed at his command.
We made a safe landing at the South African Airfield, in the manner taught us by the RAF, that is to "touch down" at high speed landing just on the front wheels, and then reducing speed until the rear wheel made contact with the ground. This is the manner in which British Pilots landed planes, rather that using the "3-point landing" procedure.
Americans reduced speed to just over stalling ,and then "dropped" the plane to the ground so that all three wheels made contact simultaneously. I can tell you from our experience while operating in the USA, that this procedure led to many, many crashes.
I checked my plane over, and it appeared that the coolant pump was leaking, which caused the engine to overheat. We put the cowling back on again, and we flew back to our airfield safely, during which time I was amazed at the manner in which Lt. Benedict flew the plane and kept a close look-out for enemy planes by constantly turning his head in all directions. I found myself doing it also !
He and two other pilots were transferred to us when we first arrived at Alexandria, Egypt, an act for which our pilots were eternally grateful. You see, the RAF had plenty of experience and our pilots were happy
to adjust to their modus operandi. There is no doubt that the 57th Group's success
against the Luftwaffe was due in large measure to those teachings Another tactic they taught us was for one plane to fly behind the other in a two plane formation. That way the plane behind can protect the plane in front. This was a departure from the time-worn American method of a flight flying in "echelon" (staggered upward and slightly behind).
Sept 20,1943: This morning, Sgt. Carl Volter (leader of "A" Flight ), Lt. Henson, and I with my toolbox, got into a jeep and went to the South African Airfield. Since I knew the problem was with the Coolant pump, I packed it with graphite grease, and put 5 gallons of Prestone coolant in the header tank and ran the engine up for 15 minutes at full throttle. Since "full throttle" resulted in the plane assuming flying attitude, it would have overturned had I not tied two 250 Lb. Bombs to the tail wheel!
The engine would not overheat, and the coolant pump was not leaking so I asked Lt. Henson to fly me back. He said OK, threw the parachute to Carl Volter, and I got in with him on my lap. After take off, Lt. Henson "buzzed" the field. That is, he climbed to a few thousand feet, then dived down so that he flew close to the ground from one end of the field to the pulling straight up in an abrupt climb. As we flew over Carl Volter standing at the end of the runway, I saw him throw himself to the ground. Just before we leveled off at the beginning of the runway I looked at the airspeed indicator, and it read 460 miles per
In order to see anything I had to look a mile ahead, because things were going by so fast it was all a blur. As I turned and looked behind me, there was a cloud of dust rising in our wake. Believe me, It was the thrill of a lifetime !
We returned to our airfield safely, after overshooting the field, and when Sgt. Volter returned by jeep he said that when we were "dragging" the field he had to lay down or he would have been hit by the propeller blades. He said the dust cloud behind us was the result of the tips of our propeller blades turning about 5 feet from the ground. I then realized why we were flying so low. You see, Lt. Henson was sitting in my lap, and the difference in his usual cockpit position apparently affected his perception of where the ground was!
I then realized that was the reason we had overshot the field upon our return. I guess it is a little "chancy" when you try to fit two people into a cockpit built for only one.!
My regular pilot, Lt. Shaw wanted to do some work on the plane, so I let him change a cracked exhaust stack, and he rewarded me with a pilots hat, because I had lost mine during the flight.
We are still not allowed to say we are in Italy in our letters home!
So ends part 26 of My Wartime Memoirs.