“I Wasn’t Controlling the Aircraft. The Storm Was.”

Tossing and turning, 8,000 feet over the Pacific, in 1945.

The author (in sunglasses), and with navigator Rex Whitney (inset, left) and gunner Hugh Dunwoodie (center). The A-26/B-26 went on to fly in three wars.

As a 21-year-old U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet in 1943, I was part of the testing of an accelerated bomber-pilot training program. At Brooks Field in San Antonio, Texas, we got our first up-close look at the airplane we would be flying—the Mitchell B-25. All of us were surprised by how easy the big airplane was to fly compared to the airplanes we had been flying, like the twin-engine Cessna AT-17.

During the next 10 weeks, I logged 80 hours in the B-25 and qualified as an Army Air Forces pilot with the rank of second lieutenant.

The brass decided I should fly the Martin medium bomber, the B-26 Marauder, which was bigger and faster than the B-25. After I logged 100 hours, I picked up a B-26 crew and started training them for combat.

Then, thanks to the war in the Pacific, I got a call to pick up a new crew for the Douglas A-26 Invader (“A” for attack), the last word in the Air Forces’ line of twin-engine bombers. Military strategists thought that ending the war might require an invasion of the Japanese mainland, and the A-26, with six to 14 forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns, could be used to attack the invasion sites so the Marines could land with fewer casualties.

The A-26 was lighter and faster and had more firepower than either the B-25 or -26. My crew consisted of the pilot, a navigator/bombardier, and one gunner. The A-26, like fighters, had only one set of flight controls—none for an instructor. The instructor gave the student an introduction to the A-26 ride, and from then on he would merely sit alongside the student. We did a lot of instrument flight training, as we did in the B-25 and -26. In three months I had logged about 100 hours of pilot time in the A-26 and was comfortable in it, especially if my navigator, Rex Whitney, was in the seat to my right. I never had to worry about where we were. He always knew.

On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered. Within the week we got the news that we would be heading for Japan as part of the occupation forces.

The A-26 lacked the range to cross the Pacific nonstop. We would island-hop from Hawaii to Christmas Island, Canton, Tarawa, Enewetak, Guam, the Philippines, and then on to Japan. For the 1,350-mile trip to Christmas Island, our 12 airplanes cruised in a loose formation at 8,000 feet in sunny weather, seeing nothing but blue water and an occasional ship.

During the next two days, we flew to Canton and then to Tarawa. On the morning of August 29, we were warming up near the end of the runway on Tarawa in preparation for our flight to Enewetak. I told the squadron leader I had no oil pressure in my left engine. “Don’t move until the mechanical people find the problem,” he said. “When you get the oil pressure problem fixed, take off and join us at Enewetak.”

My navigator, gunner, and I studied the weather reports, which showed a tropical storm directly on our course. The squadron leader chose to avoid the weather by taking the other 11 airplanes on a course 200 miles to the east of the storm. My crew and I thought that we could save time by flying through it.

The mechanics spent a couple of hours getting an air bubble out of the oil pressure line. Navigator Whitney gave me a northwesterly heading to Enewetak—right through the middle of the storm. We took off at 11 a.m., climbed to 8,000 feet, trimmed the airplane to fly hands-off, and sat back to enjoy the flight.

At noon, I noticed tall cumulus clouds dead ahead. In short order we were in mild turbulence. Then the airplane was being tossed about like a leaf in a whirlwind. We were in dark clouds with no view of anything outside the cockpit, not even a horizon. Heavy rain pelted the airplane, lightning flashed continually, and the thunderclaps were deafening. Suddenly we were in a steep left bank followed by a dive. During my feeble attempt at keeping the airplane level, I noticed the rate-of-climb gauge said I was climbing at 4,000 feet per minute. The airplane was in a violent updraft. The altimeter read 17,000 feet, an altitude where oxygen starvation was a possibility. During flight training, I had experienced anoxia in a vacuum chamber—and at the equivalent of a much lower altitude. I had passed out, and came to with the help of an oxygen mask.

I lowered the nose and increased the throttle until I was doing 300 mph, hoping to stop or at least reduce the rate of climb. But I was still climbing at 2,000 feet per minute. I was not in control of the aircraft. The storm was.

Just as suddenly as we had been snatched by the updraft, we hit a downdraft and began losing altitude, more than 4,000 feet per minute. I wrestled the airplane to a nose-up attitude to counteract the rapid loss in altitude, all the while fighting turbulence. I feared that if the downdraft continued, we might end up in the ocean.

A short time later the rapid descent stopped, leaving us 2,000 feet above the Pacific. In less than 30 seconds we hit another updraft. Wash, rinse, repeat: lightning, thunder, rain, turbulence.

Then vertigo struck. The flight instruments indicated I was flying straight and level—as straight and level as could be expected under the circumstances—but my senses told me I was diving, climbing, in steep turns—even upside down. I had to fight off those signals and fly by the dictates of the flight instruments.

In all my flying, this was the most difficult thing I had ever been called on to do. I remembered how hard my instrument-flight instructors had been on me. “Fly the instruments—not your head!” My B-25 instrument-flight instructor kept telling me, “Relax, you’re too tense, you’re squeezing the life out of the throttles and the control column. You need sensitivity on the controls, especially when you’re flying on instruments, and when you’re tense, you lose it.” Once, when I got into a precarious situation, he hit the back of my throttle-squeezing hand really hard with his microphone. “I said RELAX!”

Whitney was sitting to my right. We didn’t exchange any words. I thought it best not to tell him I was battling vertigo. I was too busy just trying to keep us right side up. The gunner, Hugh Dunwoodie, was in his compartment behind the bomb bay, just in front of the tail section. I knew how rough our ride up front was: I can’t imagine what it was like for him back there.

The second updraft was more violent. My efforts to slow the rate of ascent had minimal effect. Once again, when we hit 17,000 feet, we leveled out. At that altitude, the turbulence wasn’t as bad, nor was the lightning and rain. I still feared anoxia, but there was nothing I could do about that.

It became increasingly clear that my efforts to fight the storm were useless. I gave up battling the up- and downdrafts and concentrated on keeping the airplane level, heading in approximately the direction of Enewetak. But the vertigo continued. Imagine hanging by your feet from a tree branch 10 feet off the ground, with someone standing in front of you telling you, “No, you’re not upside down, just ignore those sensations and go about your business.”

The downdraft continued sucking us down at 3,000 feet per minute. This time we leveled out at 5,000 feet. Then we hit a third updraft. I had a feeling the storm was becoming less intense. The airplane was becoming just a little bit easier to control.

Suddenly, at 8,000 feet, we were in sunshine. Upon seeing the blue sky, the water, and the horizon, my vertigo vanished. It was 1:30. Whitney got out his sextant, took a reading on the sun, did some calculations, and gave me a heading to Enewetak.

For two hours and 30 minutes, we flew that heading under perfect weather conditions. We saw no airplanes, no ships, no islands—just the beautiful blue Pacific.

I called Enewetak for landing instructions. The controller said that the other 11 airplanes of my squadron had landed earlier. They left Tarawa two hours before we did, and landed in Enewetak only 30 minutes before us. Our flight through the storm saved us 90 minutes. Now, at age 92, I’ve forgiven that 21-year-old for making such a dumb decision.

We taxied to where the other A-26s were parked. Everyone was in the airport lounge having a drink, celebrating their safe flight.

Whitney and I climbed down and stood alongside the A-26. Then Whitney took my right hand in his, gave a long, hard squeeze, and said, “Thanks.”

Dunwoodie opened the lower hatch below the gunners’ compartment, let himself down, and gave me a bear hug.

We went into the airport lounge to meet the rest of the squadron. They didn’t inquire about our flight—they assumed it was a ho-hum affair like theirs—so we left it right there and had a beer.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.