Flights & Fancy: The Light Brigade

Flights & Fancy: The Light Brigade

In the fading evening light of March 15, 1938, my mother, father, and I were sitting in the living room, listening to the radio. Suddenly, the program was interrupted by a dramatic message—and an urgent appeal. Eighteen Army Air Corps airplanes, flying from Selfridge Field in Michigan to Tampa, Florida, needed to make an emergency landing in our town.

The airplanes had been planning to make a refueling stop at Maxwell air base in Montgomery, Alabama, but they had encountered stormy weather and headwinds near Birmingham and were now low on fuel. Unable to contact the Birmingham airport, the squadron’s leader, Captain D.M. Allison, chose to backtrack to our town, Huntsville, where the weather was reported to be less severe, and try for a landing there.

Night was setting in when the pilots spotted a huge lighted sign advertising the Hotel Russel Erskine. The 12-story structure was our tallest. But other than that beacon, Huntsville, a cotton mill town with a population of 11,000, had little to offer: an unlit grass field with a shed and a tattered wind sock. Certainly no control tower.

Two state troopers, who had been observing the aircraft in the dark and roiling sky, realized the pilots’ problem and rushed to notify a local radio station. Interrupting its regular program, the station issued an emergency appeal: Townspeople were needed to drive to the airstrip, encircle it with their cars, and use their headlights to illuminate the field, helping the pilots land.

My family was among the first to arrive. As a teenager enamored of every element of flying, I could hardly contain my excitement as the first Seversky P-35, spitting blue flame from its exhaust manifold, swooped out of the darkness into the pool of lights, touched down, bounced skyward, settled back to the ground, braked, and then, engine roaring, taxied to the edge of the field. “Those are fighter planes!” I yelled to my parents, hoping they would appreciate my aeronautical wisdom.

That first airplane, as it turned out, was Captain Allison’s, who could now use his radio to act as ground control. One by one, the remaining 17 airplanes peeled out of their circling formation through the gusty winds. All landed without incident except the last. We held our breath as the pilot, his aircraft yawing wildly, gunned it for another circuit around the field. On the second attempt he brought his airplane in for a bumpy but successful landing. The crowd at the field exploded into a cheer.

In the surge of townspeople following the landings, I managed to shake the hands of most of the pilots, including Captain Allison’s. I was to keep the hand that had shaken those of the gods unwashed for days.

The pilots arranged their P-35s in smart military alignment along the field and secured protective covers over the engines. City police and others volunteered to stand guard overnight. I would have too, but my parents reminded me about school the next morning.

Captain Allison lavished praise on his “boys”—the 17th Pursuit Squadron—for their ability to fly so skillfully under such pressure. “Thank God for Huntsville,” he told our mayor. “I don’t know how we could’ve survived without you people.” Later, I overheard one of the pilots say: “I’m just thankful we all came down right side up.”

The pilots were escorted to the Russel Erskine hotel, whose sign had served as a beacon to guide them in the darkness, and the hotel staff offered them libations in the locally famous Blue Room. My friend Jimmie Taylor, who was a bellhop there, told me that one of the pilots, an “obvious Yankee,” recalled worrying that the squadron would have to land in one of those stubbly “grits fields.”

After the Blue Room fête, the pilots were treated to a sumptuous meal in the banquet hall and were given the best hotel rooms. Arrangements were made for a delivery of aviation fuel.

Early the next morning a tanker from Birmingham arrived. By 2:00 p.m., the refueling was completed. The squadron took off.

In the days to follow, many of us relived those daring landings over and over in our minds. They had been a dramatic event for our quiet little town. We heard that some of our citizens, without benefit of radio, had taken the noise of the aircraft to be an approaching cyclone and had rushed to their cellars. But a number of citizens had witnessed—indeed, been a vital part of—the most exciting event in Huntsville, some said, since 1863, when Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry had run off a Yankee general and his soldiers.

—Walter S. Terry

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