Few flight experiences are more dramatic than those of pilots in combat. In this collection, stories range from World War II battles to post-9/11 missions.
My father, John Payne, flew P-47Ns with the 318th Fighter Group, 333rd Fighter Squadron, on Ie Shima. This is an excerpt from a never-published article about the airplane he truly loved during the war, a Piper L-4 Grasshopper. —John H. Payne Jr., Franklin Lakes, NJ
They called it an L-4, but it was a J-3 Cub to me. It took some doing, but I got to fly the mail back and forth with that L-4 when I wasn’t on a combat flight or on alert.
Every time I took off in that Cub, I felt good. It would jump into the air and be flying in a few minutes after I got in it. Nothing to do but hold the controls and enjoy the freshness of the air at 1,000 feet. What a wonderful difference between the L-4 and the P-47N that I was fighting with. Every takeoff with the “Jug” was a hairy panic. The time in the air was fully occupied with adjustments to the engine, controls, radio, and gas tanks. We were usually up around 20,000 to 25,000 feet on oxygen, so the oxygen system required your continuous inspection (plus watching for bogies and staying in formation).
The L-4 and I had our day, however.
One of the big wheels from the 318th was coming home from a mission when he got jumped by a bunch of enemy fighters. Unfortunately for him, he was caught off guard and got clobbered. He managed to crash land his P-47N on a small atoll about 65 miles from Ie Shima. He got a radio message off, and we all knew where he was, but so did the Japanese. All the PBYs were too far away, neither the Navy nor Air-Sea Rescue had any ships in the area, and the Air Force had nothing that could land there on that little strip of coral sand. So all the unlucky Colonel could do was wait for the enemy to get there and hope that the few U.S. fighters circling could stay long enough to keep the enemy away until the Navy could get a ship to him.
I took off in the L-4 and pointed its 65-horsepower nose out over the China Sea in the general direction of the atoll and the Colonel. About 45 minutes later, I saw the atoll in front of me. The fighters had gone, and one Japanese ship was putting a small boat in the water to go in and capture the stranded pilot. I looked the atoll over quickly and decided to put the L-4 down on the only piece of near-level beach I could see—the same one the Colonel’s P-47 was piled up on. There wasn’t much room or much time, but then the L-4 didn’t need much of either. As soon as I dumped it down on the rough beach, the Colonel came running over and got in. I turned around and taxied as far back as possible, spun around, and amid small arms fire from the approaching boat, fed that mighty 65-horsepower all the throttle I had. We bounced along at an agonizingly slow pace, but there was a good wind coming off the sea, and with several inches to spare, the L-4 was off and flying.
Now the larger enemy ship out there started pumping some big stuff our way. But fortunately, they were leading us far too much. I ducked around the atoll at about 10 feet altitude and picked up a course that would take us home. Now and then, a shell would send up a spray of water that would rock the L-4 and soak the engine, but it kept going, and so did we.
We landed on Ie Shima about 50 minutes later, not on a runway but on a short taxi strip right by the revetment the L-4 was kept in.
You know, everybody on that island was waiting for that L-4 to land. Yessir, they looked at it, touched it almost with reverence, as though all of a sudden, it had become something special, a thing apart from all the other airplanes on that island. The L-4 was always clean after that, and the crew chief walked around with his head held high. But you know, some Major decided to fly the mail with the L-4 every day after that. No, I wasn’t allowed to fly it any more. It was too valuable to trust to a fighter jockey.
Getting Ready, Two Days After 9/11
September 13, 2001, my crewmate “Bait” and I were asked to perform an operational check flight on an F-15E. The aircraft had undergone major maintenance, which required an experienced crew to fly it. The squadron was getting ready to deploy to a still undetermined location and needed every aircraft available. We took off on a cool, cloudless morning and checked in with Salt Lake Center. The normally busy frequency was dead silent as there was not another aircraft airborne. It was very surreal. We climbed into the military operations airspace and checked as many primary and backup systems as possible. Engines, flight controls, electrical, fuel, and avionics. We checked the air-to-ground radar and targeting systems but were unable to fully check the air-to-air radar; there were no other aircraft to see. We then climbed above 30,000 feet, performed a Mach run and then some high-G maneuvers. Our final task was to verify that the terrain-following radar was working correctly. We entered the low-level structure and flew 100 miles or so at 480–540 knots all the way down to the 100-foot setting. After exiting the low-level structure north of Boise, we contacted approach control and they passed on an unusual request from the tower that we perform a low approach. We flew an instrument landing system approach to a go-around. When the tower controller cleared us to depart his airspace, we could hear cheering in the background. Three weeks later, the squadron was flying combat missions over Afghanistan. —James C. Gunn, Horseshoe Bend, ID
At the end of the Korean War, I was at 8th Army Headquarters near Seoul serving as a staff officer under General Maxwell Taylor. I was sent on a mission north, close to the DMZ, so I arranged a flight. The old racetrack in Seoul was being used for light-plane traffic. The airplane was a single-engine, high-wing, artillery spotter. I sat behind the pilot. We started takeoff down the back stretch, full throttle. The pilot turned around facing me and put his hands to his earphones. I put on mine expecting to hear air traffic. No! It was Armed Forces Radio playing country music. The pilot continued facing back, smiling, waving both hands to the music. We neared the end of the runway, high fence ahead. I raised my hands in horror. He reached around behind him and pulled the stick. I don’t think he even glanced ahead. The airplane shot up over the fence into the air, and the pilot laughed. At our destination, wind was at near-gale force. The little airstrip was down in a steep “V” valley. We were kiting almost motionless over the ridge. The pilot dipped the right wing and slid low, sideways over the trees all the way down that ridge and leveled off just above the runway, then set down ever so easy with almost no forward motion. If that pilot’s aim was to impress the Lieutenant from headquarters, then he succeeded in spades! —Tom Cabe, Verona, VA
Grace and Gratitude in a C-130
I was a Sergeant E-5 returning to my unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, from R&R in Hawaii with my spouse, whom I married in July 1967, three weeks before being deployed. I was flying “first available” back to the 173rd’s base camp in An Khe in II Corps and was the only passenger.
Sitting by myself in my web seat, and glum about leaving my young bride (not to mention the prospect of six more months in-country), I was approached by a young E-7 (whom I guessed was the loadmaster of the C-130, which was fully loaded with supply crates and gear). He leaned over in the noise and asked loudly if I wanted to come up to the front with him. My immediate reaction, being in the Army, was, “Oh great, this guy wants me to help move something heavy that shifted in the load.” Seeing my hesitance, he laughed and said, “It’s okay. The pilot just thought you’d like to come up to the cockpit with the crew!”
I not only got to go forward and meet the pilot and the crew, I got to sit (“but do not touch anything”) in the co-pilot’s seat! I was excited, just like a little kid (but no tiny plastic wings were affixed to my uniform). Then, another kindness: They offered me a cup of coffee from the crew’s flight thermos. We shouted over the engine noise, then I thanked them, clumsily saluted the pilot, and hurried to my web-seat before landing.
Shortly after, wheels down, as I exited the airplane, the loadmaster ran after me and said, “The crew just wanted to say ‘thanks’ for what you guys on the ground are doing!”
Thanking me? Thanking me?
A guy who, along with hundreds of other 173rd paratroopers, depended for life’s daily survival necessities on these aircrews and their big four-engine cargo and troop haulers? Air crews who landed and off-loaded under enemy fire and in all types of weather?
A guy who watched two C-130s burn on the ground at the Dak To airfield just months earlier?
And, back in civilian life, a guy who always appreciated that C-130 crew’s small kindnesses in a war zone—more than they could know?
Good guys, all. —John Cusack, Hoffman Estates, IL
Mission to Quang Tri
It was June 29, 1972. I was an OV-10 forward air controller (FAC) at Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam, and launched on a mission to find and strike invading North Vietnamese units around Quang Tri, a town just south of the DMZ. While working north of the city, I was informed that another FAC was supporting a South Vietnamese unit under attack and needed my assistance. I checked in on the radio with Captain Steve Bennett. In his back seat he had Captain Mike Brown, U.S. Marine Corps. Bennett did not have any fighter aircraft immediately available and said he needed me to join with him to strafe with our M-60 machine guns. As Bennett pulled up from a strafe pass, his aircraft was hit and severely damaged by an SA-7 missile. He headed out over the water for safety. I followed, called for rescue forces, and could see that his left engine and wing had been badly damaged by the missile. I expected them to eject. However, Bennett said that Brown’s parachute had been destroyed by the blast. They would have to ditch their OV-10.
I followed him down as Bennett put their OV-10 into the water. As the aircraft sank, I could see that only one man—Mike Brown—had gotten out. A rescue helicopter picked him up. Later, a Navy dive team recovered Bennett’s body. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless actions that day. It is a strong and enduring memory. —Darrel Whitcomb, Fairfax, VA
A Bear with Sharp Sight
I flew as a young Combat Information Center crewmember on a Navy Lockheed EC-121K from 1964 to mid-1965. We were the Airborne Early Warning Radar Picket arm of the land-based Distant Early Warning line during the cold war. On one flight we were scheduled to fly the North-South Barrier between Iceland and Greenland. We flew north, so far north over the Arctic Circle that we started going south. We flew that heading, towards the Soviet Union, until the electronic countermeasure equipment started chirping, the only time in all of my flights that it came alive. We were close enough to the Soviet Union that we got locked up by their fire-control radar. Of course every crewmember that was not on duty was standing over the ECM operator and watching the lockup occur. At the point of “lockup,” the pilot made a quick turn, reversed our heading, and got the heck out of there. We sent a message: “We are watching you,” and we got a message in return: “Don’t poke the bear.” —John Greenup, Hemlock, MI
Body Language in Search and Rescue
Our rescue detachment of HH-43 helicopters in Korat, Thailand, pulled alert on Sundays with a minimum crew. On March 12, 1972, I was the lone pilot pulling alert, along with Sergeant Dwight Berry, a helicopter mechanic and aeromedical specialist. The two of us were scrambled at dawn for an immediate mission to pick up an F-105 crew who had bailed out a few hours before in the jungle 50 miles south of the base. On alert, our HH-43 “Pedro” helicopter could take off within minutes of notification, which we did.
Using radio homing, we arrived at the crash site 30 minutes later and spotted a parachute draped over the jungle canopy. Below the parachute, the F-105 navigator was waving at us from a tree limb high off the ground. Sergeant Berry positioned himself in the cargo compartment directly behind me, barking hover directions over the intercom and getting ready to lower a forest penetrator on a cable to the survivor. Suddenly we lost intercom communication, an essential component for positioning since I could no longer see the survivor when he was directly below the helicopter.
Sergeant Berry put his arm through the opening between us and forcefully grabbed my right shoulder, yanking my shoulder in the direction he wanted the chopper to move. With one hand gripping my shoulder and the other on the cable guiding the penetrator, Sergeant Berry managed to complete the rescue. He treated the navigator for a groin injury and placed him up front, in the left seat next to me, to help locate the F-105 pilot. We searched for the pilot until we were “bingo” fuel, but a Sikorsky HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopter arrived from Udorn, Thailand, to relieve us. We heard later that the F-105 pilot was successfully retrieved, alive and well. As for the lost communication, it was probably caused by a loose connection, as the intercom checked out fine on the ground. —Daniel J. Biezad, San Luis Obispo, CA
Bomb North Korea, Return to Japan
I was on a B-29 bomber crew based in Japan assigned to fly long-range night missions over North Korea. On the night of June 24, 1952, we took off with 4,000 gallons of high-octane fuel, 40 500-pound bombs, and ammunition canisters full of 50-caliber ammo. We were at 69 tons, exactly nine tons over the maximum weight.
We were assigned a close-support mission just behind enemy lines. We flew out over the Sea of Japan towards North Korea and were picked up by ground control. Flying at 10,000 feet, we would be assigned a heading to a target, and get the call for a 10-bomb release over the target. We would return on another heading, and ground control would signal for another 10 bombs. We would repeat this pattern until all our bombs were unloaded and then head back to Yokota Air Base in Japan.
On our return, the weather had closed in, and a bad storm rerouted us toward Tokyo International Airport, but fog forced us to head south. We found a small fighter base with a short runway on Ashiya Island. We had spent so much time over North Korea that we were nearly out of gas. The flight engineer told the pilot that we would have to land on the first try. We landed at the base but went off the end of the runway. The airplane dropped into a trench and crashed into the opposite bank, ramming the nose gear up into the cockpit just behind the pilots. The B-29 broke just forward of the wings. It was now daylight. The flight engineer checked the tanks, and all were empty. The bombardier broke both ankles when the nose hit the bank, but the rest of us walked away. —Kenneth Russell, Salt Lake City, UT
Bouncing in a KC-135
As a lowly co-pilot of a KC-135 at U-Tapao airfield in Thailand in 1969, I was to fly a ground-controlled approach to a full-stop landing. I got on the proper heading and glide path many miles out. I had trimmed the aircraft impeccably. So much so that I got a bit hypnotized by the droning engines and the controller’s voice. When we came over the approach, I reduced the throttles and touched down smoothly, but the aircraft took off again! Looking down, I noticed the throttles were not completely at idle. I reduced them, but not soon enough to avoid another bounce. Luckily, U-Tapao’s runway was well over 10,000 feet long, so my final, and third touchdown was well within our stopping distance. By this time the pilot and navigator were beside themselves with laughter. That evening at the O Club, one of my pilot friends told me about a strange sight he saw that day: “Some joker in a KC‑135 tried to make like a Cessna and did three landings and two takeoffs on the same approach. The bounces were over 50 feet in the air!” All I could say was, “No shit.”—David Volin, Scottsville, VA