Wairbirds I Have Flown (In)

by Bob Worthington
Published in Midwest Flyer – April/May 2020 issue

Last fall, I wrote an article on “warbirds” for a national aviation organization. One question arose: Have I ever flown in a warbird? My response was yes! But it must be stipulated that because of my age, some of the warbirds I have flown in were “active” military aircraft at the time, yet today they are in museums. As a general aviation pilot, and not a military aviator, I relished my opportunity to fly in different military aircraft. Most of my flights occurred in the military (as a crewmember, never as a pilot), once in an airshow, and once as a pilot. Here is a summary of my experience with warbirds.

My first flight in a warbird was in mid-October 1958. I was a corporal in the Marine Corps, having just returned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina from combat in the Middle East. My girlfriend (now my wife) lived in Washington, D.C. and we had been apart for six months, so I was very eager to see her.  I secured a seat on a Marine R4D (C-47). The Douglas twin-engine utility/cargo taildragger had a cruise speed of about 200 mph, so it was just under 3 hours to D.C. Delivered to the military in October 1938, it was the greatest transport of all times. Over 80 years old today, it is still being flown all over the world. The aircraft remained in the active military inventory until 2008 where it was last flown with the U.S. Air Force 6th Special Operations Squadron (a modified version, the Basler BT-67). Over 10,000 were built for World War II (WWII).

The canvas seats were not comfortable, the plane drafty and noisy, and it was a very crude ride compared to a civilian airliner. What was most unique about this flight was at the end. After we landed and parked, the two pilots stood up and removed their flight jackets. Both were enlisted, master sergeants, trained during WWII as part of the “Sergeant Pilots” program, where enlisted men were trained to fly combat aircraft. The last four Marine enlisted pilots retired in 1973. In 1958, all new military pilots had to be officers, so being flown by noncommissioned officers (NCO) was a historic moment for me.

In the summer of 1963, I flew (three times) in a Fairchild C-119 “Flying Boxcar” while attending the Army Airborne School for paratrooper training. The dollar nineteen was a twin-engine, high-wing cargo aircraft, with its unique twin-boom tail. Just under 1200 were built between 1947 and 1955 with its Air Force service lasting until 1973. These were the only times in my life when I was not in an airplane I departed in, upon landing.

Vietnam, November 1966. I experienced a flight in an Air Force L-19 “Bird Dog,” a single-engine Cessna tail-dragger observation aircraft. I needed to recon the mountains surrounding the old French fort where the Vietnamese unit I advised was based. Both us and the enemy shared the same terrain.

Introducing me to his tandem-seat aircraft, the pilot gave me a two-minute explanation of how to fly the plane if he was shot and incapacitated (at this time, I was not a pilot). The plane was loud, breezy, and very agile, yet at the same time, so very fragile. There was very little between me and the entire world out there. We flew over the North Vietnamese camps, sometimes only 1,000 feet above them, turning, twisting, and banking, so I could view them develop their defensive positions.

The pilot explained that the enemy seldom fired at his L-19 because they thought he was a Forward Air Controller (FAC) who would bring U.S. fighters down on them. If they did not shoot at him, he wouldn’t unleash his fighters. It was a symbiotic relationship, foreign to me. Even today, I find it hard to comprehend the sensation of observing the enemy while they watch me, with neither shooting at the other.

During a vicious eight-day battle with a North Vietnamese Army regiment in October, we stayed alive because of the flares and fire power of “Spooky,” the U.S. Air Force AC-47 gunship. A few weeks later I spent 8 hours aboard the gunship on a mission. Referred to as “Puff the magic dragon,” because its three twin-barreled 7.62 mm mini guns could place one round in every 2 ½ yards of a large football field in a three-second burst. The Air Force used these modified C-47s from 1965 to 1975, where 53 planes had been converted to gunships.

This flight surprised me because it was so cold. Before the flight I was given a field jacket to wear, which I found amusing because my year in Vietnam had been in the hot tropics. But a few thousand feet in the air, at night, in the AC-47, twisting and bouncing, with numerous openings, it was extremely loud and very cold.

My experiences in both planes are described in my book, “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry.” During my second tour (1968-69), I spent several hours in Air Force Cessna O-2 Skymasters, the “Oscar Deuce,” a FAC aircraft also used for low-level reconnaissance missions, which I did. The O-2 was a front-and-rear engine twin Cessna 337, modified for military combat flying.

During my first flight, the aircraft’s windows would not open, so it was very hot in the plane. After an hour of constant circles and steep banks so I could see the ground, I got airsick. Having no sick sacks, the pilot gave me his glove, which I promptly filled (and he discarded out a small opening in his window). Before our mission ended, I had to use his other glove. On subsequent flights, I was prepared as I carried plenty of plastic bags, but I never got sick again.

During two tours in Vietnam, I spent time in various aircraft, but most of my flights were in the ubiquitous UH-1B Huey helicopter. During my first tour, I was not a big fan of flying, but for some reason during my second tour, I flew every chance I got. I ended my time in Vietnam with about 180 hours of flying time, the most memorable flight being a special ops mission I was running the night of 14 November 1968, on the Cambodian border using a Huey, when I was shot.

I became a pilot in 1975 and in 1981, an aviation writer, beginning as an editor for General Aviation News. As an aviation writer, I enjoyed two more rides in WWII aircraft.

In the fall of 1983, I was covering the annual airshow of the Confederate Air Force (CAF) in Harlingen, Texas. (The CAF is known today as the Commemorative Air Force, and is headquartered in Dallas, Texas.)

The CAF would allow aviation journalists to ride in their WWII aircraft during the show. I was assigned to N16KL, a PBY-6A Catalina bomber. It would depict the dive-bombing missions it flew in the Pacific, then it would fly a rectangular pattern at 100 to 300 feet above the ground. This part of the show included one other PBY and several single-engine dive bombers, all doing the same thing at the same time.

Produced by Consolidated Aircraft from 1935 to 1945, slightly over 3300 were built. Neither beautiful nor fast, the PBY was rugged, and could stay aloft for 18-24 hours. It was designed as a maritime bomber and for ocean search and rescue (SAR) missions. Cruising at 110 mph, this twin-engine flying boat was not very maneuverable, but for a shot down aircraft crew, drifting in the ocean, seeing the PBY landing in the water to rescue them, made it the most beautiful aircraft in the world!

One distinct aspect of this PBY was that it was the only WWII bomber in the CAF inventory that had flown combat missions in the war. N16KL had a unique background. During WWII, in the Navy’s Pacific bomber patrol squadron VPB-53, it flew 14 combat missions, to include a SAR mission seeking USS Indianapolis survivors after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The ship had just delivered the first Atomic bomb to the B-29 base at Tinian. The Navy declared this PBY-6A surplus in 1950.

The Danish Navy bought the PBY where it served for many years. Declared surplus once again in the 1970s, it was purchased by a private foundation and used in films, “Midway” being one of them. In 1982, the Lone Star Wing of the CAF, in Tyler, Texas, acquired the aircraft as a donation. Fourteen months and 1700 man-hours later, the plane was restored to its military configuration of the 1940s. The 1983 CAF airshow was the first for N16KL, which is the one I flew in.

With a crew of four and seven passengers, we flew in the show between 90 and 95 mph. While the other passengers watched the show from the aircraft’s windows, I was crouched down between the two pilots. The airplane was slow and very loud as it bounced and clattered following its scripted routine in the show. Being a pilot, I was in awe over the skill and ability of the crew to maneuver this heavy, awkward aircraft, while remaining aware of all the other planes in the routine, and fly in perfect formation during a sequence that appeared as very chaotic and unrehearsed to the spectators on the ground. In nine minutes, our performance was over, and we landed.

N16KL was slated to fly in the 1984 CAF airshow and I was invited again to participate. Prior to the show, because of its large clamshell window bays protruding from each side, it became a photo plane flying over the lagoon which laid between the Texas coastline and a few miles away, lower Padre Island. The lagoon was a favored fishing spot for local folks. Some people would drive long, thick posts into the lagoon bed, so they could tie their boats up while fishing.

On 13 October, the PBY flew as a photo plane, and on one pass over the lagoon, five feet above the water, it hit one of the poles in the water. It ripped the hull, causing the aircraft to crash, killing six with four survivors. This was the end of N16KL, having been destroyed.

In September 1998, I attended an aviation conference in Orlando, Florida. At the airport in Kissimmee (KISM), I visited “Warbird Adventures” to write a story. Introduced to Thom Richards, CFI, founder and co-owner of this vintage flight school and museum, he said we would fly in an AT-6 Texan on a training flight for me.

The North American T-6 advanced trainer has two tandem seats – student in front with the instructor in the rear. The entire top of the plane is a completely glassed canopy. Military production began in 1937 (the year I was born) and 15,495 aircraft were built. This plane was used as both a trainer and combat aircraft into the early 1960s.

Before climbing into the front cockpit, I was given a WWII-style tan cloth helmet with ear receivers and a microphone. We departed KISM and flew at about 130 mph to our practice area.

My logbook of 14 September 1998 indicates that in over a half hour, we did rolls, loops, a Cuban 8, an Immelmann, and a Split-S, with one takeoff and landing. It was a lot of fun, an easy plane to maneuver, and the only warbird I have flown as a pilot. This was also my last flight in a warbird.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the  author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer (www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein

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