Allied Aircraft, Inc.-Tucson, AZ
The featured image is of a restored “Fertile Myrtle.” This was one of literally hundreds of aircraft I flew after master mechanic, Jack Kern, had worked his magic. Most of the airplanes I flew were from Davis-Monthan AFB, Navy Litchfield, or Tucson International.
I became the quasi-chief pilot for Allied Aircraft, Inc., a Tucson-based aircraft salvage and storage company located at Davis-Monthan Airbase near the base of the Catalina Mountains to the north of the city.
Bob Gallagher was the principal owner. Bob Eberle was one of the driving forces for this successful company involved in a myriad of aviation enterprises.
During my very busy time with Allied, I was a SLC based Convair 580 co-pilot. That was my “day job.” As a bachelor in those days, I had a lot of extra time for girls and airplanes. Airplanes had priority over chasing girls albeit not completely.
Flyin’ and drinkin’ buddies, Jerry Hellberg and Bob Valline, were in the aviation business in SLC. Jerry operated Thompson Flying Service. Bob Valline had his own aviation insurance company. Often the three of us would partner airplane buying and selling. I was the designated pilot. I was livin’ the dream!
Most of our deals were small general aviation aircraft. Then, one time when Jerry had knocked down too many scotch & water’s, he bought a DC-7C travel-club airplane that had arrived at SLC with the number one engine shut-down and the prop feathered.
After Jerry sobered up he realized what he’d done and was nearing the panic mode when I said that I might have an idea. “Stand by!”
Jerry’s father, Carl, still owned Thompson Flying Service, a company with a rich aviation heritage. Originally, it was Tommy Thompson’s Flying School dating back to the 1920s. More on Carl Hellberg and Tommy Thompson to follow…
Sitting in Jerry’s office, I was looking at a very hung-over and worried friend knowing he was dreading Carl’s discovery of his latest aircraft acquisition. I called Bob Eberle to see if Allied might have interest in a Douglas DC-7C. Eberle stated that, in fact, they would be very interested in those Wright R-3350 Turbo-compound engines. I suggested that the airplane they were mounted on might be an excellent delivery system.
I put Hellberg and Eberle together and they came up with a deal. If I could deliver the DC-7 to Tucson I would bring back a low-time and in-license Douglas A-26, my commission for putting the deal together. If you read the story where I had always wanted to own one, you can imagine how elated I was to see my dream unfolding before my eyes.
I located a United DC-8 flight engineer who was still current in the DC-7. Boy Howdy did he become “Mr. Important” on this adventure. I knew nothing about the systems on the DC-7 and had, just once, flown a DC-6 with my pal, Bob Williams. Bob was another Frontier co-pilot and, later, the Executive Officer when I was the Chairman of the Frontier pilots. More on this horrific roller-coaster ride to come.
Regarding the DC-7C, I was not worried about the flying part. So, I asked, the FE if he’d done any three-engine ferry flights. He said, “several!” That raised my comfort level considerably.
The FE (I’m still searching my memory from a half-century ago for his name. We were colleagues for just one day) and I along with mechanic, Denny Leonard from Thompson Flying Service prepped the DC-7 for a short flight to Tucson. Denny fixed us up with a ferry permit and I secured an LOA* from the FAA for the one-time flight. We were ready to go.
*Letter of Authorization: allowing me to act as pilot-in-command with essential crew for a one-time ferry flight from SLC to TUS: to avoid flying over any congested areas. Out of the many LOA’s I obtained from the FAA only one survives. That LOA is displayed later in this story about “Fertile Myrtle.”
Note: These were the days prior to the Martin 404 crash in the Colorado mountains killing the Wichita State University football team. After that, the FAA really stiffened up their requirements.
We had enough fuel onboard for nearly five hours flying nearly double our needed petrol. Hellberg had the large oil tanks filled. I figured that it would be around two hours time en-route to Tucson International. It was a beautiful clear day with surprisingly light winds all the way.
We headed down the runway setting takeoff power on engines two and three. We were lightly loaded, with just the FE and me on board, as we accelerated to our V-1 takeoff safety speed. As we went past VMCG (the speed below which control would have been a problem on an asymmetrically powered aircraft) the FE brought the number four engine up with numbers one and two.
“Ninety knots,” he called. Then, “V-1 Rotate,” followed by, “positive-rate gear-up.” Soon, we were flaps-up with climb power on a heading of one hundred sixty seven degrees magnetic taking us just east of Richfield, Utah and over Page then passing east of Phoenix we would let-down for our landing in Tucson.
I had a lot of confidence in the FE and am surprised I can recall so many details of our flight together and, yet, I cannot remember his name. A curious thing with me, an affliction that has been a problem all my life. I remember numbers, not names.
I used to call the girls I was dating “Punkin” for fear of using an incorrect name. Cheryl told me she knew that she was set with me when I started calling her “Cheryl.”
Once I was introducing my Dad to a friend and couldn’t even remember my own father’s name! Pitiful!
Back to the DC-7 flight, the confidence I had in the FE was important. If we had experienced a mechanical problem or in-flight emergency he would be the go-to guy. No problem! I was along just to steer the airplane.
The DC-7C was actually a beauty. Nicely painted on the outside, the interior was well done and as pleasing to the eye as any well-kept airliner.
Our flight was smooth and uneventful. The traffic was light inbound to Tucson International and we were cleared straight-in landing on Runway One-One. I used light reversing on just the two inboard engines. Again, for the asymmetrical thrust directional control issue.
After landing and securing the DC-7 on the Tucson ramp area, where Allied had hangar and a work-area for Jack Kern, my eyes were drawn to an nearly all-black A-26C. It had red paint above with a white strip from nose to tail separating the red and black color.
With the paperwork completed and both Eberle and Hellberg happy, Jack Kern and I went out to the freshly licensed A-26. I have to tell you this was an A-plus moment for me!
I crawled all over the airplane getting familiar with everything “nuts-guts and feathers!” I went over the logs with Jack and saw the list of things he’d done in bringing the airplane up-to-snuff in the annual inspection.
N-91354 was a very low-time Korean War night attack aircraft. It had nearly zero-time Pratt & Whitney R-2800-27 engines of two thousand horsepower each. The Hamilton-Standard props were zero-time. The glass canopy(s) and nose bullet were in like-new condition. There was new fabric on the rudder! New tires and the brakes had been gone-through. Jack Kern was the best!
Kern had been a Korean War crew chief and flight engineer on B-29s. Of all the airplanes I flew for Jack and Allied not a single one had any mechanical issues except for the T-28D (battery) and that was of my own making.
I had flown a plethora of aircraft for Jack. I flew countless Navy SNB-5s all over the country to schools and museums as well as Mexico and Central American countries. Same with T-28’s. I flew some very unique airplanes as well. There was a Navy twin-engine carrier nuclear bomber, the AJ “Savage” that used the same “Double Wasp” R-2800 engines on the A-26. I just flew one of the AJs. Impressive albeit not as much as the A-26 of which I flew several for Allied. The AJ even had a jet engine in the tail. I didn’t use it due to the light load.
Allied had two aircraft needing moved from Tucson to Clearwater, Florida. One was an old TWA Lockheed 749 “Constellation.” The “Connie” had been stored for several years at the Allied facility adjacent to Davis-Monthan AFB. The other airplane was a former Delta DC-6A that had just come off the line at Delta and was still in current license.
The contract required Allied to move both aircraft simultaneously. Thusly, I would not enjoy the privilege of flying them both. I would have to decide which airplane I would fly and find another crew for the remaining airplane.
I made a quick trip to Tucson. I had always wanted to fly a “Connie.” Initially, that would have been my choice. I looked the “Connie” over. The instrument panel caught my attention when I discovered a number of instruments missing. Add to that the circuit breaker panel looked like popcorn with all the circuit breakers popped. Then there was this amazingly complicated fuel system to puzzle over. It took a nano-second to decide on finding three guys senior to me to fly that ol’ “Connie.”
My friend, Bob Williams, another Frontier co-pilot, along with my Dad would fly the Delta DC-6A. I rounded up Captains Jack Gardner, Roy Williams, and Elmer Burson to fly the “Connie.” Those three had an amazing history flying airplanes. Jack, in particular, had done a lot of ferry-flights in years past. All three were top-of-the-line instructors with Frontier’s legendary training department. Jack had been an Arizona State Representative for District 17 in the late 1950s. Roy was fluent in Navajo from his association with the Navajo Nation as a historian. Elmer had been the Frontier Chief Pilot of the Phoenix Crew Base.
That ol’ “Connie” took off and still had the landing gear down as it flew from our view. Bob, my Dad and I just looked and shrugged our shoulders. Amazingly, they made it to Clearwater with little trouble once Elmer figured out the fuel system. Jack said they were grinnin’ the entire flight.
Meanwhile, Bob, Dad, and I clambered aboard the DC-6A. It was clean as a whistle inside and out. While the “Connie” had Wright R-3350 Turbo-Compound 2500 horse power engines, the DC-6A had CB-16 Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines of 2000 horse power. The “Connie” could cruise at 345 miles per hour while the DC-6A was some thirty miles per hour slower. In fact, this is how Douglas came to produce the DC-7C with the Wright R-3350’s equalizing the performance with even the later Super Constellation.
My Dad had flown the B-17 some. He and Ralph Johnson ferried several to Kingman, Arizona for storage following WWII. Pop sat in the Flight Engineer seat while Bob and I flew the airplane. Bob had some DC-6 experience prior to his joining Frontier Airlines. I had none in the DC-6.
We were set, with plenty of food and drink on hand for our fourteen hundred mile flight. It was a magnificent day with light winds blowing through blue skies all the way.
Flying over New Orleans Bob was using the radar display on the right side. It was more advanced than the old “C-Band” radar we had in the Frontier Convair. Bob had the hood attachment mounted and was watching the terrain observing the country along the Gulf of Mexico.
I needed to use the “Blue Room” and asked my Dad if he’d like to sit in the left seat a spell. After my father was seated. I reached above his head and pushed a “test switch” in a panel just above him. The switch tests the continuity of the fire protection system. The DC-6A had numerous red-lighted handles within reach under the glare shield. And he had a very LOUD aural warning system.
The neat thing about the “test switch” was that it had a thirty-second delay before all hell broke loose! I pushed the test button and stepped back. Bob was still glued to the first officers radar ground mapping display. My father was just sitting there enjoying the view.
Suddenly, a LOUD Klaxon warning with ALL the red lights displayed brought Bob very suddenly out of his reverie. His hand reached up to pull the obnoxious handle causing this horrible noise. Then he caught up to the scene seeing ALL the handles red, some flashing, when, satisfied, the test was completed. The loud noise ceased. All the red lights were no longer illuminated. Bob looked around and gave me a not so lovingly look.
We swapped seats and Bob made a beautiful landing in that fine old aircraft. It had been years since he’d flown one, but it looked to me like he’d flown one daily for years. Bob Williams enjoyed a wonderful reputation among the Frontier pilot group.
Bob Williams did his best in our efforts to save our beloved little airline when the megalomaniacs of the corporate world were hell-bent on destroying what was a way of life for the Frontier family. FLamily as Jake Lamkins calls us.
During the last few years of our horrific roller-coaster ride I was the Chairman of the Frontier pilots within the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA). Bob became the first, last, and only Executive Administrator at Frontier. Outside of the national ALPA officer group, Bob was the only one.
Bob & Sue retired in Pleasant Grove, Utah where Sue is still living in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City. Bob is never far from my thoughts and, I’m sure, most who knew him are often remembering his specialness.
Douglas DC-6A Flight Deck
Allied had a contract to transfer a B-24J from India to Tucson for the Pima Air & Space Museum. I was excited about the prospects of flying the B-24. I got ahold of a Dash One and began boning up.
A couple of weeks before I was to depart along with copilot, Jack Gardner, and Jack Kern as engineer, I was notified that we had been usurped by the Air Force brass. A couple of high ranking pilots would have the honors. DRATS!
The quid-pro-quo, if it could be referred to as such, was that I was invited to the banquet dedicating the B-24 to the museum. I was seated next to General Jimmy Doolittle.
What an amazing and humble man! I wanted to hear him tell some stories of his extraordinary career. A “WOW” moment for me to be seated next to this great man. Doolittle was the first person to receive a doctorate from MIT in Aeronautical Engineering. He had led the infamous Tokyo raid after he and fifteen other B-25B’s launched from the carrier “Hornet.” He was awarded The Medal of Honor! During WWII Doolittle advanced from the rank of Major to a Three Star General! Just his biographical sketch would fill a good sized book.
Jimmie Doolittle WWII
|Major||Army of the United States||July 1, 1940|
|Lieutenant Colonel||Army of the United States||January 2, 1942|
|Brigadier General||Army of the United States||April 19, 1942|
|Major General||Army of the United States||November 20, 1942|
|Lieutenant General||Army of the United States||March 13, 1944|
|Lieutenant General||U.S. Army, Retired||January 5, 1946|
|Lieutenant General||Army Reserve||May 10, 1946|
|Lieutenant General||Air Force Reserve||September 18, 1947|
|Lieutenant General||Air Force Reserve, Retired List||February 28, 1959|
|General||Air Force Reserve, Retired List||April 4, 1985|
During the banquet, Gen. Doolittle wanted to know more about what my perspective was of the airline industry. He wasn’t prone to tell Jimmy Doolittle stories. Still, it was a delightful experience for me and one that I would add to years later.
I was flying a Boeing 737 on a Frontier trip with a RON (remain overnight) at LAX International. My crew and I, along with my son, Preston, were checking in at the airport hotel. Preston was eleven or twelve at the time and occasionally accompanied me on Frontier flights.
I happened to notice a group entering the lobby obviously heading for the hotel’s ball room. They looked like a waddle of penguins all dressed in tuxedos. A shorter fellow was at the front of this large group and I recognized him. It was General Jimmy Doolittle!
I grabbed Preston saying, “Remember this moment Son. You are about to meet the greatest aviator ever!” As we approached the Doolittle entourage, some thirty to thirty-five feet away, the General said, “Well, hello Billy! How have you been?”
I was astounded! I was in utter disbelief that he would remember me at all let alone remembering me by name. I introduced my son to this greatest of living American heroes. Doolittle soon excused himself mentioning something about the “folks waiting to hear him speak.”
Likely, my son will never forget that meeting. …nor will I! I have met just one other individual with the gift of remembering names. Former JetBlue Airways CEO, Dave Barger can meet someone and just be told the spouses name. Five years later, upon greeting, Dave would be apt to say, “Hello Joe, how is Trudy?” Oh how I would love that ability.
I’ve mentioned earlier of a time I went to introduce my father. His name is the same as mine except he was always called “Pic.” This time I was unable to even refer to him as my “Dad!” Of course the block was only a couple of seconds, but it was a moment I have always carried with regret.
While there was a plethora of interesting old war-birds I flew for Allied, the most unique airplane that I was involve with was “Fertile Myrtle.” This airplane had sat at Navy Litchfield for twelve years when I went with Jack to prepare it for a flight from the Naval storage depot to Tucson where Jack would restore it to a like-new condition.
Flying these old warbirds it is important to expect the unexpected. With N-91329 it would prove to be interesting to me, Stud-Hoss-Slick & Tiger, along with Jack Kern. AND it would scare my Mom into some pre-arrival grey hairs!
I had been working on “Fertile Myrtle” with Jack Kern for several days. Jack’s son, JR, was there part of the time. We were finally ready for a trial run. I would occupy the aircraft commanders seat. Jack would, of course, be in familiar surroundings, the flight engineer station. Jack and I co-briefed our plan of action.
First we would do yet another thorough pre-flight and make sure everything was secure. JR would put tools and supplies in the pick-up. JR would act as co-pilot.
We would start up. Rather, Jack would start up! All I had to do was steer the aircraft! Jack did everything from his FE station. We would then taxi-out to the active runway and do our pre-takeoff check. If all went as planned we would plan a take-off at a pre-determined speed and JR would make the calls that I would respond to.
My mother drove over from Scottsdale to watch this great event. She brought her little Kodak. That’s where the photo came from on the LOA shown later in the story.
During the run-up initially everything was looking just right. Oil pressure, oil temperature, cylinder head temperatures all were “in the green.” The huge Curtis electric props cycled fine and felt good to Jack. All I had in front of me were the basic flight controls and, of course, the meager flight instrument panel which was duplicated on the right side. To my left side there were four throttles. Four electric prop switches, and feathering buttons, along with two big red air brake handles were on the center pedestal.
Just when all looked good, I could hear Jack yell, “FIRE!” and he shut down the engines. The ground crew created a white-out firing their CO2 fire bottles at the number four engine. Our game plan was changed.
Inspecting the cowling where the fire emanated Jack determined that the dozen years the aircraft sat in the desert a lot of debris had worked its way in between the waffle cowling. There was no practical way of “cleaning” this out. So, Jack decided we would continue, one engine-at-a-time, to start up/heat-up and, once the fire erupted, extinguish the fire repeatedly until the problem went away.
My Mom came back a few days later as we planned to depart for Tucson. All checks were thumbs-up. Off we went, roaring down the runway, when suddenly all four throttles in my left hand were yanked back to the idle stop! I kept us rolling to a stop on the center-line of the runway using medium braking.
Apparently, not all the debris had been eliminated! Back to square one!
Mom was there wondering what was wrong and none to happy to have seen the smoke on our take-off roll. She was so excited that she forgot to use her camera for a possible collector’s item.
I had another problem. I could not stay any longer. I was due back in SLC for my Frontier flight schedule. That was when Jack Kern said, “Well you are the chief pilot, find somebody!” That was when I discovered I was “Chief Pilot.” He also said that my pay would be the same. Just because I was now the “Chief Pilot” he wasn’t going to cut my pay!
I called my ol’ war-weary flyin’ buddy. Below is a note from him from reminiscing back in 2005!
STUD-HOSS-SLICK & TIGER
I received the following from Captain Bob Banta (aka “Stud – Hoss – Slick & Tiger”). I flew as Bob’s co-pilot many times at good ol’ Frontier Airlines. And, Banta flew co-pilot for me several times flyin’ ol’ war-weary airplanes.
I thought I was the world’s worst at remembering names until I met Banta! The guys he would call either of the aforementioned names. Girls were either “Sugar or Sweetie.” Before she died a few years ago, Banta’s wife, Alice, said that she’d finally been called Alice half the time!
I think it’s a tie between Banta and Emmitt Spinks as to which one has the more stories told about their antics. As for me, I knew Captain Spinks, but never flew with him much to my regret. Banta, on the other hand, I flew with many times.
The following note to me was from Banta in 2005. It refers to two separate events. One was a DC-3 incident when an errant dump truck hit a landing Frontier DC-3 at Bismark. Banta spelled Ron Rosenhahn’s name wrong. He should have stuck with Stud or Slick or Tiger!
The other was regarding Banta’s flight on “Fertile Myrtle.” Banta thought “Fertile Myrtle” had sat in storage for fourteen years when, in fact, it was closer to twelve years. I saw one citation indicating ten years. Regardless, it was a long time between flights for this aviation “heirloom.”
“To Billy Walker:
You know how to bring back memories! You and I have led charmed lives and dodged our share of bullets.
Frank Brgoch was the captain and Ron Rosenbaum (F.O.) was flying the Bird from the left seat. I was Route Qualifying on the jump seat. An 18-wheel dump truck, full of gravel, went under our path on short final, and none of us saw the truck. The jump seat on the DC-3 sat low and didn’t give very good visibility, but Frank or Ron didn’t see the truck either. The right main gear was sheared off, and the right prop went through the load of gravel. Rosenbaum did a terrific job of landing the old bird on the left main and the right wing tip. At the hearing, our good friend Dick Brice, the principal FAA inspector from Denver, saved either Frank or Rosie from a violation by discovering that, due to the angle of the highway to the runway, the truck was obstructed from our view for approximately ½ mile before we crashed. We exited through the forward cargo pit.
B-29 from Goodyear (PHX) to Tucson:
Billy, you telephoned me and said, “Hey, Hoss, do you want to fly a B-29?” Of course I said “Sure! What’s the deal?” The old ’29 had been sitting in the desert bone yard for 14 years. When a different crew fired it up two weeks earlier the #4 engine had caught fire and burned all of the wiring harness off.
Neither the other pilot nor myself had ever been within 100 yards of a B-29. Jack Kern, the Flight Engineer, was well qualified with lots of B-29 flight engineer time. All of the important gauges and instruments had been replaced on the engineer’s panel. All we had on the instrument panel in the cockpit was an airspeed indicator calibrated in knots. It was hanging below the panel on a piece of wire because it wouldn’t fit into the intended hole. The Flight Manual for the airplane showed all speeds in M.P.H. We had been promised a manual upon our arrival at the bone yard, but it didn’t arrive until we had #4 engine running. Wendell and I quickly thumbed through the manual and found that 17 degrees flap was the only setting for takeoff. This B-29 was the only aircraft modified to “piggyback” the X-1 Experimental Supersonic aircraft. There was a humongous opening where the bomb-bay doors used to be. Several of the windshield (Greenhouse) windows were missing, so we knew that we would not be able to hear each other, or the engineer, in flight.
We couldn’t get the engine fire detectors to test, so the company who had contracted to deliver the aircraft to Tucson agreed to have their company Beechcraft D-18 take off beside us to watch for engine fires. Our only radio was a portable set sitting on the deck between us. It functioned for about ten minutes after our departure.
Jack, Wendell and I agreed that, after all of those years in the desert, it was too risky to retract the electric landing gear. If we lost both engines on the same side, we knew we would have no choice but to retract the landing gear and hope that we could get it down.
As we gained speed on our takeoff roll, the main gear suddenly lifted off and we began to wheelbarrow on the nose gear. We both heaved on the yoke and got clear of the ground. The airplane began a violent left bank. I was afraid that we were going to drag the runway with our left wing. We had already decided that the trim tab knobs were not safe to use. The chain that ran to the control cables were so rusty and gummed up that there was a possibility that they might break. Wendell and I both cranked in about twenty degrees of right yoke to pick up the wing. We had to hold it manually all the way to Tucson. Instead of flying direct, we had agreed to fly from one possible emergency landing strip to the next.
We were holding rudder against the aileron to avoid skidding through the air. My concern was to keep the airplane straight during landing.
Even with the gear down, we ran away from the Beech-18. Since we had no radio at that point, we had to depend on a green light from the tower for landing clearance. We lined up on a long final approach and began to cut power. As we reduced power, the amount of aileron required to keep the wings lever reduced in relation to the power reduction. By the time we crossed the end of the runway and closed the throttles, the controls were normal. We made a beautiful landing.
I called Jack Kern a couple of days later to see if he had discovered why we had to hold twenty degrees of aileron to keep the wings level. He said that he had drained 200# of sand out of the left aileron. During the 14 years in the desert, the prevailing wind had blown the sand in the openings designed to drain water. I will never know why we couldn’t feel the problem when we did our static control check before takeoff.
One of the reasons that I wanted to fly that particular B-29 was that a good friend from college at Kansas University was a test pilot in the X-1 program. He was dropped to his death from this very airplane.
Taking our roundabout course took us 51 minutes from Phoenix to Tucson. Not too smart but very exciting.
Next time I feel like digging up old memories, I’ll tell you all about the Stratocruiser (KC-97) accident in Mexico City.
Regards, Bob Banta 2005″
Above is the FAA Letter-of-Authorization (LOA) for my taking “Fertile Myrtle” from Tucson to Oakland, California.
After Banta flew “Fertile Myrtle” to Tucson, Jack Kern worked his magic turning this near death-trap into a beautifully restored, good as new, B-29. The “Fertile Myrtle” logo and the X-series airplane drops were refreshed as a fitting memorial to an amazing period in experimental flight testing.
Spick n’ Span! “Fertile Myrtle” was like a new aircraft inside and out when I flew it on a very uneventful flight to Oakland. It would be the only time I flew a B-29 and, given it’s P2B-1S designation, it wasn’t even an actual B-29 “Superfortress!” But it was like “spankin’ new” and flew GREAT!
Banta, if you are reading this, ALL the trim-tabs worked great. The only thing not working were the turbo-chargers purposely by-passed as unnecessary. I found the airplane would do a standard-rate-turn just by opening the outboard cowl flaps.
NASA “borrowed” Fertile Myrtle from the Navy. The US Navy procured four B-29s from the USAF to operate as patrol bombers. These B-29s became P2B-1Ss. NASA referred to “Fertile Myrtle” as a B-29.
Billy with BGen Bob Cardenas
My friend, Bob Cardenas was the X-1 project manager and flew “Fertile Myrtle” on several missions including Yeager’s famous X-1 “Glamorous Glennis” flight as the first time the Sound Barrier was broken in 1947.
Bob is a retired USAF Brigadier General with an incredible resume. He distinguished himself in WWII and, later, with Muroc (Edwards AFB) flight testing. He flew F-105’s in combat during the Vietnam War. Bob was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.
He was born in Mexico. When he was five, his family moved to San Diego, CA. He excelled in mathematics and physics in high school. When Cardenas was a teenager, building models and learning about gliders first sparked his interest in airplanes.
Due to his excellent grades, San Diego State University invited him to enroll.
Bob’s Military service
Pre-World War II
In 1939, while attending San Diego State, he decided to enlist as a private in the California National Guard. In 1940, Cardenas became an aviation cadet. He graduated, received his pilot wings and was commission a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in July 1941.
In 1942, Lt. Cardenas was sent to 29 Palms, CA to help establish the Army Air Corps Glider School. He was assigned to Wright Field, Ohio and became a flight test officer. Cardenas rose quickly in position, was promoted to operations officer and finally director of the Flight Test Unit, Experimental Engineering Laboratory at Wright Field
World War II
In 1944, he was assigned to the 506th Bombardment Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, also known the Flying Eightballs, based at Shipdham in Norfolk, England. He flew his first mission on the B-24 “Southern Comfort” on January 24.
On March 18, Captain Cardenas was flying as Command Pilot for the 44th Bomb Group on his 20th mission. His airplane, the B-24 “Sack Artists” (serial number 42-100073), was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire. His attack run was supposed to target the Manzell Air Armaments factory in Friedrichshafen, Germany. However, the right wing was severely damaged by a shell and two engines were set on fire. According to his report relayed to the War Department, his number 2 engine was “hit by flak [and] on fire,” causing the loss of 3,000 ft. altitude. Despite this damage he “Rejoined formation for a second [bomb] run.” After this pass his numbers 2 and 4 [engines were] on fire,” and “number 3 was vibrating badly” in addition to “gas leaks,” damage to bomb bays, wings, and electrical systems, and “hydraulics inoperative.” Several members of the crew were also wounded, including Cardenas, who received a head injury when a piece of flak pierced his helmet. Since the plane was severely damaged and losing stability, 1st Lieutenant Raymond J. Lacombe decided to pilot the plane to Switzerland. Cardenas’ crew all parachuted safely. The bomber then exploded at a low altitude and sheared off the top of several trees.
Capt. Cardenas landed on the German side of Lake Constance. He swam across the lake to the Swiss side in order to evade capture. He was first interned at a camp for American officers at Adelboden, and was later assigned to teach Swiss officers how to fly interned American bombers at Dübendorf Airfield near Zurich. On 27 September 1944, Cardenas escaped into France with the help of Swiss civilians and the French resistance. He was flown to England and then sent back to the United States to recover from his head injury.
In November 1944, he attended Central Instructors School for B-24 at Smyrna, Tennessee. After graduation, he became a test pilot and was then assigned to Wright Field, Ohio. While at Wright Field, he attended Experimental Flight Test School and later became assistant chief, Bomber Section, and chief, Bomber Operations Section, Flight Test Division.
Post-war to retirement
In 1945, he started piloting experimental aircraft. He piloted a captured German jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me 262, and the Arado Ar 234 jet bomber. Cardenas also piloted the XB-42 “Mixmaster” and XB-43 “Jetmaster.” He was assigned chief test pilot for bomber aircraft and flew all prototypes of that class for the next four years.
In 1947, he became the Officer in Charge of Operations and was the command pilot for “Fertile Myrtle” that launched Captain Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1 supersonic experimental aircraft.
Then in 1948, Major Cardenas was the Officer in Charge of Flight Test Division at Muroc Air Force Base and was Chief Air Force Test Pilot of the Northrop YB-49 flying wing. The YB-49 was one of three converted from the XB-35.
Cardenas later claimed that the YB-49 rotated backwards in sat, and that he warned Glen Edwards about it, who later died in a YB-49 crash. Muroc’s name was later changed to Edwards AFB. Jack Northrop claimed such a rotation was impossible.
After a transcontinental flight in the YB-49, President Truman ordered Cardenas to do a flyby of Pennsylvania Avenue at rooftop level. On the return flight, Cardenas had several serious emergencies including landing at Winslow Airport, Arizona. He would recommend the B-49 program not be continued. YB-49 shown below:
During the Korean War, Cardenas was assigned to Wright Field and Edwards testing new fighters and bombers. Additionally, he was assigned to Okinawa and then to The Pentagon.
During the South East Asia War Games, Cardenas flew F-105 “Thunderchief” on combat missions and was then assigned to McConnell AFB as an instructor for the F-105.
In 1968, Colonel Cardenas was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to Command of the Air Force Special Operations Force at Elgin AFB. Following his assignment to Eglin AFB, he became Vice Commander of the 16th Air Force in Spain. There he negotiated with Muammar al-Gaddafi the withdrawal of US forces from Wheels Air Base, Libya.
After his assignment in Spain, General Cardenas was assigned to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium. At SHAPE, he was the U.S. Deputy to LIVE OAK, a code name for joint military planning operation of the United States, Great Britain and France in response to the Soviet blockade and interference of Western access to Berlin. His final duty assignment was Chief of National Strategic Target List Division, Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, at Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska. Cardenas retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general in 1973.
Cardenas has worked as an executive in the private sector.
In 1983, President Reagan appointed him California coordinator for Southwest Border Economic Action Group. In 1985, he was appointed to Chairman of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Advisory Group by California Governor Deukmejian. He also served on the California Council of Criminal Justice.
In 1987, Governor Duekmejian appointed General Cardenas to the California Veterans Board, he eventually became the chairman.
In 1993, General Cardenas resigned from the California Veterans Board to serve as the chairman of the San Diego United Veterans Council and a director on the Board of Veterans Memorial Center & Museum, in San Diego.
He is currently a member of the Veteran Administration’s Memorials and Cemetery Committee. He was appointed to the committee by former VA Secretary Anthony Principi. He is also a trustee of the Flight Test Historical Foundation at Edwards AFB.
He currently lives with his wife, Gladys, and family in San Diego, California. Bob was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2015.
Military awards and decorations
United States (in order of precedence):
- Air Force Distinguished Service Medal
- Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster
- Distinguished Flying Cross
- Purple Heart
- Meritorious Service Medal
- Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters
- Joint Service Commendation Medal
- Air Force Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster,
- Presidential Citation,
- Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with two Oak Leaf Clusters
Spain: Grand Legion of Aeronautical Merit with Sash & Dagger.
In 1993, the university of New Mexico Department of Engineering honored him for his professional contribution and leadership.
In 1995, he was inducted into the Aerospace Walk of Fame in Lancaster, California, and the Sigma Chi fraternity awarded him the “Significant Sig” medal.
In 2004, he was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of the United States Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.
In 2015, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame
Below: Before and After photos of the cockpit
On March 14, 1947, the Navy took over four B-29-BWs for long-range search missions. The designation P2B-1S was assigned. They were assigned Navy Bureau of Aeronautics numbers as follows:
Boeing B-29-90-BW Superfortress 44-87766 to USN as P2B-1S BuNo 84031
Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress 45-21787 to USN as P2B-1S BuNo 84029
Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress 45-21789 to USN as P2B-1S BuNo 84028
Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress 45-21791 to USN as P2B-1S BuNo 84030
Later, one of the P2Bs (84029) was modified as the carrier aircraft for the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket high-speed rocket-powered research aircraft. The P2B aircraft was named “Fertile Myrtle” and carried the NACA number of 137. The bomb bay was extensively modified to carry a D-558-II nestled underneath the belly. The research aircraft was dropped in flight from the bomb bay cradle, and the rocket engines were fired once the plane had fallen free of the P2B.
The first D-558-II launch took place on September 8, 1950 with test pilot William B. Bridgeman at the controls of the research aircraft and George Jansen at the controls of the B-29. A series of Skyrocket launches took place over the next few years, each one further exploring the outer reaches of the flight envelope. The D-558-II exceeded Mach 2 for the first time on November 20, 1953 with test pilot Scott Crossfield at the controls. The last Skyrocket flight took place in December of 1956.
Former P2B-1S 84029 “Fertile Myrtle” was eventually sold to a civilian owner, a museum in Oakland, California. This was the only example of a flyable B-29 ever being sold by the Air Force to a civilian operator. This B-29 was flown on rare occasions under the civil registration N91329. After many years of inactivity, it was sold to the Kermit Weeks Aviation Museum of Miami, Florida. It was transported there disassembled in 1987. It was registered with the Weeks Museum as N29KW.
I served on the National Aeronautic Association selection board with Scott Crossfield back in the early 1990s. He was an extraordinary gentleman. Sadly, Scott was lost in the crash of his Cessna 210 one night when he flew into an imbedded thunderstorm.
NTSB releases final report on Crossfield crash
By Nathan A. Ferguson
The NTSB has blamed Scott Crossfield’s death on his own failure to obtain updated en route weather information, and on air traffic controllers for not giving him adverse weather avoidance assistance.
The former civilian test pilot took off in his Cessna 210A on April 19, 2006, from Prattville/Grouby Field Airport in Prattville, Ala., and was en route to Manassas, Va., on an IFR flight plan. Crossfield encountered severe embedded thunderstorms and received a clearance to deviate, but it was too late. The airplane disappeared from radar 30 seconds after he initiated the turn. The wreckage was found in the mountains near Ludville, Georgia.
In its final accident report released on Sept. 27, NTSB investigators said that Crossfield, 84, had received several weather briefings leading up to the crash. Before departing, he discussed the weather with an acquaintance and mentioned that he “might need to work his way around some weather, but it did not look serious.”
The airplane was equipped with a Stormscope and an IFR GPS receiver. The GPS, however, was not configured to display satellite weather.
The NTSB pointed out that while ATC’s primary responsibility is the separation of traffic, controllers need to use good judgment when it comes to safety. Investigators found no radar limitations or workload issues that should have prevented weather information from being conveyed to Crossfield. At the same time, Crossfield didn’t ask for weather advisories either.
“Scott Crossfield was one of the most talented pilots ever to touch the controls of an airplane, and his loss is especially poignant because it was so avoidable,” said Bruce Landsberg, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. “Had either party, pilot or controller, simply spoken up about the situation, there’s a very good chance he’d be with us today.”
The Air Safety Foundation has a handy interactive course, Weather Wise: Thunderstorms and ATC, to help pilots avoid these weather encounters and better utilize ATC. The foundation has also created a version for controllers.
Crossfield was a noted test pilot who in 1953 was the first person to fly faster than twice the speed of sound. He achieved fame as the original test pilot of the X-15.
Below: some statistical information on “Fertile Myrtle:”
|Serial #: 45-21787
Construction #: 13681
Civil Registration # N-91329
Model: P2B-1S (B-29)
Name: Fertile Myrtle
– Registered as N29KW.
– Stored disassembled then assembled before Hurricane Andrew destroyed the aircraft. Only the nose section survives.
International Sports Aviation Museum, Lakeland, FL, 2002.
– On loan from Kermit Weeks.
- Crew: 11 (, Co-pilot, Bombardier, Flight Engineer, Navigator, Radio Operator, Radar Observer, Right Gunner, Left Gunner, Central Fire Control, Tail Gunner)
- Length: 99 ft 0 in
- Wingspan: 141 ft 3 in
- Height: 27 ft 9 in
- Wing area: 1,736 sq ft
- Aspect ratio: 11.50:1
- Empty weight: 74,500 lb (Fertile Myrtle: 56,380 lb due to removal of armament, etc.)
- Loaded weight: 120,000 lb
- Max. takeoff weight: 133,500 lb; 135,000 lb plus combat load
- Zero-lift drag coefficient: 0.0241
- Drag area: 41.16 ft²
- Powerplant: 4 × Wright R-3350 -23 and 23A Duplex-Cyclone turbosupercharged radial engines, 2,200 hp each
- Maximum speed: 357 mph (310 knots)
- Cruise speed: 220 mph (190 knots)
- Stall speed: 105 mph (91 knots)
- Range: 3,250 mi (2,820 nmi)
- Ferry range: 5,600 mi (4,900 nmi])
- Service ceiling: 31850 ft
- Rate of climb: 900 ft/min
- Wing loading: 69.12 lb/sqft
- Power/mass: 0.073 hp/lb
- Lift-to-drag ratio: 16.8
- Bombs: 20,000 lb (9,000 kg) standard loadout.
Major General CARL SCHNEIDER, USAF Ret., invited me to attend a Fighter Aces gathering in Tucson a few years ago. I had the privilege of meeting several of the Aces.
I had known Joe Foss very well, but he had Gone West. Still with us is Navy “Hellcat” & “Corsair” Ace, Les Grey who became a close friend. Gone west, Spitfire Ace Jerry Collingsworth and Joe Forester had been fellow members of the Knights of the Round Engines a group founded by Joe Foss.
I took Joe Forester up on his last flight in my Stearman. He flew it like he’d been flying it daily. A couple of hours later he could not remember me or the airplane. Sadly, Joe was gone a few months later from Alzheimers. Barrett Tillman wrote a story about Joe and his amazing flight across the Pacific in the P-38. Amazing because one engine had been rendered inoperative by the Japanese! He flew nearly 900 miles on one engine farther than anyone before or after.
P-38 “Florida Cracker” flown by Joe Forster
This painting presented with permission from Artist Troy White. Visit his web site at Star Dust Studios.
Joe Forster is an American Hero. He shot down 9 Japanese aircraft in the Pacific Theater during WWII, flying with the 475th Fighter Group “Satan’s Angels.” On 14 October 1944, Joe’s left engine was lost from an attack by a Japanese Zeke. He flew 900 miles on one engine back to his base for a mission time of eight hours and twenty minutes. Barrett’s interview with Joe is below. This will be the first of many interviews of Aviation Heroes by Barrett.
INTERVIEW WITH P-38 ACE JOE FORSTER
Joseph M. Forster was born in Gainsesville, Florida, in 1919 and enlisted in the Army in June 1940 at age 20. He made sergeant before being accepted for pilot training, being commissioned at Williams Field, Arizona in June 1943.
Lt. Forster rotated through three fighter groups before reporting to the 475th in October. Assigned to the 432nd Fighter Squadron, he began flying combat missions from New Guinea with 330 hours total time. He flew the P-38H, J, and L, all named Florida Cracker.
Joe’s first claims were two Zekes in November 1943, both credited as probables. His first confirmed kills were two Tonys and an Oscar over Hollandia on April 3, 1944 (by then a first lieutenant).
His next victory was a Zeke over Borneo October 14. He made ace with an Oscar over Leyte on November 2, followed by another on the 8th. On December 7, 1944 he downed a Zeke and Dinah (plus a Dinah probable) and finished with a confirmed Zeke and a damaged over Mabalacat on Christmas Day.
His total was nine confirmed, three probables, one damaged, becoming one of ten aces in the 432nd FS and 34 in the group.
Joe was promoted to captain in January 1945 and returned to US at end of the year.
Subsequently he served with the United Nations in Palestine, commanded a training squadron at Williams AFB, became an advisor to the South Korean Air Force, and commanded the 21st Tactical Air Support Squadron in Nha Trang, South Vietnam, 1968-69.
Joe retired as a lieutenant colonel in January 1971. His decorations include two DFCs and seven Air Medals.
You flew with a lot of talented pilots. Who stands out?
I really admired Elliot Summer (a double ace) for his flying ability. He was my mentor without knowing it. But I went through training and combat with PJ Dahl. (Perry John Dahl joined the squadron with Joe, having logged 330 hours, the same as Joe. He scored his first victory on same day as Joe, and also finished with nine kills. He flew two tours in Vietnam 1970-75, and retired 1978.)
Cy Homer of the 8th Group was really good—but he practiced a lot. I used to see him out practicing when I was slow-timing an engine or just flying around the area. He would do Immelmanns or something until he could do them perfectly.
(Capt. Cyril F. Homer was a triple ace in the 8th FG. He died in 1975.)
Tommy McGuire (431st FS) was the best P-38 pilot I ever saw. He was a natural–he just got in and flew the airplane. Many times I’ve seen him come back single-engine, and while the book said you should make a straight in approach and lower your gear a couple miles out, he’d make an overhead approach just like normal. Other times he’d slip that Lightning until it was almost crossways, and I’ve never heard an airplane make a sound like that.
He was really good but didn’t brag about it. A lot of people thought he was a cocky little guy, and maybe he was, but he cared about his people and looked after them as best he could. That’s how he was killed.
Was there much discussion of making ace in those days?
I don’t remember a lot being made of it, though we all had grown up with stories of World War I. I’d say that very few pilots
really wanted to be aces. If it happened, great, but if not, the important thing was to come home. Most of us wanted to get to the fight, mix it up by making a couple of passes, and take whatever shots we could, then go home so you could do it again another day. When you got that fifth confirmed, somebody might buy you a drink and say, “Congratulations, ace”, but otherwise that was about it. There seems to be more interest now than there was back then.
You didn’t judge most guys by their victory score. Mainly you wanted to fly with people you trusted, who were good pilots and would be there when you needed them.
I don’t think there’ll be many more aces, if any. I know there’s talk of fighting in space but that’s unlikely unless we come up against aliens or something. It’s just too damned expensive today, let alone in the future. So I don’t think there’ll be any fighting in space until this planet is ruled by one country or group of countries that can organize things.
You made the longest single-engine flight in P-38 history. How did that occur?
On October 13, 1944, our group and a couple of others were assigned to escort bombers in a big attack on the Japanese oil refineries at Balikpapan in eastern Borneo. We were based on Biak, near New Guinea, which was a long way from Borneo, let me tell you. I think it was about 1,200 or 1,300 miles. Anyway, we couldn’t get there on one load of gas so we staged through Halmahera in the Celebes. Today nobody knows about the Celebes but there was a very crude base there. It had hardly any facilities—mainly fuel and pierced steel planking (PSP) for a runway.
Colonel Mac (Charles H. MacDonald) was on stateside leave so the 475th was led by Lt. Col. M.M. Smith. We flew out to Halmahera and stayed overnight. The 49th Group was also there plus a P-47 outfit. We had no way to take our crew chiefs so the pilots had to service their own planes.
We had brand new P-38L-1s, bare metal instead of the camouflaged J models we’d been flying. My airplane had about 30 hours on it.
On the 14th we arrived at 22,000 feet with the others at about 18,000. We took the bombers over the target and they did a really good job. On the way out, a Zeke crossed 90 degrees in front of me, chased by a lone P-38. I just dropped my nose and Brrrrt. I fired a very short burst, maybe one second. The damn thing just blew up. I guess the other P-38 pilot must’ve been mad as hell!
(On that day 5th Fighter Command claimed 38 victories over Borneo: five by the 475th.)
Heading back out over the water there was a thin overcast at about 22,000; we were at 20. I was looking around for something more to shoot at when I saw a little guy come out through the thin overcast. I called in to Col. Smith that the Jap was about a mile and a half from us but Smith said, “Joe, I can’t see a thing. Pull out and make one pass.” We didn’t have much fuel to spare.
I was with the second flight behind Smith and saw the Zero go down on him, firing but he didn’t touch Smith. Then he looped back up. I was turning right as quick as I could but the little SOB came around in the tightest turn you can imagine. He hit me in the left engine. I pushed everything to the firewall, going straight down to the right. I hit terminal velocity at about 180 degrees in the turn. It seemed like everything was coming apart, it was shaking so much. I couldn’t even read the instruments.
I remembered that we had dive brakes in the new planes so I hit the switch. Boy, everything worked just like it was supposed to. It slowed the plane and I leveled off right on the water. I had never been so close to crashing. But I feathered the engine and looked around. I was completely alone. Colonel Smith was a pretty good guy but he didn’t take care of his people like Colonel MacDonald did. Smith said that I should go to the nearest island or submarine rescue station or ditch and wait for an amphibian. That last suggestion did me no good at all. There was a strong wind and nobody could have landed in the water that day.
Well, I wanted to get rid of all the weight possible so I shot up all my ammunition. I started climbing but I was a little upset and nervous. I wanted at least 2,000 feet so if the other engine quit I could still bail out. I had my oxygen mask on most of the time, and when I took it off I could smell the salt spray and the smoke in the cockpit.
As I remember, it was 836 miles from Balikpapan to Halmahera. But my route back was probably closer to 900 because I wanted to avoid anyplace that would shoot at me. About an hour out I called for a radar steer but got no answer. I kept calling for about 30-40 minutes and nobody answered. Then I heard from one of our squadron, Lt. Rats Ratajski, a nice guy from Milwaukee. (2nd Lt. Charles J. Ratajski, 4 victories.) He had some extra fuel so he waited for other planes to land and he heard me. He said, “I hear you, Joe.” He offered to be my radio relay to the base. I told him I was probably west-southwest and they should look for me in that area.
In no more than two minutes he said, “Joe, they want you to turn 90 degrees right for one minute.” That was the hardest turn I ever made in my life, because I was headed away from base. But almost immediately he said, “They got you!” I followed the vector and in about 40 minutes they brought me right over the field but I was high as hell—about 2,000 feet.
By then I was exhausted. I was completely dehydrated but I still had to get down. The book says that on one engine you make a two-mile straight-in approach but because of my height I was still fast, about 150 mph. Even with gear and flaps down, that airplane just wouldn’t slow down. I looked out and saw revetments and airplanes going past. It was a 7,000-foot strip but the end was coming up so I slammed down on the PSP and got on the brakes.
There were two B-24s on the right side with a little space between them. I must’ve been doing 75 mph under the wing of a ’24, made a 180, and came around to align myself with the fighters. They were from the 49th Group.
When I parked and shut down, I was so tired that I couldn’t get out at first. Finally I eased my way down and the next thing I knew I was face down with dirt on my face. I rolled over on my back and looked up. There was McGuire. He said, “You made it, Joe!” He was like that—he looked out for people even though we were in different squadrons. Then a bunch of other guys came over and congratulated me.
When I felt better, I looked over my plane. A 20mm shell had hit the leading edge of the left wing, hit the diagonal brace on the engine mount, and exploded. It destroyed the oil cooler but that was about all. You could’ve put in a new cooler and flown the plane out of there. But we had no mechanics and no spare parts.
I needed a ride home to Biak so I scrounged around and found a C-47 pilot who was unloading fuel and bombs. I offered to help him so we could get out of there a little faster but we needed more people. He talked to a truck driver who said that wasn’t his job. That captain pulled his .45, chambered a round, and said he needed some help. Believe me, he got it!
In retrospect, I think I could’ve flown that new airplane home. I could’ve put in enough oil to run the left engine long enough for takeoff, then shut it down and come back single engine. But I didn’t think of that at the time. For weeks afterward I’d hear from guys who saw my plane sitting there. Finally it was pushed into the sea. By then I had a new one when we went to the Philippines.
My total mission time on 14 October was 8 hours and 20 minutes. I’d guess my return flight was about 4 hours and 15 or 20 minutes. Far as I know, it was the longest flight by a P-38 on single engine—at least the longest over water!
We will add more of Barrett’s interview with Joe soon. Thanks.
Southwest Pacific Map
BARRETT TILLMAN website: http://BTillman.com
Barrett’s Useful Links:
At the Tucson meeting Gen. Schneider and I waved at Barrett Tillman as he was leaving. I would get to know him a bit more at Airbase Arizona. Tillman is an uncommonly great author.
I met Christina Olds who was working on finishing her late father’s book. A must read if you haven’t. And I met Chuck Yeager. Yeager was known for his 1947 flight in the X-1 breaking the sound barrier. During WWII he became a double ace + one.
I was surprised to see Yeager sitting by himself during the pre-dinner “Happy Hour” but had heard that Yeager had a reputation for being unfriendly. I couldn’t resist and introduced myself.
I’m still puzzled as to the “reputation” part as I found Yeager delightful. Of course I felt honored to meet a great American aviation legend. Yeager made me feel like we were ol’ buddies! We spent the better part of an hour swappin’ tales. Naturally, mine paled by comparison. What an amazing history he has.
I discovered that we had quite a bit in common. Of course my resume is missing a few things Yeager has on his resume. For one, I don’t belong to the Fighter Aces Association likely because I’ve never shot anyone down. However, I have flown as a test pilot but certainly not in the class of Gen. Yeager.
For sure we both love to fly and to fly fish.
I was sitting in my hospital room after having my right knee replaced. The motorized knee machine had my leg extending and retracting back and forth, back and forth.
Soon the staff wheeled in a fellow who would become my “roommate” for a couple of days until I could be released and go home to finish recuperation. It wasn’t long before we were alone and his left leg was in a machine doing to his left knee the same as was mine to my right knee.
He asked, “What’s your name?” “Billy Walker,” I replied. “Les Gray is my name,” my new roommate replied. “What do you do,” asked Les. “I’m retired. What about you?” Les said,”I’m retired too.” “What did you do,” he asked. “I flew airplanes,” I said. “And you?” “I flew airplanes too!”
This was mid afternoon when our aviation connection took off. It was back and forth like that until two or three in the morning! Cheryl and I remain good friends with Les and Paula Gray. At this writing (January 2017) Les is a spry 95 year young fellow. Paula just recently retired from the office next door to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Still in the hospital, the next morning, after Les told me about his Beechcraft Bonanza and I had told him about the ol’ Stearman I had, Les asked, “Do you know Terry Emig?”
THEN IT HIT ME!
Of course I knew Terry. We flew together in the Arizona Stearman Squadron. Then I realized that my new roommate was a WWII Ace! My flyin’ buddy, Terry Emig had honored Les by dedicating his Stearman 034 to Les. “CMDR Lester E. Gray, Jr., USN, Ret.”
I called my buddy, Terry Emig and asked, “Do you know where I am?” Of course he had no clue but had to have been surprised to learn my roommate was the Navy Ace he memorialized on the side of 034.
Two weeks after we “escaped” from the hospital, Les and I were flying 964 from Chandler to Kingman for an airshow. Les flew that ol’ Stearman like he’d been flying it every day since he first flew it at Glenview Naval Air Station near Chicago.
Les and Paula had a scuba diving business along with a specially built boat capable of ocean travel. That is how Terry and Michele Emig got to know Les along with discovering his amazing WWII history.
Les has been honored by the Commemorative Air Force, Airbase Arizona, and is truly one of the Legends in Aviation an annual event at the CAF’s museum hangar at Falcon Field in Mesa.
Stearman 964 prior to restoring it back to it’s proper Navy livery.
Lester Eric Gray Jr.
Les Gray was born in Jefferson City, Missouri on 27 July 1922 and grew up in St. Louis. He attended Jefferson College in St. Louis before joining the Navy’a V-5 program when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In August 1942 Gray was activated and began his pre-flight training at the University of Iowa. He went back to St. Louis for primary training at the Naval Air Station flying the N2S Boeing Stearman.
Gray was commissioned on 15 June 1943 and ordered to Green Cove Springs, Florida for operational training. Now an Ensign, Gray was assigned to VF-10 transitioning into the F6F “Hellcat.” Training in Maui, Hawaiian preceded his tour on the Enterprise, part of Task Force 58.
His first missions were flown over Taroa, Maloelap, Kwajalein, Jaluit, Majuro, Truk, Palau, Yap, Woleai, and Ulithi before scoring his first victory while supporting the invasion of Saipan. Mid-afternoon on 11 June 1944, Gray launched from the deck of the Enterprise and almost immediately destroyed a Ki-43 type “Oscar.”
The Japenese called the Ki-43 Type 1 Hayabusa the “Peregrine Falcon”. The Oscar was the most widely flown fighter of the Japanese Army Air Force during the war (Allied code name Oscar). Entering squadron service shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack, the Oscar was highly maneuverable with a good rate of climb, but somewhat underpowered and, despite updates, unable to compete effectively with U.S. fighters in the latter stages of the war.
Flying on between Saipan and Tinian, he spotted 3 Zero’s which had an altitude advantage. As he climbed, Gray was joined by another Hellcat with 2 Zeros on its tail. Gray turned into them and got a telling head-on pass on one and caused the other to break off. Continuing to rendezvous, Gray was jumped by a Zero. A running dog-fight ensued. Finally, by using his landing flaps to turn with the Zero, he shot it down over Tinian to finish his triple. The next day, Gray’s division spotted a twin-engine “Betty” bomber. On one pass, Gray and three other pilots shared a victory.
The G4M – Allied reporting-name ‘Betty’ – was the main ‘heavy’ bomber of the Japanese Navy during World War II. It was remarkable for its long range, but this was achieved by depriving the aircraft of armor while providing it with huge fuel tanks in the wings. Since the tanks were not self-sealing the Betty was extremely vulnerable, tending to go up in flames whenever hit. This led to its receiving the derisive nicknames ‘One-Shot Lighter’ and ‘the Flying Cigar’. Despite its range and speed, it was therefore – not surprisingly – unpopular with its crews. This is the airplane Admiral Yamamoto was riding in when shot down by P-38’s over Raboul.
Air Group 10 returned to the States and re-equipped with F4U-4 Corsairs and was assigned to the CVS-11 Intrepid. Returning to the Pacific Theater, Lt. Gray became an ace on 12 April 1945, when he downed two Zekes while flying a combat air patrol north of Okinawa.
The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a lightweight fighter aircraft operated by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service (IJNAS) from 1940 to 1945. The origin of its official designation was that “A” signified a fighter and “6” for the sixth model built by Mitsubishi (“M”). The A6M was usually referred to by the Allies as the “Zero”—a name that was frequently misapplied to other Japanese fighters, such as the Nakajima Ki-43—as well as other codenames and nicknames, including “Zeke”, “Hamp” and “Hap”.
After the war, Gray was released to inactive duty but remained in the reserves. He was in the decorating business until recalled to active duty during the Korean War. He flew F4Us off the Tarawa in October 1951, spending nine months in the Mediterranean before returning to the States. He was an instructor for the Navy Training Command before his release in December 1955.
Gray joined Temco Aircraft, Goodyear, Arizona, as a Senior Technical Writer, and joined Goodyear Aerospace in the same capacity in 1959. He retired in 1973 and opened Arizona Divers Supply which he sold in 1985 to finally retire.
Commander Les E. Gray, Jr. still flies albeit he recently sold his Beechcraft Bonanza. A year ago he flew a friend’s Navy N2S-3 Stearman to the Kingman airshow.
Gray receive two Distinguished Flying Crosses and five Air Medals to go with his Ace status having recorded 5 ¼ victories.
BELOW: TERRY EMIG’S STEARMAN 034 HONORS LES GRAY
BELOW: TERRY EMIG’S NIECE, EMILEY DARLING DID A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT LES AND WE LESSER MORTALS IN HER ASU PROJECT CALLED “STEARMAN STORIES” ON YOUTUBE.