Those of you who have read my novels must have realized by now that I just love old airplanes, especially those of World War II vintage. I come by this affinity quite honestly. I grew up with the aviation industry.
I was born in 1936, less than ten years after Charles Lindberg made the first New York-Paris flight across the Atlantic and less than 35 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. When I was a child, the sight of a plane in the sky was an infrequent occurrence. The biggest aircraft which most people in my hometown had seen was a Piper Cub. The Douglas DC-2 transport, the first really modern airliner, was less than 2 years old in 1936 and the immortal DC-3 was just coming into service. The U.S. Army Air Corps had less than 1,000 operable aircraft.
A frequent pastime of my early childhood was to watch small airplanes take off and land at the local airport. As the U.S. began gearing up for WWII, an Army Air Corps Reserve unit was established there. The reservists spent Sunday afternoons in flight exercises. Parents would park at the airport and everyone would watch the action. To us at this time, manned flight still had the aura of magic. On December 7, 1941, our pleasant daydreams came to an end. Our family was actually at the airport for our after-church entertainment when we received the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.
The WWII years brought a bewildering explosion in the aircraft industry. Franklin Roosevelt, our world-wise President, had seen what was coming and began the shift to a wartime economy early. The U.S. media of the time unabashedly enlisted in the war effort. As children, we read of our new air arsenal in school as well as seeing encouraging newsreels with every movie. All the kids knew about the Flying Tigers’ success with the early P-40s (fighters were designated “pursuit planes” at the time). We became experts on the B-25 after the thrilling Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Shots of the 8th Air Force B-17 “Flying Fortresses” and larger B-24s pounding “Fortress Europe” became a mainstay of movie newsreels. Sharing the screen were dazzling shots of Navy Wildcats, Hellcats, Corsairs, and Avengers taking off and landing on the carriers in the Pacific. We also were treated to actual gun camera footage showing enemy aircraft being blasted from the sky. As kids, we never doubted that the Allies were going to win this war. The only question was when.
The appearance of jet fighters in Germany’s arsenal would have shocked us had we known about them. Censors kept that knowledge from the general public until very late in the war. Only as an adult did I learn that Hitler had delayed introduction of the Messerschmitt 262 jet for a full year by insisting that it be redesigned to carry bombs. A fleet of jets in 1943 could have disrupted all of the Allies’ plans. Talk about divine intervention? Instead, The 8th Air Force Fighter Command broke the back of Germany’s fighter forces in the winter of 1943-1944. By June 6th, Germany could only muster two Me-109s to attack the landing beaches.
In 1943-44, my hometown got a new airfield. None of us had any idea why until huge, cylindrical bombers started landing there to refuel on cross-country flights. These new B-29s would soon rain devastation on Japan’s wooden cities. The use of two atomic bombs brought a climax to that campaign.
The years following the war brought a large falloff in the numbers and types of military aircraft. Most of the wartime mainstays disappeared, leaving only a few bomber and fighter types. But the civilian airline business literally exploded in size. Over 10,000 C-47s, the military version of the DC-3, suddenly came available, along with several hundred 4-engine C-54s (DC-4s). The war had covered the world with long runways that were perfect for use as civilian airports. Air travel, once the realm of the very rich, soon became available to all.
I never lost my fascination with the aircraft of my childhood. Over the years, I have collected aviation books and visited aviation museums at every opportunity. The original Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was always a treat to be savored. The addition of the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, was a quantum leap forward for aviation enthusiasts. I have also visited the British RAF museum at Duxford, England, where operable versions of WWII planes still conduct mock dogfights. Also at Duxford is the Museum of the American Airmen, Britain’s tribute to the thousands of U.S. airmen who have flown from those islands. Twelve O’clock High is my favorite movie of all time.
During last month’s cruise to Alaska, I toured the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage. Alaska has a rich heritage of flight, and its famous “bush pilots” made possible the settlement of its vast areas. The photo with this article is of a Grumman G-21 Goose amphibian (it can operate from either water or a runway). Designed as an eight-seat commuter aircraft about the time of my birth, the plane had a long history of use in Alaska. It also figured prominently in my second novel, Hold Back the Sun. Just after the vast oil complex at Balikpapan, Borneo, falls to Japan, the Royal Dutch Shell officials in Java sent their G-21s back to Borneo to rescue their stranded employees there. Lighted by blazing refineries ashore, the planes land on the long, mine-studded Balikpapan Bay. Overloaded with over 20 refugees, the planes manage to take off and fly some 500 miles back to Soerabaya, Java. Although I fictionalized my account of the rescue, real Dutchmen actually flew this harrowing flight and made it home unscathed.
Anyone know of any new aviation museums?