NIGHT FLYING

Night flying was always dangerous, particularly in a single engine airplane.  If the moon was full, it was a huge help, but on a dark night, it was eerie.  Also, way out in the boondocks it was difficult to determine where the horizon was, since there were very few lights.  There also was no radar.

The AT6 Texan, the advanced single engine trainer had split flaps.  This meant that when the airplane was airborne and the flaps were raised, the airplane would lose lift and would sink about 150 feet.  When climbing to a given altitude with the flaps down it was usual to climb an extra 150 feet before leveling out and raising the flaps.  Also, the AT6 used a hydraulic system for the flap control and also for raising and lowering the wheels.  The hydraulic system was unusual in that it was not energized until the power lever was pushed down.  To raise or lower the landing gear, it was necessary to first place the position lever in the up or down position and then to push down on the energizing lever.  The same was true for controlling the flaps.  This was a very good idea since if there was a leak in the hydraulic system all of the fluid would not leak out very quickly since it was under no pressure until the power button was pushed.  However, it could cause a problem as you will see.

We were practicing night landings during a very dark night.  We were ordered to land without aircraft landing lights, runway flood lights, nor runway outline lights.  The instructor was in the back seat sweating it out, and I was in the front seat making a full flap approach to a landing, having trouble deciding where the runway could be.  I did find a dark strip that I decided was the runway and made a very decent landing.  At the moment that I reached down to pull the flap handle to the up position, the tower called and ordered me to make a left turn at the intersection that I was approaching, and take off again.  My eyes were peeled looking for the intersection and I also had to respond to the tower which required my left hand to squeeze the microphone button.  With all of this activity going on, I forgot to push down the hydraulic actuating lever that would pressurize the hydraulic system and raise the flaps.  All three of the levers (landing gear, flaps, and hydraulic pressure) were on the left side of the cockpit and also required the use of the left hand.  So now the flaps were fully down and the handle was in the up position.

Remember that it was a pitch black night out and that there was no runway lights to guide us.

I found the intersection, made a left turn and applied full power for the takeoff.  I headed down the runway and when I reached takeoff speed the aircraft lifted off the runway and we were again airborne.  I reached down and pulled the wheel retracting handle to the up position and then pushed down on the hydraulic power lever.  The wheels came up, but so did the flaps!

I was still on full power, but the airspeed was not increasing as it should and the altimeter still showed that we were at ground level but not climbing.  I couldn't figure out what was happening, but I knew that I was in trouble.  I could see the shapes of trees sliding by out of the corner of my eyes and I was past the end of the runway and the airspeed was still not increasing. 

Finally the altimeter needle flickered and began to show a gain in altitude.  We were climbing out and on our way around for another landing.  After we had landed my instructor asked me to taxi off the runway.  He climbed out of the airplane and told me to complete the remainder of the landings without him.

When the night flying was completed and I had parked the airplane, my instructor sat down with me in the operations room and explained to me what had happened.  At first he could not figure out what was going on, but then he realized what I had done wrong, and when he did, he felt very frustrated, since there were no controls for the flaps and landing gear in the rear seat.

Great lesson!!

Night flying was now part of our routine.  We were becoming accustomed to the blue exhaust flame coming out of the side of the engine, and there were no more emergency calls to the tower that the airplane was on fire.

We had a night cross country from Moultrie, Georgia to Tallahassee, Florida, and then return to the base.  We were to fly to the airport in Tallahassee, but not land.  There would be an instructor on the ground and we were to contact him via the radio and circle the field until he spotted us and order us to return to Moultrie.

It was a dark night with no sizable cities along the route that we could use for checkpoints.  The flight was approximately one hour and fifteen minutes each way.  This was not a triangular flight as was usual, but a straight line flight going and coming.  This would keep us further from the field than a triangular flight would.

At briefing we were given the wind direction and speed.  We were to plan the flight from this information and from our charts.  After the briefing we all sat down at desks with our computers {not the electronic type that we use today} and figured our headings and ETA (estimated time of arrival).

We departed at about five minute intervals beginning at about 8PM.  We therefore expected to return in time for a good nights sleep sometime before midnight.

I was on my way at about eight thirty after eating dinner, doing the flight planning, and preflighting my airplane.  Although it was a very dark night, it was very smooth, and I anticipated a good flight.

We were ordered to only use the radio for communications and to not use it for navigation.  The only radio navigation that was possible at the time was the old radio range with A and N quadrants which was fairly easy to use, but not for precision approaches.  This was to be strictly an exercise in dead reckoning navigation.

After takeoff I picked up my compass heading, climbed to my assigned altitude, and trimmed the aircraft for an effortless flight to Tallahassee.  There was absolutely nothing to be seen on the ground, and that made the trip very lonesome.  When the ETA was up I tried to pick out an airfield, but the ground was black.  I called the instructor who was sitting in an airplane on the ground to see if he had me spotted.  He said that he could see me circling and gave me permission to return to base at Moultrie. 

I now turned to my compass heading that would take me home.  I was a little skeptical about the instructor having seen me, but I was happy to be on the return leg of the trip and casually dispelled all thoughts that perhaps he had seen someone else, or was too sleepy to pay too much attention to the aircraft checking in.

After about an hour, when I should have seen the light beacon at the airport, I became somewhat anxious and decided to cheat and turn on the radio beam that would bring me home.  I followed the beam for a while and soon was able to see the split beacon that was home base.  I turned off the radio beacon feeling that I should not cheat too much and headed directly for the field.  As I approached, I called the tower for landing instructions giving them my call number.  They answered giving me the runway in use, and the other information that was routine for a landing, and I acknowledged.  I was now quite relaxed and made the aircraft ready for landing, putting my wheels and flaps down and switching to the fullest fuel tank.  I did notice that both of the two tanks were fairly low, but that was of no concern since I was now on final approach.

I glanced to my right as I made for the runway.  Instead of seeing a group of single engine AT6's I saw instead a group of twin engine aircraft and realized that this was Moody Air Force base which I knew was east of Moultrie.

I quickly raised my landing gear and flaps and headed west.  After about twenty minutes I could see the split beacon that I assumed was definitely Moultrie.  My right fuel tank now was empty and my left tank was reading empty.  Now I realized that I had compounded the problem by not landing at Moody and I began to sweat.  I made ready to bail out when the fuel would run out.  It was standard procedure to not make a forced landing at night since it was impossible to see a safe place to land unless you were lucky enough to be over an airport when the time came.

The engine kept purring along and I was ready to go the instant that I heard it skip a beat.  I was now coming up to Moultrie and I again called for landing instructions.  The tower gave me the instructions and also added that he thought that he had given them to me a while back.  I told him that he must be mistaken and ended the conversation.  If you are wondering how the tower at Moultrie was able to converse with me when I was a good distance away, remember that we were using low frequencies which had a longer range than the Very High Frequency radios now in use.  The Very High Frequency was line of sight, so that the higher the altitude the further the range, since the earth is round.

I was now busy deciding if I had enough altitude to make the runway if the engine should quit at this time.  It kept running and I was on the runway and taxiing to the parking area and then finally I was parked and I had the pleasure of shutting down the engine without it ever skipping a beat.  What a relief!

I waited for the fuel truck to come over.  The driver told me that I was one of the few who had returned from the cross country and that there was much concern about missing aircraft.  It seems that the weather people had given us the wind direction 180 degrees in the wrong direction.  The man who filled the fuel tanks told me that he had never pumped this much fuel into one aircraft before.

The final night cross country was scheduled the night before graduation, not intentionally, but because bad weather had prevented us from flying earlier in the week.  I was very antsy about this flight since I had problems with the other last night cross country.  Therefore, I decided to do some preliminary preparations.

I spent a couple of evenings going over the charts of the route that we were to take.  I found that there was a light line connecting most of the towns along the way.  I marked them and memorized the codes to identify them and also memorized the shape of the towns that we would pass along the way.  I was ready!

While I was doing all of this preparation my two roommates were busy smoking cigars and contemplating where they were going after graduation.  They were a few years older than I was and they came from the same part of the country, Texas.  I was sort of their baby brother, and they apparently did not share the anxiety that I had with night cross countries.

Anyhow, the time came for takeoff and it was again a very dark night and I was already sweating and it was December.  I had all of my charts out and folded properly and I knew that there was nothing more that I could do to prepare for the mission.  I was now very much at home in this type of aircraft and could concentrate on navigating, paying very little attention to the flying.

The tower ordered me out to the runway, cleared me for takeoff, and after noting the time, I was on my way.  I was off the ground, and after raising the landing gear and setting the throttle, trim tabs, and prop pitch to climb, I headed for my first checkpoint.  I reached my assigned altitude, reset the throttle and prop for cruise, and began looking for the light line.  Sure enough there it was.  I checked the Morse code to be certain that this was the correct one.  I passed the first checkpoint right on the money and I was now smiling at how easy it was.  Now I knew that there was no way that I would screw up this cross country!  I also began to feel that my roommates would have no problems and that they would laugh at me for taking all of the precautions that I did.

Now I was making my first turn to a new heading and I was right on time.  The light line was working fine and it was making it very easy.  I was enjoying the scenery now and I was totally relaxed.  I made my next turn and again I was on time.  This was the last leg of the trip and I settled down and rechecked my engine instruments and kept my compass right on the money.  I switched fuel tanks and felt secure that I would soon see the airport beacon with its split beam.

I began to worry that everything was going too well.  It was such an easy flight and my roommates who had each become airborne before me would probably now be on the ground.  I could hear some radio chatter and assumed that it was from some of my friends checking in and landing.

The beacon was in sight in the distance and all that I had to do was to make a good landing and tomorrow was graduation.  I had it made and I was happy.  It was now time to begin my letdown to traffic pattern level and call in for landing instructions.  I called the tower and was told which runway was active and I was told that I was number one in the landing pattern.  I made the traditional 45‑degree entry and then entered my downwind leg with the altimeter stuck to the 800‑foot pattern altitude.  I then made my turn to the base leg and as soon as I knew that I had the field made I cut the throttle to make a power off landing as was customary.  I rechecked to be sure that my landing gear was in the down position and I brought down full flaps, put the prop in low pitch, re‑trimmed the airplane, and turned to final approach to land.  I glanced to my right and saw some AT6 aircraft parked and then watched the runway coming up at me.  I leveled out just above the runway and eased the nose up, heard the stall warning horn go off and almost instantly heard the tires touching the runway.

I taxied to the apron, parked the airplane, and shut down the engine, knowing that this was the last time that I would fly as an aviation cadet.  The next time that I would fly I would be a fully qualified pilot and an officer in the Army Air Force.

I filled out the necessary paper work, climbed out of the airplane, took off my parachute, and headed for the pilot's ready room.  A couple of my friends were putting away their gear and I did the same.  We then headed for the barracks for some sleep.  I entered my room, but my roommates were not there and I knew that they were probably either in the latrine or out in the back of the barracks having a smoke.

I took a quick shower and went to sleep; it was late.  I awoke the next morning and found that my roommates had not slept in their beds, or were already having breakfast.  They probably made their beds quietly to keep from awakening me.  I looked at my watch and found that it was quite early.  I went into the latrine to do my ablutions and met some of my classmates.  They were discussing last night's cross country and were commenting that rumor had it that eight of the aircraft on the mission had not returned including my two roommates.

I dressed for the graduation ceremony and went to the mess hall for breakfast where I found out that for sure my roommates had not returned last night but had become lost and each had landed at different airports around the state of Georgia.  They did miss the graduation ceremony, but they did receive their wings and commissions the following day when they were brought back to base.  However, I confronted them with the fact that I was their superior officer since I had received my commission a day before they did.

I never again discussed the incident with my roommates, and to this day I have no idea why they were lost, and after graduation I never saw them again.

 

HOME 

After graduation I was given my first leave to go home for ten days.  One of my friends, who lived in New York, and I, left together and went to the train station for our tickets.  The next train was filled, but we were told off the cuff that if we spoke to the conductor and told him that we hadn't been home for a year he might find us some seats.

We did just that and since we were in uniform the conductor had us wait on the platform of one of the cars while he rearranged the seating.  He found two attractive young women and asked the individuals sitting next to them to change their seats for one reason or another.  He then brought us to the vacated seats and introduced us to the girls.  I was in one car and my friend was in the next car.  The trip was overnight, and the lights were turned down to allow the passengers to sleep.  Several times during the night my friend came over to see how I was making out.  He was having a ball and when we arrived in New York he apparently had made arrangements to spend part of his leave with his new friend.

It was great to see my family and some friends who were not in the service.  My older sister was thrilled that I was now an officer and a pilot and she made me take her to Manhattan so that we might come across some enlisted men who would be required to salute me.  I was embarrassed and tried to stay off the streets, but when we did pass some much older enlisted men they did salute, and indeed, I was embarrassed.

While in Manhattan we visited one of the vaudeville theaters where Milton Berle was doing his thing.  My cousin Marty Ragaway was his writer and his good friend, and Marty had invited me to visit the theater while I was home on leave.  So we went backstage and asked for Marty and to my surprise we were invited into Milton Berle's dressing room.  Marty was there and he introduced us to Mr. Berle who was in a nervous frenzy before going on-stage.  He reached out his hand and shook mine and I was astounded to find that his hand was sweaty and shaking.

Marty told us that he was always that way before going on-stage and that as soon as he began his routine it would all settle down.  After the war Marty ghost wrote Milton's book which I believe was called the "White Elephant".

My cousin Marty was about a year or two older than I was and he was well into his profession as a gag writer.  Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and made a name for himself writing for several of the current comedians including Red Skelton.  Marty could not enter the service because he had a speech defect and he always felt left out for having had to sit out the war.

Years later Marty was one of the people who helped produce the Country Music Awards show each year in Nashville, until he died of cancer.  He was a kind and gentle man with great talent.  We were not only related, but we were also close friends.  We lived far apart after the war, but always kept in touch by telephone.  We also met every year in Gatlinburg, Tennessee about a week before he went on to Nashville.

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