Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Night Fright

After Bainbridge Air Base, which had been a 'country club' existence, Reese Air Force Base, Texas comes as a shock. We are in World War 2 style barracks, albeit three to a room with an adjacent small, common room with three metal desks and chairs. We have our own shower and toilet which when compared to the cadets' living quarters 10 years before, is luxury. But, as Under Class we are always ready for 'spot' inspections by the TAC Officers or our Upper Classmen. We keep everything in white glove condition - except on Friday nights when we are exempt and the beer is 'on' at the Cadet Club.

It is a mixed class - half the students are aviation cadets and the others are commissioned officers from ROTC (a college commissioning program at 'land grant' universities), a U.S. military academy, or perhaps Officer Candidate School or even some who have been navigators. They live in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters (BOQ) or with their spouses in off base in private rentals. We are all expected to attend the same classes and compete for class standing which, when it comes time to be given our assignments, will determine the order in which we chose them.

Reese is no 'country club'. It is strictly military - gate guards 24 hours a day, salutes for the incoming officers' cars which have special stickers, and inspections for the cars piled full of soon-to-graduate, sometimes inebriated, Upper Class Aviation Cadets. As Lubbock is a 'dry' Texas town with a church on almost every corner and no bars, we drive to the next county that allows us to imbibe of Texas hospitality.

As before, the flight schedule alternates between a five o'clock reveille for morning flying, with afternoon academics and physical training, and a six o'clock bugle if the schedule is reversed. We have begun our last phase in September 1957 and the Texas autumn weather is excellent to begin our training in the twin engine, Mitchell medium bomber.

The B-25 'Mitchell' had been the star of the 1st bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942 led by Jimmy Doolittle from the deck of the aircraft carrier 'Hornet'. (It was also the star of the Hollywood movie, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" which I saw as a nine year old at the Bondi Junction Regal Theater.) Our base commander at Reese, Colonel Travis Hoover, who is nearing retirement, had been on the Doolittle raid and while we see little of him, it gives us a warrior's link with an historic moment in U.S. history. On Saturday mornings, we pass in review under the watchful eye of our training officers, the Colonel and his staff. They stand; we march to the cadet Drum and Bugle Corps.

Each instructor has four students and I have been fortunate enough to pick my instructor before we were assigned. A close friend at Bainbridge told me to 'look up' one of his friends, Lt. Bob Applebaugh. “Archiebooch” is newly fledged and as luck would have it, I am in his flight. We bond from the beginning, and under his gentle hand, I transition into the 'Mitchell' with no problems. My barracks roommate Henry, No Middle Initial (MNI), Brown and I team together for our dual instruction and for our first day and night solo flights.

Just like most modern twins today, the B-25 has two pilot seats - one on the left designated for the captain and one on the right for the co-pilot. Why? Well, the left seat has the nose-wheel steering control and as the captain usually makes the landing; he can steer the airplane as it slows down. Besides, it's been the tradition for many years and the military is not one to break with tradition.

Solo night flying in Basic Flying School is a very controlled exercise. Think for a moment about 20 or 30 very low time pilots flying a bomber around a traffic pattern and exercising their own judgment based on a small amount of experience.


We have seven or eight airplanes in layers at different altitudes with each layer vertically separated by 2,000 feet. The bottom layer lands first, and the two higher layers space themselves to avoid collisions - I had come close to a collision in Primary training and had no desire to repeat another near miss.

Henry No Middle Initial and I are in the middle layer and I am in the left seat 'playing' captain. It's my ship; I'm in command. You've seen the anti collision lights on modern aircraft - strobe lights on the tail and on the wing tips in addition to the standard red and green lights. The B-25 had no strobe lights, just the wing tips and a rotating anti-collision light under the belly. Planes follow the same rules as boats: green for the starboard (right) side and red for the port (left). Imagine 16 sets of red and green lights in the upper two layers, all flying in a clockwise direction, and four scared eyes in each cockpit hoping to avoid every other set of scared eyes.

We are both tired from physical training that afternoon and of course the usual 6 a.m. wake-up. Henry is looking out to the right side, I'm looking straight ahead and I think I see a bifurcating red and green light - the gap is growing wider and I assume someone's going the wrong way and heading straight for us. What I really see are two airplanes at our level but its fuselage obscures the green light, and the red light is other. I immediately roll into an almost vertical bank to avoid what I believe will be a mid air collision and Henry thinks I've lost it. Before he can decide what to do I realize my error and begin to right the airplane from what has developed into a most unusual attitude.

Recovery from 'unusual attitudes' is on the flight curriculum and we have practiced several already, but we are not yet proficient in that exercise. After this night solo, I am more than proficient in determining what the lights mean.
We make it to the bottom layer, I shoot three landings; we park with the engines running and swap seats. Henry has no trouble in telling me to watch for other aircraft and I sense he's glad he's driving.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Turn 'im Loose

Gunnedah 1949

Once upon a time, a rather confused, fifteen year old boy was cut loose from adult guidance to find his place in the world in a small bush town on the Northwest Slopes of New South Wales.

His only relative, a sister Mary, had left town to secure what she thought was a better future with an itinerant surveyor who promised her a better life than bookkeeping at the Boggabri Farmers’ Co-Operative.

Having failed the Third Year of high school and lost his scholarship at Riverview, Bill was forced to repeat the school year to secure the very basic Intermediate Certificate issued by the New South Wales Department of Education. Two weeks into the year, Bill rode the bus twenty-five miles to Gunnedah Intermediate High School and announced to the Principal, “Ook” Whitbread that he would be his new student. Graciously, Mr. Whitbread admitted him and placed him in 3B sitting in the front row next to the class nerd, whose face covered in teenage pimples.

But Bill was a bright lad despite his recent failure at the prestigious Jesuit college in the Big Smoke and soon was upgraded to the more elite, 3A. And better yet, he was recruited to sit in the back of the class with the ‘in’ crowd of local blokes: John Jones, Rossie Norman and the rest of the footy team. Bill was not a great sportsman, but had a quick wit and as the curriculum was very much below what he had in Sydney, he was able to be a smarty-pants and earn the respect of his peers, if not his teachers.

Luckily, John Jones’ parents took a shine to Bill and allowed him to stay with them. Mary was still sending 10/- a week for his board and this seemed fair to the Jones. He shared a twin bed with his mate John in the sleep-out at the back of their house by the single railroad track leading north to Moree and south to Sydney. Soon however, with John’s help, he got a job selling newspapers at two of the local pubs: The Royal and the Court House Hotels on Conadilly Street. Not a bad lurk! Bill borrowed Mr. Jones’ bike and John and he would rendezvous at the Gunnedah Railway Station at 5 PM, collect their 100 Daily Telegraph and 20 Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, secure them between the upturned handlebars, and head downtown to their pubs.

“Laaaaay-up, laaaaay-up,” he yelled as he entered the six-o’clock swill at the Bar. Quietly he would go from table to table in the Lounge asking, “Paper sir? Madam?” Papers were tuppence, and most of the drinkers who had their schooners lined up on the bar or window-sill, gave him a thrippenny bit and winked at the change. The Lounge offered better tips, but was not shoulder to shoulder like the Public Bar. Not a bad job for the fifteen year old.

Not content with the newspaper job, Bill introduced himself to the local photographer, Keith Riley, a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society who having avoided military service in World War 2, made a pile of money taking pictures of the ‘diggers’ prior to their leaving the nearby military camp enroute to the Middle East to defend the Empire. Keith and his attractive wife, Joyce, a relative of a local squatter family, the Heaths, offered Bill a job taking photographs at local dances – ‘candids’ as they were then called. This was great fun and allowed Bill enough pocket money to relieve his sister’s burden of supporting him. It also allowed him to upgrade his clothes that were now looking a bit worn. These new threads attracted the attention of the local girls who while they did not consider him future husband material, found him a bright spot in this rather quiet country town. And, he was a foreigner! Yes, Bill had never forgotten that his parents had not only left him their kind regards, but a birth certificate which showed he was an American!

Being a good Catholic boy, he did not join the Church of England Youth Fellowship with John Jones, but searched for a Catholic alternative. The local parish priest, Monsignor McDermott, had decided that the Young Christian Workers (YCW) was the choice of youth groups for catholic Gunnedah.

The YCW became a focus in Bill Critch’s life. Guided by his close friendship with its president, Bill Clegg, he could see the advantage of being associated with a fraternal group of young men and women: trips away from Gunnedah to visit other YCWs, dances at the Parish Hall, and an imprimatur from the priests which allowed him to associate socially with ‘cockeys’, business owners and professionals beyond the social contacts of the Jones’ family. And his new job as a photographer gave him entrĂ©e and some small standing in the community.

But the Saturday afternoon in the Jones house showed him another, very traditional side of Australian life.

On a hot, busy Saturday in Jones’ yellow frame house on Wentworth Street next to the railway tracks leading into town, the corrugated iron roof would crack and snap in anger at the Outback summer’s heat. The kitchen was a cream painted room with a black woodstove, a tiny sink with a simple, copper faucet leading out to the metal fresh water tank connected by downspouts from the iron roof. The ‘Fridge’ throbbed in the corner, its compressor competing with the heat from the open window.

Mrs. Violet Jones always cooked on Saturday. But why heat up the kitchen on an Australian summer day?

The woodstove had a dual task. Fired up early Saturday morning it was for cooking and security. Mrs. Jones baked on Saturday, but as she formed her scones and mixed the Sunday sponge cake, she knew that the real purpose of the blazing stove was not only to ensure a fully risen sponge, but to prevent the Sydney Police’s Flying Squad from finding the evidence of her husband, John’s Saturday business.

John Sr. had an illegal, Starting Price, horseracing ‘book’ and the betting slips were carefully stacked in the living room. If front door was opened on the Squad’s command, to “Open up, this is the police!” the slips would be thrown into the stove.

Behind the house where copies of the bets were stashed in a bottle ready for a long throw into the tall grass, John Junior and Bill watched and waited in relaxed anticipation for a ‘bust’ that never happened. Why? The Clerk of Petty Sessions and the local constabulary were all punters who laid their bets with big John. If they knew the Sydney cops were in town, a quick call to Jones would shut down the operation till the threat passed and headed north to Boggabri and Narrabri!

Bill and John were inseparable. Neither excluded the other from his life: Bill helped John with his homework, John ensured his mates were Bill’s mates. They rode their bikes everywhere: to sell their papers, to collect the small bets for Big John’s bookmaking business, out to Cushan’s swimming hole, and up onto the Porcupine, the hill overlooking Gunnedah. They ‘hung out’ down the lane with John’s future wife, Shirley Southorn and her brothers, and played under the street light until bedtime.

On his sixteenth birthday, Bill left high school and went to work full time as a photographer with Riley. He learned most of the tasks required of a small town photo studio: developing and printing, enlarging, lighting and portraiture, weddings, debutante balls, and when the boss was away, cuddling in the darkroom with compliant girlfriends. Even now, Bill’s libido is still stimulated by the smell of Kodak D-76 developer and fond memories of Carmel and Patricia.

The Jones were Bill’s anchor and for six months, his surrogate parents. However, the workload of two teenage boys became too much for Vi, a tiny woman with a huge heart and a true Aussie ‘mum’. She sorrowfully told Big John to ask Bill to look for another home. But the parental feeling remained for many years and John Jr. and Bill remained mates until John’s death.

Ozzie and Eileen Cross lived around the corner. They were younger, liberally minded couple that offered Bill their hospitality and provided room and board to this young, still confused, rudderless boy who had not yet set his sails. He had met their pubescent daughter, Beverly, at school and they were friends – not boyfriend/girlfriend, just friends. Beverly was a good swimmer and as there was no public (nor private) swimming pool, she and Bill enjoyed swimming at Cushan’s, the local swimming hole on the slow moving Namoi River. John and his steady girlfriend, Shirley Southorn, also swam at Cushan’s, but Shirley was never one to allow another girl to catch John’s eye. Shirley kept a tight rein on John and several years later, they married.

Now eighteen, Bill was eager to return to Sydney and enjoy what he envisioned as a more exciting social life. When Keith Riley decided to close the studio and take an extended vacation in Europe, Bill made plans to move to Sydney.

Late one night while visiting a YCW friend on duty at the Post office telephone exchange, he made a free long distance telephone call to an old friend, Bob Bower, who lived in Waverley, a Sydney suburb. Mr. and Mrs. Bower who had known Bill’s mother, agreed that he could live with them an find a job in Sydney.

He put his bicycle in Cross’s back shed, packed his suitcase and got a free lift to Sydney in the back of a friend’s ‘ute’, waved goodbye to Gunny and disappeared into the night.

Eight hours later, he began his Sydney adventure.

Something Cool

“Something cool.
I’d like to order something cool.
It’s so warm here in town,
And the heat gets me down,
Yes, I’d like something cool.”
Late Friday afternoon, mid March, 1957. “Something Cool” June Christy with Stan Kenton is playing on the jukebox in the Cadet Club at Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia.

Six weeks into primary flight training in the United States Air Force and I’ve just passed a Military Evaluation check from Captain Camp. My Southern Airways flight instructor, Mr. P. D. Bridges, had put me up for an Elimination ‘ride’ intent on limiting his student table to commissioned officers. He doesn’t want any cadets, and in particular an Australian cadet who doesn’t understand his southern accent.

Second flight with “PD”

“Let’s do some powah ohn stalls.”

“Some what, sir?”

“Goddammit, Mr. Key-ritch, y’all hurt me. How many times do I havetuh tel yuh.”

Something was very wrong with my flying aptitude, for after everyone else had soloed and turned their baseball caps so that the peak faced forward, here was Cadet Critch, still marching to the flightline looking like a dumbshit with his cap still on backwards. Was I really going to ‘wash out’? That was uncool and I was darned if I would give up until they threw me out of the program.

Well, the captain was no Santa Claus, but he recommended that I change instructors and be given another five hours of instruction. If I hadn’t soloed by then, my options were to be transferred to Navigator training, or reduced to enlisted status to either attend a technical school, or serve out the remainder of my contract for 18 months as an Airman Third Class at some cold, remote Air Force base refueling aircraft.

I’m back early from the flightline hanging out at the Cadet Club; the other cadets are still flying and I’ve got a quiet half hour.

“Yes bartender, I’d like something cool.”

At this hour, it means a lemonade.

The Cadet Club at Bainbridge Air Base was not quite a tarpaper shack, but it had been hastily built at the beginning of the “50,000 Pilots Program” which started in the mid Fifties to provide the Air Force, some NATO and friendly South American countries with pilots to fight either the Cold War or their neighbors. The club allowed Aviation Cadets to have 3.0% beer and fraternize with the local girls imported from the outlying colleges, or those ‘properly introduced’ to the chaplain.

Later Friday night, the club will be filled with cadets and the beer turned on. We smoke – don’t all pilots? We drink – ditto; we plot to get into the pants of the local girls – some do, most don’t, but we are cadets! We fly!

“Do I fly? Why yes little girl, why do you ask?” is the standard response. We talk about flying in front of the girls and about girls when we should be studying our flying. But I did study. Too hard. My roommate, Clinton Dewitt, had been a Marine for several years, already had a multi-engine commercial pilot’s license and was a flight instructor after he left the Corps and long before Bainbridge. He would tell me, “Critchey, you’re trying too hard! Relax!”

The only difference between Clint and a fireplug was that nobody pissed on him. He was stubby, didn’t smile much except in the early morning when he’d roll over in bed, fart, and say in a sweet falsetto, “Good morning Critchey. The Queen’s a whore.” Clint was a real sweetie and a good room mate.

Yes, I was ‘trying too hard’ - my nature I guess, but this afternoon a quiet drink in the club was what I needed. A quiet drink and a chance to settle down. Would I make it? My academics and military grades were very good, and should I fail to solo in the next five flying hours, I’d be sure to be recommended for Navigation School which still produced wings and a commission. Navigator’s wings – a poor imitation of the pilot’s wings we all want.

“Hey Critch, how’d you do?” Gary Fisher has arrived – another mate. We had both held cadet Lieutenant Colonel’s rank in Pre-Flight in Texas.

“O.K. I guess, but I’ll be changing instructors.”

“You’ll make it. PD’s a little shit. You like that music?”

Fisher is a lady’s man. Handsome, suave, big shit-eating grin and probably hung like a stud mule. He’s picked up with an older lady who must be in her late twenties, not particularly good looking, but READY. Man, is she ready and Fish is into it – she thinks he’s serious because he met her at the local Methodist church. Last weekend he took an unauthorized ‘open post’ with Vaughn Wells, his roommate and they split for Panama City. Vaughn tells me Fisher was banging a babe in a trailer with her husband asleep not ten feet away. I suspect that if her old man woke up, Fisher would’ve applied some wrestling hold and put him to sleep. Oh yes, Fisher is also an expert wrestler. He grew up in Jerome, a tough Arizona mining town; he had to be tough.

The weekend over, I meet my new instructor, Earl Wederbrook.

Earl’s a quiet, balding guy and, as it turns out, a college graduate with six kids. He’s a patient man and I see a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the next five hours will do it.