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.

Scary!

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.

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