Bill was a bit shaken on the phone.
Understandable, I guess. He had just landed a Boeing 767 wide body, in near zero-zero weather … way below minimums, somewhere in Ireland.
He said they didn’t see the runway, until they touched it.
But hell, even he was rattled. Passengers had no idea, of course, they just deplaned as if it was another normal flight.
Bill, a good friend of ours, is what you call “a landing specialist.”
He can put that big bird down, just about anywhere, in any kind of weather.
He once landed a 767 in Hong Kong, at night, with dead computer screens – on a wing and a prayer, as they say.
But even the great Chuck Yeager once said, “You’ve got to know when to push it, and when to back off.”
And yes, the great man himself, passed away last week at the age of 97 in Los Angeles – the man who broke the sound barrier and would inspire Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and the movie of the same name.
To this day, General Chuck Yeager is considered by many to be the best pilot ever to push the envelope – without question, his feats as a World War II ace and test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base are legendary.
Blessed with exceptional vision, Yeager’s aviation career reads better than a Hollywood movie.
Even his wingmen said, Yeager flew lower, flew faster and took more risks than anyone – but it was all calculated risks, he knew what he was doing.
He would shoot down 13 German planes on 64 missions during World War II, including five on a single mission.
“I’ve flown 341 types of military planes in every country in the world and logged about 18,000 hours,” he said in an interview in the January 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.
“It might sound funny, but I’ve never owned an airplane in my life. If you’re willing to bleed, Uncle Sam will give you all the planes you want.”
So how will history look back at Chuck Yeager?
The fact of the matter is, there are and were many good pilots, and Yeager himself would tell you that.
The best pilot is the one with the most experience, he would say, and in his opinion, the best stick and rudder man he ever saw was fellow P-51 Mustang ace Bob Hoover.
I once saw Hoover perform at an airshow on a hot summer’s day in a Shrike Commander – the most amazing aerobatic performance I’ve ever seen.
And his legendary show-closer was a hold-your-breath moment.
Hoover would completely cut his engines – do a loop, then come in for a dead stick landing … tilting that Shrike as far as she would go on one gear, then the other.
It was an aviation ballet … incredible.
Then he’d taxi up to the crowd, throw open the door and wave. Keep in mind, this was all without power! Those props were neatly feathered.
Bob Hoover was a pretty damn good pilot.
But let’s face it, if you ask any pilot who was the best pilot they ever saw, five will get you ten, it was someone they knew, someone they flew with – and that goes for me too.
Fast-forward to the Alaska Highway, on a cold winter morning. I was about to fly with legendary Canadian bush pilot Jimmy “Midnight” Anderson.
Let’s just say Jimmy had quite the reputation in his Piper Cub. He held the record for forced landings in the wilderness, including some in trees.
He even described to me how to do that safely, which left me speechless.
They say he had something like 60 forced landings in the Yukon and northern British Columbia and maybe Alaska too, and survived every one. Although he was missing some fingers from frostbite, I think.
“Oh yeah,” he would tell me, “I’ve plugged into a spruce at 40-below.” His joke for being stuck in the middle of nowhere on a cold night.
Oh, and one more thing, Jimmy probably didn’t have a license. I think the Feds pulled it after he tried to land on a semi-truck as it drove down a straight section of the Alaska Highway – he’d bet some guys in a bar that he could do it.
The problem is, the driver saw his plane in the mirrors and panicked, hitting the brakes – Jimmy hit the cabin instead, putting a good dent in it and scaring the driver half to death.
Anyway, we had to put a heater – a torch in fact – under the cowling to warm up the oil on the Piper Cub.
I spun the prop to get the engine going in the frosty air, and my girlfriend Yvonne, and I, got in the back. There were no seats for passengers, so we had to hold on to Jimmy’s seat.
The airport was just across the street from Jimmy’s house, so we had to taxi down the Alaska Highway to get there. We also had to make a recon run down the icy strip, to make sure there were no frozen cow patties that would impede our takeoff.
And off we went – into one of the most amazing flights I have ever experienced.
Keep in mind, I was a pilot, I had more than 100 hours under my belt, on several aircraft, but I could not do what Jimmy Anderson could do.
It was as close to soaring like an eagle, as I would ever get – we flew on the deck, in steep river canyons, jagged walls just feet from our wingtips, and rode up mountainsides carried only by updrafts.
It defied comprehension and displayed a skill I never thought possible. To this day, I still can’t believe the things he did in that little Piper Cub.
I paid Jimmy $60 for that hour flight, and it was the best $60 I ever spent. Then I also bought him a case of Molson Canadian beer.
He seemed really touched by that gesture, and thanked me over and over – asking me to join him at the bar, where we could talk flying some more.
And then there was a fellow named John Mornan.
John was one of our flight instructors – we had several, of course, including a genuine World War II Spitfire ace – and he was also one of the airport meteorologists.
He was what you call an accomplished man.
One day, John and I went up, and he showed me some valuable skills – namely, how to stay alive – none of this stuff was in the manual, and I took the instruction seriously.
“Remember this stuff,” he said, “some day you might need it.”
I was doing a forced landing, the kind of thing we often practised, but John wanted to show me something and make a point. He took control, and turned that little Cherokee 140 right on its side.
I instinctively froze.
“See that barn down there,” he said.
Frightened to death, I said, “Yeah.” Hell, it was only a few hundred feet below us, how could I not see it!
He said, “I could put this plane on that roof, if I had to.”
Take control. Don’t be scared. Be ready for anything.
John Mornan was a helluva good pilot and a good man, and probably my best instructor.
I heard he would later save the life of a student.
The latter had done a fuel test in a bottle, after a particularly cold night – he was looking for water in the fuel. However, the spigot did not fully come down, it froze in the up position.
When they took off, the fuel siphoned out, until the engine quit.
Mornan did the unthinkable, breaking a cardinal rule – if your engine quits on takeoff, go straight ahead, look for a field, never ever turn. You will stall and you will die.
Somehow, by the grace of God, Mornan turned it around, and landed it safely. I smiled when I heard the story – only he could have done that.
They say that movie actor Jimmy Stewart was a pretty good pilot too.
The night before he left for air force training, MGM threw a farewell party for its departing star.
Most of the actresses present that evening kissed him goodbye, and Rosalind Russell wiped off the lipstick with her handkerchief and wrote each girl’s name on it. Stewart kept the hanky for good luck.
According to HistoryNet, on one night flight with a student pilot, Stewart – who by then had become a flight instructor on the B-17 bomber – left the co-pilot’s seat to check on equipment in the nose and let a new navigator sit in the right-hand seat.
Suddenly the No 1 engine exploded, sending pieces of shrapnel into the cockpit and knocking the pilot senseless. With the engine on fire and wind tearing through the windows, the navigator froze at the controls.
Stewart had to pull him out of the seat so he could take over, hit the fire extinguishers and land on three engines, the report said.
Unhappy with his instructor role, Stewart would demand a transfer to the front, and that meant dangerous missions over France and Germany – 20 of them, in fact.
Stewart experienced what was probably his closest brush with death during a nine-hour mission to Furth, unescorted most of the way.
For the first time, waist gunners in the lead planes hurled bundles of chaff overboard to try to fool the German radar-directed anti-aircraft guns, the report said.
It only succeeded in attracting them. Whenever they threw a bundle out, the flak became more accurate. The Germans hit the bombers with everything they had on that mission, including anti-aircraft rockets.
The 445th hit its target, but on the way home a flak shell burst in the belly of Stewart’s Liberator, directly behind the nose wheel. Somehow the B-24 kept on flying – all the way back to base. But when the shrapnel-perforated bomber landed, its fuselage buckled, the report said.
Just in front of the wing at the flight deck, the airplane cracked open like an egg. The crew climbed out, unhurt, and looked over their crippled aircraft.
In his characteristically understated fashion, Stewart mused to a bystander, “Sergeant, somebody sure could get hurt in one of those damned things.”
Which brings us back to Chuck Yeager.
I never did get to meet him, but I did at least get to see him fly at the Edwards AFB annual airshow. He was in the back seat of an F-15 fighter jet, and participated in the historic flyby, which included just about everything in the USAF’s current stable and beyond.
On that note, let’s leave Yeager with the final say:
“There is no such thing as a natural-born pilot. Whatever my aptitudes or talents, becoming a proficient pilot was hard work, really a lifetime’s learning experience.
“For the best pilots, flying is an obsession, the one thing in life they must do continually. The best pilots fly more than the others; that’s why they’re the best.
“Experience is everything. The eagerness to learn how and why every piece of equipment works is everything. And luck is everything, too.”
Sources: Yeager: An autobiography, HistoryNet, Wikipedia, Outlaw Pilot: True Adventures of Jimmy “Midnight” Anderson, PBS.org, Men’s Journal