The crash of a World War II fighter at a Reno air show last Friday was national news. It plunged into a grandstand, killing nine and its pilot. Videos by air show fans are being studied. Early speculation blames the antique plane, not its antique pilot, James Leeward, 74, too young to have flown in World War II, yet far older than one expects a pilot to be, especially of a P-51, Mustang, the best American fighter of World War II, flown by “fighter jocks,” like Chuck Yaeger. But why was James Leeward, a Hollywood stunt pilot, doing 400 miles an hour 100 feet off the ground? Because he had to: flying was in his blood.
The US Army Air Force made me a pilot in WW2. The day I soloed I knew I loved it, and like every cadet, wanted fighters. But the army needed bomber pilots, and I loved my B-17 too. Every minute aloft was magic, and although I never lost that feeling, after the war I didn’t consider being a commercial pilot; civilian flying—A to B—seemed too routine. Combat aside, it was the adventure of military flying, different planes, destinations, adventures, what kept James Leeward in the air long after he should have settled into an easy chair.
I caught the tail end of the war, seven non-memorable “milk run” combat missions before Victory in Europe Day. My best memory is flying the Atlantic: Goose Bay, Labrador, to the Azores, to Cairo, Egypt, to Gioia, Italy. And after VE Day, flying troops from Naples, Italy, across the Mediterranean Sea to Rabat, Morrocco, first leg of their trip home. I remember my last landing, wondering how I’d endure being a ground-pounder again, opting to stay in the Air Force reserves for five-years, after which flying was displaced by dancing.
As an inner experience, flying and dancing have much in common, but that is a different blog. Years later, I wrote a one-woman show for my wife, Elizabeth, based on Amelia Earhart. It opened and closed with a song, “The Highest Place,” sung by Amelia. It’s my song too.
The Highest Place (© Stuart Hodes, 2011)
In the highest place, I’m eye to eye / With eagles in the sky,
Over oceans gliding by. The engines roar, and I am borne
Aloft, where angels play. / I fly into the dawning day
To circle midst the clouds, I stay
Where purest air weaves in my hair / Until I touch the morn.
Muse of my heart, O purest light / The highest place is mine in flight
I keep the moon in sight / Wrapped in the blanket of the night.
I dreamed I reached the highest place, to swim in space
And now, within my dream’s embrace, / I brush my lover’s face
I touch the highest place.