There’s an old saying in the air force. “There are bold pilots, and there are old pilots, but there are no old bold pilots."
I was a by-the-book and use-your -check-list pilot. (Surgeons doing life-and-death operations are just now learning to use check-lists.) But when Stage Training came along—where you get your combat crew—I learned another truth. You’ve got to give your crew bragging rights, which means you have to seem to be a bold pilot.
When we first met I said, “Our primary aim will not be to win the war single handed, but to survive it. And we will do that by being the best crew that ever trained at MacDill Field.” Corny, but it went over.
Next, I had to convince them that I could land the plane. On every training mission for a week I was extra extra careful to “cream it in.” which means making the tires hiss before settling without the slightest bump. One day, getting out of our gear I heard another crew guy say, “Our pilot creamed it in today.”
My guy replied: “Our pilot creams it in every day!”
Now I had to give them bragging rights. Here’s where bold comes in. Other crews would come swaggering in saying they’d buzzed a field of sheep or a fishing boat in the Gulf. One day we had a navigation training mission, Tampa, Florida to Charlotte, NC. My co-pilot and navigator were from Rock Hill, SC, about half an hour flying time from Charlotte. Both wanted to go to Rock Hill, dying to call home and alert their families. Ike, our navigator, said he’d fake the logs. Two other crews wanted to join us. Why not? We formed up in a loose V-formation, one left, one right. Usual altitude was 5,000 feet but as we approached Rock Hill, we tightened up and I took us down to 500, the lowest we could fly. Ike pointed out his girl friend’s house and I headed to it.
I should mention that Ike had called the editor of the Rock Hill paper, told him we were coming, but not to write about it or we could be court martialed. I raised prop pitch to maximum revs to make more noise, and then, to my surprise, my right wingman peeled off. Fighters flying at 25,000 feet peel off. We were 4-engine bombers at 500 feet. Of course I peeled off too, skimming the rooftops maybe 50 feet over Ike’s girl’s house, she and her mother in the back yard waving pillow slips, Ike screaming “Emily!”
Back at 500 feet we turned south toward Tampa, and I told our engineer to fire off the Very pistol (flare gun), glancing back to see the bright red flare in the dusky sky. Next day Ike called home to learn that they’d thought we were going to land, jumped in their cars and sped to the local landing strip and lined their cars up headlights on, because there were no lights. The local paper kept our secret, saying only that two local boys were “in the big B-17s that flew over Rock Hill yesterday."
And that’s how my crew got its bragging rights.