Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fighter pilots of yesteryear to bring flying stories to life

Beacon photo by Sara Bruestle

The Historic Flight Foundation is hosting a Navy Piston Fighter Pilots panel from 1-3 p.m. on Feb. 11. Above, the five pilots on the panel are in front of one of the Historic Flight Foundation’s F8F Bearcat: Cmdr. Walter Banks, Lt. James Whitman, Capt. Greg Lambert, Cmdr. Tom Lewis and Lt. Cmdr. Bill Anderson.


James Whitman will never forget how it felt to fly a Bearcat – known as “the hottest plane of World War II” – for the first time. How was it? In a word: Wonderful.  

“They were so wonderful that it just felt like a part of me,” he said. “The Bearcat is a marvelous, incredible airplane.”

The Historic Flight Foundation is hosting a Navy Piston Fighter Pilots panel from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 10719 Bernie Webber Dr. in Mukilteo.

Hear five Navy fighter pilots from the piston age tell their stories of flying the Hellcat, Bearcat, Corsair and more.

The guest panelists, many of them in their 80s, flew fighter and attack planes from WWII on up through the Korean War. As Navy pilots, they all had to be qualified to fly on and off aircraft carriers.

Lt. Whitman, 95, who is on the panel, served as a Navy pilot for 10 years. He flew several fighter planes throughout his years of service, primarily the Kingfisher and the Bearcat.

During WWII, Whitman trained on a U.S. naval cruiser, then was stationed in Alaska on an inshore anti-submarine squadron and then trained again at a naval air facility in Santa Rosa, Fla.

A worker for IBM before the war, Whitman was exempt from the draft, but because he had always wanted to fly, he decided to leave IBM and go into the naval flight program.

“When I was a kid, I can remember looking up on days like today and seeing these airplanes flying over and saying, ‘One of these days, I would like to learn to fly,” Whitman said. “This was a marvelous opportunity to do that, if I could qualify.”

In training on the cruiser, Whitman flew Kingfisher observation planes on and off a 900-foot cruiser. The Kingfishers were used to scout the enemy’s fleet.

Whitman can still recall what it was like for his plane to get shot into the air by catapult from the cruiser in 1943.

“You fire this thing up and it gets shot off of this little catapult with a five-inch artillery shell and a cable goes back and forth and – bang – and away you go and you’re in the air,” Whitman said.

“You’d better have your head back against something hard or it will knock you out, because that’s how fast it’s going.”

Then there’s the hard part – getting back on.

“You’re out there with these big waves, and you can’t land it [on the carrier],” Whitman said. “You have to make this carrier do a 90-degree turn and then slide sideways and, then, as it lowers, you can sit your airplane down and taxi up, and they haul you right back up on a crane.”

After training, Whitman was assigned to an anti-submarine squadron in Alaska that conducted coastal patrol from Sitka to the Aleutian Islands (Attu Island). The Japanese had taken Attu before, so there was concern that they would try to land submarines again on the Alaskan coast.

“I spent a whole year in Alaska assigned to look for submarines, but the only submarines that I ever saw out there spouted,” Whitman said. “Whales!”

In 1944, Whitman was back from Alaska and ready to be reassigned. At first, the Navy didn’t want him. They said he was getting old and should retire from service. But Whitman convinced them to keep him, and they sent him to Florida to fly more fighter planes.

There, in training, he flew several of the cat airplane series, including the Wildcat, Hellcat and the Bearcat. His was the first squadron to fly the Bearcat.

“He had changed from a 150 mph float plane (the Kingfisher) to this Bearcat which can get out to about 440 mph,” said Bob Wells, the panel moderator, “so it was really a big change.”

Whitman said that while at Santa Rosa, the Navy got into a friendly competition with the U.S. Air Corp. Their Bearcat versus the Air Corp’s Mustang, each their best fighter planes.

“Our skipper and their colonel got into a wager,” Whitman said. “The wager was that ‘You’re going to take that Mustang, and you’re going to fly to the end of the runway just as fast as you can get there.’

“And then our skipper says, ‘I’ll take that blue hot rod (the Bearcat) and I’ll climb up 100 feet and I will come down [at an angle], and I will shoot you before you get to the end of the runway.’”

The skipper won, like he said he would. His fast-climbing Bearcat made it to the end of the runway before the Mustang could get there.

“I was so fortunate I never got shot at, and I had a lot of experience flying some of the most wonderful planes that probably were made,” Whitman said. “All of this to me was almost just fun from beginning to end.”

Wells met Whitman at the HFF’s Vintage Aircraft Weekend in the summer. Whitman was staring admiringly at the foundation’s F8F Bearcat.

When Wells discovered that Whitman had flown the airplane in WWII, he invited him to be a guest on the panel.

Hear Whitman’s stories and the stories of the other four panelists on Feb. 11.

“John Sessions (founder of HFF) sets a tone where he really encourages education and archiving history,” Wells said. “The foundation has taken the era of military aircraft built between 1927-1957, and these gentlemen all fit within that timeframe.”

The event will be recorded as part of HFF's mission to preserve first-hand accounts of pilots who flew between 1927 and 1957.

The presentation is for all ages. General admission is required.

For more information, go to http://historicflight.org or call 425-348-3200. 

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