Fighter Pilot’s Retirement Home

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To say that I miss the days of strapping into the F-4 Phantom cockpit is an understatement in the extreme. To say that I could climb in one today and feel at home again is probably an overstatement in the extreme, although I’ll never admit it.

But the truth of the matter is that you never shed the effects once it’s in your blood, and here are two images to prove the point.


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Mind-Blowing Photoshop Skills

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In the summer of 2011 I opened up a copy of Photoshop Elements 8 for the first time. I’d received it bundled with a scanner, and plans to indie publish my novel without going deep into the negative side of the balance sheet dictated that I explore the possibility of designing my own cover.

That effort and creating more covers for myself and others has taught me a number of things, the most important of which are that 1) I can do it, and 2) I’m only scratching the surface. Photoshop Elements is a capable application, but it pales in comparison with the Big Daddy. So does the price, which is the major reason I’ve made do with it.

There may be a multitude of people out there who can equal or better the Photoshop skills of 21-year-old Swedish photographer Erik Johansson, but I don’t really care. Take a look at the following examples and you might agree:

1 10.jpg 2.jpg 5.jpg 3.jpg 14.jpg 17.jpg 8.jpg 18.jpg 20.jpg 11 9.jpg 11.jpg 6.jpg 15 16 17 18

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Pilot Error – A New Twist

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Montrose is a coastal resort town and former royal burgh (an autonomous corporate entity) in Angus, Scotland. Situated 38 miles north of Dundee between the mouths of the North and South Esk rivers, it is the northernmost coastal town in Angus and developed as a natural harbor that traded in skins, hides and cured salmon in medieval times.

With a population of approximately 12,000, Montrose is an important commercial port for the thriving oil and gas industry and home to a global healthcare company. Blessed with a wealth of architecture, it is known for its wide thoroughfare and high street which leads to picturesque closes containing secluded gardens. The skyline of Montrose is dominated by the 220-foot steeple designed by James Gillespie Graham and built between 1832 and 1834. Just outside Montrose is the 18th Century House of Dun, designed by the Scottish architect William Adam and built in 1730 for David Erskine, 13th Laird of Dun.

The town has a view of Montrose Basin, a two-square-mile tidal lagoon, considered a nature reserve of international importance. It is the largest inland salt water basin in the UK, and an important habitat for the mute swan. (Source: Wikipedia)

ViewofmontroseImage credit: Alan Morrison via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Until yesterday, I’d never heard of a town named Montrose outside of the state of Colorado. But I have a Google alert for “pilot error,” and the link took me to an article, two aspects of which got my immediate attention.

First, that Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, 2013, was 100 years to the day since the death of a Royal Flying Corps pilot in a crash near the town. And second, that an official ruling of pilot error as the cause of the accident apparently gave rise to supernatural happenings.

My novel Pilot Error and my presentation titled “Pilot Error in Fact and Fiction” are based upon a common saying among aviators: “They always try to blame the pilot, especially when he’s dead.” But to the best of my knowledge, the aftermath of this accident is the first and only one of its kind. If you are curious about that statement, read on . . .

Published by on 29/05/2013 09:55

A simple ceremony at Sleepyhillock Cemetery on Monday commemorated Montrose air station’s first casualty, a century after his death.

The date was 100 years to the day since Lieutenant Desmond Arthur’s biplane broke up over Lunan Bay, just three weeks after he joined the Royal Flying Corps unit which was then based at Dysart.

Organised by members of the air station heritage trust, the wreath-laying ceremony was carried out at the behest of Lt. Arthur’s family.

An official investigation into the crash blamed pilot error for the incident, after which supernatural happenings were reported at the air station giving rise to stories of “the Montrose ghost” that claimed Lt. Arthur’s spirit was restless after being blamed wrongly for the crash.

Dr. Dan Paton, heritage centre curator, said there is much more to the aviator than just the well-known ghost stories, and recent research has shed light on aspects of his life that were previously unknown.

When Lt. Arthur’s body was recovered, a miniature portrait of a young girl was discovered in his pocket who was named as Winsome Ropner, the pilot’s sweetheart to whom he left the bulk of his estate. Although Winsome, 14 at the time of Lt. Arthur’s death, later married another pilot, she never forgot her love, and her grandson Paul Willcox as well as Desmond Arthur’s great nephew, Nick Arthur, gave their blessing to Monday’s wreath-laying.

Dr Paton said: “For a long time we have thought of Lt. Desmond Arthur as an unquiet spirit, but today it is time to lay the story of the Montrose Air Station ghost to rest.

“We can see him in a very different light since contacting his relatives. He was a brave and excellent pilot by the standards of the time and a brave man who knew the risks of flying these aircraft.

“Let’s remember him as he would have liked to be remembered – a pioneering aviator.”

Lt. Arthur was given a military funeral, the route of which was lined with Montrosians who turned out to pay their respects.

SleepyhillockImage credit:

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A Tribute to Bill Mauldin – by Bob Greene

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One of my grounding, fundamental goals in maintaining this blog is to honor in any way I can the memories of those who, as members of the greatest generation, answered the call for help in the defense of freedom against the abomination of the Axis Powers.

On May 7, 2010, Bob Greene, CNN Contributor, published this tribute to a man whose name is synonymous with the concept of larger than life to any combat veteran of WWII, but I don’t think he will mind my taking the liberty of including it here. The text appears with only minor editing to remove extra spaces and a few formatting problems in the version I received. Here it is:

When you are in Oklahoma City, go to the 45th Infantry Division Museum located on N E 36th. There is a lot of Bill Mauldin art work there.


Get out your history books and open them to the chapter on World War II. Today’s lesson will cover a little known but very important hero of whom very little was ever really known. Here is another important piece of lost U.S. history, which is a true example of our American Spirit.


Makes ya proud to put this stamp on your envelopes . . .


The post office gets a lot of criticism. Always has, always will. And with the renewed push to get rid of Saturday mail delivery, expect complaints to intensify. But the United States Postal Service deserves a standing ovation for something that happened last month: Bill Mauldin got his own postage stamp.

Mauldin died at age 81 in the early days of 2003. The end of his life had been rugged. He had been scalded in a bathtub, which led to terrible injuries and infections; Alzheimer’s disease was inflicting its cruelties. Unable to care for himself after the scalding, he became a resident of a California nursing home, his health and spirits in rapid decline.


He  was not forgotten, though. Mauldin, and his work, meant so much to the millions of Americans who fought in World War II, and to those who had waited for them to come home. He was a kid cartoonist for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. Mauldin’s drawings of his muddy, exhausted, whisker-stubbled infantrymen Willie and Joe were the voice of truth about what it was like on the front lines.


Mauldin was an enlisted man just like the soldiers he drew for; his gripes were their  gripes, his laughs their laughs, his heartaches their heartaches. He was one of them. They loved him.


He never held back. Sometimes, when his cartoons cut too close for comfort, superior officers tried to tone him down. In one memorable incident, he enraged Gen. George S. Patton, who informed Mauldin he wanted the pointed cartoons celebrating the fighting men and lampooning the high-ranking officers to stop. Now!

mime-attachment7“I’m beginning to feel like a fugitive from the “law of  averages.” 

The  news passed from soldier to soldier. How was Sgt. Bill Mauldin going to stand up to Gen. Patton?  It seemed impossible.


Not quite. Mauldin, it turned out, had an ardent fan: Five-star Gen. Dwight  D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Ike put out  the word: Mauldin draws what Mauldin wants. Mauldin won. Patton  lost.


If, in your line of work, you’ve ever considered yourself a young hotshot, or if you’ve ever known anyone who has felt that way about him or herself, the story of Mauldin’s young manhood will humble you. Here is what, by the  time he was 23 years old, Mauldin accomplished:

mime-attachment10“By the way, wot wuz them changes you wuz gonna make when you took over last month, sir?”

He won the Pulitzer Prize and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. His book “Up Front” was the No. 1 best-seller in the United States.


All of that at 23. Yet, when he returned to civilian life and grew older, he never lost that boyish Mauldin grin, never outgrew his excitement about doing his job, never big-shotted or high-hatted the people with whom he worked every  day.


I was lucky enough to be one of them. Mauldin roamed the hallways of the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1960s and early 1970s with no more officiousness or air of haughtiness than if he was a copyboy. That impish look on his face remained.


He had achieved so much. He won a second Pulitzer Prize, and he should have won a third for what may be the single greatest editorial cartoon in the history of the craft: his deadline rendering, on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, of the statue at the Lincoln Memorial slumped in grief, its head cradled in its hands. But he never acted as if he was better than the people he met. He was still Mauldin, the enlisted  man.


During  the late summer of 2002, as Mauldin lay in that California nursing home, some of the old World War II infantry guys caught wind of it. They didn’t want Mauldin to go out that way. They thought he should know he was still their hero.

mime-attachment15“This is the’ town my pappy told me about.” 

Gordon Dillow, a columnist for the Orange County Register, put out the call in southern California for people in the area to send their best wishes to Mauldin. I joined Dillow in the effort, helping to spread the appeal nationally, so Bill would not feel so alone. Soon, more than 10,000 cards and letters had arrived at Mauldin’s bedside.

Better than that, old soldiers began to show up just to sit with Mauldin, to let him know that they were there for him, as he, so long ago, had been there for them. So many volunteered to visit Bill that there was a waiting list. Here is how Todd DePastino, in the first paragraph of his wonderful biography of Mauldin, described  it:

“Almost every day in the summer and fall of 2002 they came to Park Superior nursing home in Newport Beach, California, to honor Army Sergeant, Technician Third Grade, Bill Mauldin. They came bearing relics of their youth: medals, insignia, photographs, and carefully folded newspaper clippings. Some wore old garrison caps. Others arrived resplendent in uniforms over a half-century old. Almost all of them wept as they filed down the corridor like pilgrims fulfilling some long-neglected obligation.”

One of the veterans explained to me why it was so important: “You would have to be  part of a combat infantry unit to appreciate what moments of relief Bill gave us. You had to be reading a soaking wet Stars and Stripes in a water-filled foxhole and then see one of  his cartoons.”

mime-attachment17“Th’ hell this ain’t th’ most important hole in the  world. I’m in it.”

Mauldin is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Last month, the kid cartoonist made it onto a first-class postage stamp. It’s an honor that most generals and admirals never receive.


What  Mauldin would have loved most, I believe, is the sight of the two guys who keep him company on that stamp.

Take a look at it.

There’s Willie. There’s Joe.


And there, to the side, drawing them and smiling that shy, quietly observant smile, is Mauldin himself. With his buddies, right where he belongs. Forever.


What a story, and a fitting tribute to a man and to a time that few of us can still remember. But I say to you youngsters, you must most seriously learn of and remember with respect the sufferings and sacrifices of your fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers in times you cannot ever imagine today with all you have. But the only reason you are free to have it all is because of them.

I thought you would all enjoy reading and seeing this bit of American history!

Bob Greene

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Why People Hate to Attend High School Reunions

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If you have ever attended a high-school reunion, this little vignette should bring a chuckle, especially since the underlying message of “puttin” on airs” is so true.

Jan, Sue and Mary haven’t seen each other since high school, and they arrange via a reunion website to meet for lunch at a wine bar and catch up!

Jan arrives first, wearing a beige Versace. She orders a bottle of Pinot Grigio.

Sue arrives shortly afterward, in gray Chanel. After the required ritualized kisses she joins Jan in a glass of wine.

Then Mary walks in, wearing a faded old tee-shirt, blue jeans and boots.  She too shares the wine.

Jan explains that after leaving high school and graduation from Princeton in Classics, she met and married Timothy, with whom she has a beautiful daughter. Timothy is a partner in one of New York’s leading law firms. They live in a 4000 sq ft co-op on Fifth Avenue, where Susanna, the daughter, attends drama school. They have a second home in Phoenix.

Sue relates that she graduated from Harvard Med School and became a surgeon. Her husband, Clive, is a leading Wall Street investment banker. They live in Southampton on Long Island and have a second home in Naples, Florida.

Mary explains that she left school at 17 and ran off with her boyfriend, Jim. They run a tropical bird park in Colorado and grow their own vegetables. Jim can stand five parrots, side by side, on his penis.

Halfway down the third bottle of wine and several hours later, Jan blurts out that her husband is really a cashier at Wal-Mart. They live in a small apartment in Brooklyn and have a travel trailer parked at a nearby storage facility.

Sue, chastened and encouraged by her old friend’s honesty, explains that she and Clive are both nurses’ aides in a retirement home. They live in Jersey City and take vacation camping trips to Alabama.

Mary admits that the fifth parrot has to stand on one leg.

FiveParrotsCredit original parrot image:


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Phantom Pharewell

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I friend and fellow ex-Phantom driver recently sent me a link to a story commemorating a sad day for those of us who have a soft place in our hearts for the F-4 Phantom II.

The very last Phantom in the “boneyard,” a storage facility for retired aircraft located at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ, home of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, departed for a final assignment.

BoneyardCredit: via Wikipedia

I’m sure it makes sense to someone, but taking an aircraft out of storage, bringing it back to flying condition so that it can be used in a target drone program to be ultimately shot down and find a final resting place at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, seems insane.

Following WWI, thousands of aircraft were available for purchase by civilians, and public fascination with the new realm of heavier-than-air flight, combined with many more thousands of pilots returning from Europe to be mustered out of the service, gave rise to the era of barnstormers and speed kings.

In 1917, the price of a new JN4 “Jenny” sold to the government was $8,160. By 1919, a reconditioned Jenny purchased from the Army by Curtiss could be had for $4,000. In the mid-1920s, a rebuilt Jenny had dropped to an average price of $2,400, and by 1928 you could buy one for as little as $500.

JN4Left-1Credit: Wikipedia Commons

These prices seem absurd today, even considering the effect of time on the value of money, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that good used Phantoms be offered for sale to the public rather than blowing them up. I’d have to get a loan, of course . . .

In the meantime, the Luftwaffe will retire their Phantoms next month. To commemorate the occasion, they painted a special one as shown in the images below. I’m just guessing, but this aircraft will probably end up either on a pedestal (boo!) or assigned to the air show circuit (yea!).

LuftwaffePhantom1-1Credit: Markus Altmann via

LuftwaffePhantom2-1Credit: Daniel Kleef via

LuftwaffePhantom3-1Credit: Thorale Doehring via

LuftwaffePhantom4-1Credit: Ron Kellenaers via

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Fighter Pilots and Watches

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There’s a saying about fighter pilots, probably originating from their collective ability to make fun of themselves, that a fighter pilot “wears a big watch, has a little ________ (insert your preferred term for the male sex organ), drinks scotch and water and is always looking for a place to cash a check.”

All kidding aside, every flight briefing during my twenty-plus years as a fighter pilot began with a time hack because coordinating what multiple aircraft did on the ground and in flight was most often based on TOT, or time on target. As a flight leader, you began with TOT and worked backward to establish the time at which each key portion of the flight needed to occur, and the front end of that sequence was briefing time.

I’d been in Vietnam on my first combat tour about three months when, in a very poor imitation of  English as spoken by an Oriental, the flight leader of a four-ship (with eight guys in the briefing room) gave a time hack something to the effect of, “Ah so, Seiko say time oh eight thirty on my mark . . . hack.”

Huh? What’s this Seiko business? That caused a brief delay as we all had to take a look at the flight leader’s new watch. He’d purchased it in the Base Exchange (BX) the day before, and none of the other seven pilots had ever seen one.

The BX at Cam Ranh Bay was a busy place because it served as a primary diversion from the isolation that affected thousands of Americans living on the base in a foreign country at war. Electronics sold at much lower prices than in the States fueled the pastimes of choice. We all stayed connected to the BX grapevine, which responded instantly whenever a new shipment arrived of cameras, amplifiers, receivers,  turntables, cassette players, tape decks, speakers and, of course, watches.

The F-4 had a wind-up clock on the instrument panel, known as an “eight-day clock.” You could adjust it to the time on your personal watch and use it in flight, but they were notoriously unreliable. Probably because they were always over-wound. You had no way of knowing how many days it had been since the last pilot wound it, so as a matter of routine and just to be sure,  you would always crank in a couple of turns on the stem. And to be super sure, you always wore your trusty and carefully hacked Seiko.

A more sophisticated pilot among us eschewed wearing a Seiko and chose a far more expensive timepiece. He appeared for briefing one morning wearing a behemoth gold Swiss Rolex Oyster Perpetual GMT on a custom gold band. He’d bought it from a jewelry store the city of Cam Ranh Bay. The thing looked like it weighed close to a pound.

I couldn’t find an image of the watch as I remember it, but the examples below display the significant individual characteristics: rotating bezel indicating 24-hour Greenwich Mean Time divided into red and blue halves and a solid gold case rather than stainless steel.



RolexGMT4Credit: Wikipedia Commons

We were all marveling at his extravagance, and I noticed a slight discoloration on the date. It looked like a bit of rust. I mentioned it and then another one of the pilots dropped the bombshell by suggesting that our squadron mate had purchased a fake Rolex. His clue? Movement of the second hand.

When I began this post I couldn’t remember whether smooth or incremental movement of the hand provided the telltale, so I Googled it and found this, supposedly from a genuine Rolex technician:

Most Rolex watches – and EVERY Rolex marked “Perpetual” should have a mechanical movement. That means that the watch is powered by a mainspring, and the spring is wound automatically as the watch is worn by the movement of the wearer’s arm (hence the “Perpetual” designation). These watches do tick – but they do so very rapidly so that the seconds hand appears to move almost continuously – if you look very closely you’ll see that it actually moves in very small but discrete increments. Many fakes have quartz movements that are powered by a battery. In these fakes, the second hand jumps once a second and moves 1/60th of the way around the dial with every jump. However, some fakes do have mechanical movements that also tick rapidly much like the genuine Rolex. So, looking at the movement of the seconds hand may not be conclusive.

In this case, the jeweler had pulled a fast one and sold fake innards in a solid gold package.

And now, almost fifty years later, I’ve been informed by one of my best friends, a college buddy and roommate in USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training, that neither Seiko nor Rolex makes the perfect watch for a fighter pilot. Here’s the real scoop:

Kickass Fighter Pilot Watch

A typical stereotype is that fighter pilots always have a big watch. In many cases, that is quite true. However, we have stumbled upon the best watch a fighter pilot could ever own. It tells the correct, local time, automatically, no matter where you are in the world and it’s so ingeniously simple.


Here’s how it works: Go to a pub or bar and buy a beer.
 Push the receipt on to the pin on the watch. To check the time simply read it from the receipt.


To adjust the time, buy a new beer and it will now
 be showing the accurate, current time once again.

The watch looks great, very stylish and it’s the product of amazing engineering. But one of the most kickass things about it is that people will want to buy you a beer just to see how it works.

How cool is that? Wish I’d thought of it, although it probably wouldn’t work very well in a flight briefing.



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Beautiful Aviation Art – The Jet Age – Part One

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My good friend and fellow ex-fighter pilot Yago F. de Bobadilla, Maj. Gen. SAF (ret), has assembled a PowerPoint slide show as a companion to his original collection honoring the aviators and flying machines of World War II and the artists who commemorate specific events with exceptional skill and dedication to their craft.

Throughout the history of air warfare, combatants have struggled to achieve a tactical advantage and shift the balance of power in their direction by improving the aircraft and weaponry employed in the aerial battlefield.

Between the dawn of aviation and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, military leaders had disregarded the need for armed aircraft, believing them useful only for reconnaissance. Engineers in France and Germany, however, had been experimenting with methods to allow the pilot to fire a fuselage-mounted machine gun at an opponent without damaging his own propeller. Invention of the interrupter gear led to development of the gun synchronizer, which fostered the birth of aerial combat.

Based on extensive research of surviving German and French early WWI aviation records, the first victory using a synchronized machine-gun-equipped fighter most probably occurred on July 1, 1915 when the pilot of a German Fokker M.5K/MG forced down a French Morane-Saulnier Type L, which landed in French territory and could not be officially confirmed. Three days later, the same German pilot downed an unconfirmed Morane Parasol, and finally achieved the first officially confirmed victory on July 15, 1915 against another Morane Parasol.

Fokker_M5K-MGFokker M.5K/MG (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Morane ParasolMorane-Saulnier Type L (Credit: via Wikipedia)

Sole possession of a working gun synchronizer enabled Germany to dominate the skies over the Western Front in a period known as the Fokker Scourge. Although Germany was very careful to protect this advantage by forbidding its pilots from flying over enemy territory, the basic principles involved were common knowledge. By the middle of 1916, several Allied synchronizer gears were in use, and the aerial combat arena shifted to a more equal and far deadlier contest.

Throughout the history of aerial warfare, escalation has most often occurred in relatively small steps, such as extra machine guns, addition of a cannon (with exploding shells rather than bullets that rely on impact inertia alone to cause damage), or a supercharger for the engine to improve aircraft performance at high altitude.

And then along came the jet engine. During WWII, the British and the Americans both developed prototype jet-powered fighters, but Germany was the only country to employ one in combat. Imagine the shock and awe among Allied aviators when the ME-262 first appeared in defense of the crumbling Third Reich. Air warfare would never be the same.

ME262ME-262 (Credit:

And so, here is Part One of “Beautiful Aviation Art – The Jet Age”

Slide02A Navy F-4J Phantom II on the CAT with six A-4E Skyhawks flying overhead.

Slide03May 21, 1982. In the second-wave attack on the HMS Ardent, the Douglas A-4Qs of Lieutenants Benito Rotolo (3-A-306 in the foreground), Carlos Lecour (3-A-305, second) and Roberto Sylvester (3-A-301, last), one of Lecour’s bombs explodes inside a fuel tank and starts a fire that fatally wounds the frigate.

Slide04Slide05March 12, 1967. The target is the large thermal power plant at Viet Tri, on the Red River, a short distance to the northwest of Hanoi. Heavily defended by 100-mm and 85-mm gun positions, missile sites and the usual barrage of ground-fire encountered on any mission “downtown,” the task of the leading flight was to hammer the guns and clear the way for the closely following strike force to lay their bombs squarely on the power plant. They would all have to contend with the ever-present likelihood of MiG interception on the way out.

Leading the 335th TFW F-105 Thunderchiefs out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base, Colonel Jack Broughton took the familiar route, approaching the target area flying down Thud Ridge. As the high ground fell away he pushed the flight of four ships down on the deck and, “going like hell,” Broughton swung the leading Thuds southwest, just enough to give those on the ground the impression they were headed somewhere south of Viet Tri.

Not quite abreast of the target, Broughton called the “pop-up,” and as the Thuds passed vertical they rolled inverted going over the top, attacking the guns from the opposite direction. Beneath them the big gun pits were lined up, their gunners confused by the maneuver, and before they could work out what was happening the F-105 pilots emptied their loads of CBUs into the middle of them.

Behind the Thuds came the strike force. With the air cleared of the usual flak barrage, the F-105’s unloaded their bombs right onto the thermal power plant. The facility was destroyed in one of the best-planned and executed raids of the war.

Slide06Luke Air Force Base, the 58th Tactical Fighter Training Wing and its famous “Triple Nickel” 555th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron, were the first recipients of the F-15. From the initial delivery on November 14, 1974, the eagle proved equal to its nickname. With its better than one-to-one thrust-to-weight ratio, the fighter can accelerate when flying vertically. One of its pilots said, “The Eagle can out-climb, out-maneuver, and out accelerate any fighter threat in existence or on the horizon.” The artist shows the F-15 screaming over the Sonora desert on a training mission.  In his words, “To impart a feeling of power and motion, the landscape in my painting is at a slight angle and the foreground is blurred as the Eagle roars by at about 500 knots.”

Slide07Christmas 2000. With a high speed pass on afterburner, F-14B no. 161435 of VF-103s Jolly Rogers shows off a special holiday livery for its Mediterranean and Persian Gulf cruise. With crossed candy canes and a Santa Claus cap replacing the traditional insignia, this Tomcat was one of a kind.

The nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, CVN-73, can part the waters at over 30 knots and displaces 104,000 tons fully loaded. He is the sixth super carrier of the Nimitz class, and the fourth ship of the US Navy to be so named. Her home port is Norfolk, Virginia.

Slide08In 1961, the first fighter wing of the new German Federal Luftwaffe, led by the famous Ace of Aces Colonel Erich Hartmann, was named JG 71 Richthofen after another well-known German fighter ace, the Red Baron Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. In this painting, Colonel Hartmann returns from a mission in his JA-111. The nose of Hartmann’s F-86 sports the black tulip, his personal emblem throughout World War II. This emblem is carried by all aircraft in his new fighter wing as a sign of loyalty to their boss.

Slide09The MiG kill of Cdr. Mark Fox during Desert Storm, in an F/A-18C of VFA-81.

Slide101972 – Three Phantom F-4B’s from VF-151 on an early morning mission over North Vietnam. NF 213 is piloted by John “Bedhog” Chesire, with RIO George “T.A.” Healey in the rear. NF 210 has Ted Triebel in the front seat and Dave Everett in the rear. Dave and Ted were shot down on August 27, 1972, on a photo escort mission over North Vietnam while flying 210, and spent the rest of the war as POW’s in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

The series “Beautiful Aviation Art – The Jet Age” will continue with Part Two.



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Black Cats Rule the Night – by Mike Perry

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Almost two years ago, I received this comment from a visitor on my series “Beautiful Aviation Art”:

My watchcap is off to these gallant airmen and their crews, however, once again the crews of the lowly PBY Black Cats are left out of the story. Those men flew into the teeth of the Japanese war machine with a lumbering flying boat painted black as their main defense. They sunk millions of tons of war provisions during the night, then spent the day rescuing downed aviators. They were crucial in early warning at Midway, and other battles. I doubt if the men whose lives were saved by “Dumbo” and the Marines who fought starved-out Japanese soldiers would consider the PBY incidental to the war effort. Let’s give these men and crews their due. –J.L. Reeves, proud son of Lt. Cdr. Columbus DeMerville Reeves II, VPB-33.

Although the delay in doing something about the comment may not indicate it, I couldn’t agree more, and this morning I stumbled upon a post on that I want to share here. It’s a great website based on the acronym SOFREP: [noun] a special operations situation report. 

Full credit to the website and author Mike Perry for the post re-published here absent a video clip of a Black Cat returning from a combat mission. See the website to view it. The text and images in Mike’s post follow, including additional images inserted by me with credit noted to other sources.

sofrep-pby-catalina-660x320_v1Photo Credit

As a result of the industrial age, machines of war have often garnered as much fame as man himself. In the case of the airplane this proved to be no truer than in the Second World War. Names like Spitfire, Mustang, Flying Fortress and Messerschmitt earned their place in history as legends in their own time.

Then there were the others. Unsung, under-appreciated workhorses that, in some respects, changed the course of battle, single-handedly. But, they always fell victim to the more glamorous looking mounts that shot the enemy from the sky or rained bombs on his cities. Few of their crew ever made the papers, or posed for photographs, instead they plodded on as just another cog in the gears of the armed might humanity, content with their role.

For men who flew the PBY Catalina for the U.S. Navy, this was almost a certainty. An amphibious twin engine patrol aircraft with a boat shaped fuselage and wide squared wings, they spent many a day spanning the far reaches of the world’s oceans, ducking in and out of clouds to find signs of an enemy before anyone else, report him, shadow him, and hope no one, especially a fighter, spotted them.

They had some marvelous successes, though. In 1941, a PBY discovered the feared German battleship Bismarck, which unfolded a chain of events that led to her sinking, and little more than a year later, they found the Japanese fleet approaching Midway, which culminated in turning the tide of the war in the Pacific. Reliable and long ranged, they proved indispensable to commanders who needed timely intelligence.

Yet there were others, a few squadrons, in fact who managed to do things with this aircraft that defied logic. These were the stand outs. They painted it, armed it and sent it off to strike an unsuspecting enemy in the dead of night, often using only the dim lights shining on their instrument gauges to guide them. In the course of their history they built up a formidable reputation and proudly called themselves the “Black Cats.” And in their playground of the Pacific Ocean, they proved more than just a scourge.

Their earliest operations began during the Guadalcanal campaign which started in August 1942. Here the Japanese undertook a massive resupply effort to keep the island from falling, with hopes of retaking it. They sent streams of convoys down the narrow channels of the Solomon island chain and became known as the Tokyo Express. And more often than not, these were run at night, and included warships heading to bombard Guadalcanal’s prize, Henderson airfield.

Since night operations were much too dangerous to involve large numbers of aircraft, a decision was made to use unorthodox methods to harass the Japanese. They came up with the idea of using the PBY, which was found that after some aircraft modification and daring by the crew, might be the perfect answer.

The most visible modification made was its color. From nose to tail every part of the plane was painted matte black. Even the national emblem was darkened (later reversed) to prevent a target for searchlights to focus on. Later on, to keep with the moniker, some sported eyes and whiskers daubed on the nose. For electronics, radars and radio altimeters were installed to ensure navigational safety, and weapons of various types were hung under the wings. Now, with their once clumsy looking ocean blue albatrosses looking more like menacing vultures, the first official Black Cat missions commenced in December flown by crews from Navy squadron VP-12 under Commander Clarence Taff.


Photo Credit: via Wikipedia Commons

They were an immediate hit. Flying all night, soaring slowly, alone or in small groups above the dark waters they dipped down to ship mast height, to bomb and torpedo Japanese vessels of all shapes and sizes, as searchlights and tracer bullets swept the skies in vain trying to find the lumbering birds unseen, save for the deep chop of their engines.

With their greatest ally, the darkness, stolen from them, the Japanese would watch in horror as a random ship, then another, exploded in a blinding mass of flame and oily smoke that seemed to occur almost every night and at the beckon of those engines.

Not content, Black Cats also worked their magic against islands, terrorizing the enemy as America’s response to “Washing Machine Charlie.” This was a nickname pinned on a lone Japanese night raider who had frequented Henderson field, dropping bombs, hitting nothing but keeping nerves on edge. The Black Cats felt obliged to return the favor, so they visited different airfields dropping bombs of all sizes, as well as beer bottles with razors in the neck to make them scream as they fell. One pilot even dropped hand grenades, door knobs, chains and even shrapnel from an exploded Japanese bomb to rattle the cages of those below.

In missions like these, they would make four successive runs in half-hour intervals over the target before they got rid of everything carried. To say they deprived the enemy of sleep or work when doing this was an understatement.

The Black Cats knew, though, they had little defense should a fighter be nearby, so they developed tactics to keep their vulnerable planes from getting tracked by roaming patrols. The best moves, they found, were low over land and near wave-top level over water. This latter technique was especially effective as it confused an enemy’s depth perception. Since the Cat was nearly invisible against a dark ocean it took an almost suicidal pilot to dive on it unaware of where the Cat’s silhouette ended and the water began.

Once fighting on Guadalcanal ended and moved up the Solomons and inexorably toward Japan, more Black Cat squadrons were added, while VP-12 was withdrawn after having flown over 300 missions.

The new groups continued the Black Cats legacy, plying their deadly trade sinking or damaging thousands of tons of shipping and harassing harbors and employing a new tactic: working hand in hand with PT boats off the coasts as double-edged sword against shipping. This ploy helped them rack up even more nocturnal victories.

And crews were evolving the Catalina itself. Now, more machine guns were being added and even attempts to mount a tank gun were tried, but abandoned because such a beast wouldn’t fit. Nevertheless, this excess of automatic weaponry taught many a night fighter to keep its distance as their porcupine-like target lumbered over the waves at barely 115 miles per hour.

The Cats also made daylight appearances like their blue-attired cousins when reconnaissance was needed or as standbys for search and rescue. It was during one of these that an incredible feat occurred.

During a rescue patrol on February, 14th, 1943, a VP-34 PBY piloted by Lieutenant Nathan Gordon covered a massive daylight raid against Kavieng airfield on an island named New Ireland. Combat had been heavy and planes downed offshore, so he dipped his black bird low looking for rafts or heads bobbing in the waves which seemed heavier than usual.

He eased the Catalina toward the water, but the swells caused it to hit heavy, water spewing through the seams and bilges. He taxied the plane around an empty raft then satisfied there was no one around, lifted off again.

A radio call sent him to another location nearby. Another raft spotted. Men aboard, drifting close to shore.

An enemy boat set out toward it. A bomber strafed its course sending it back to the beach as Gordon set down again, spray erupting around the raft as the Japanese zeroed in on it.

He stopped engines, letting the raft float alongside, as bullets began puncturing the aircraft. Several men were hauled aboard and the Catalina lumbered over the waves.

Just as it lifted off, another call came. More men. Three this time. Again, another hard landing, the Japanese greeting them with bursts of tracer and sea spray kicking up around the plane as the engines stopped and tired hands pulled them inside.

Bouncing into the air, he set course for home. Then it came again. More men sighted. Counting his crew, he realized there were now 19 men aboard with no room left. But it didn’t matter, he was going back.

Gordon thundered low down the beach toward the raft tossing in the waves near shore. The Japanese poured fire at the plane as Gordon slammed it down the black skin bleeding water and oil as he pulled alongside with still engines. The six stuffed themselves aboard as the throttles shoved forward and the wounded, waterlogged, and overloaded cat struggled with each hop of wave, until it rose perhaps by will alone, into the big blue, tracked the entire way by relentless fire. It was to no avail. Gordon had done it, and got them back home a few hours later with his courage and crew bailing water out the hatches.

Word quickly made its way up the chain of command and soon Admiral William Halsey took time from his busy schedule to send the following message: “Please pass my admiration to that saga-writing Kavieng Cat crew. X-ray. Halsey.”

Nathan Gordon received the Medal of Honor.


Photo Credit:

Squadrons stayed active throughout 1943 and into ’44 and included Australian (RAAF) groups. This expanded the operational areas, but the Cat’s days were coming to an end. Better aircraft such as the four-engine maritime B-24 Liberator, the PB4Y, was appearing in greater numbers and exceeding the Catalina’s attributes in most areas. And with their black paint flaking and unplugged bullet holes dotting their forms, the last of the Black Cat squadrons headed back to the U.S. in early 1945 to await the scrapyard. There, the outstanding success and sheer bravery of their crews remained unknown to the worker whose torch began to slice into that scarred and battered aluminum shape that once ruled the night.

U.S. Navy Black Cat Squadrons

  • VP-11
  • VP-12
  • VP-23
  • VP-24
  • VP-33
  • VP-34
  • VP-44
  • VP-52
  • VP-53
  • VP-54
  • VP-71
  • VP-81
  • VP-91
  • VP-101

PBY Catalina General Characteristics

  • Crew: 8 – pilot, co-pilot, bow turret gunner, flight mechanic, radioman, navigator and two waist gunners
  • Length: 63 ft 10 7/16 in (19.46 m)
  • Wingspan: 104 ft 0 in (31.70 m)
  • Height: 21 ft 1 in (6.15 m)
  • Wing area: 1,400 ft² (130 m²)
  • Empty weight: 20,910 lb (9,485 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 35,420 lb (16,066 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 Twin Wasp radial engines, 1,200 hp (895 kW each) each
  • Zero-lift drag coefficient: 0.0309
  • Drag area: 43.26 ft² (4.02 m²)
  • Aspect ratio: 7.73

PBY Catalina Performance

  • Maximum speed: 196 mph (314 km/h)
  • Cruise speed: 125 mph (201 km/h)
  • Range: 2,520 mi (4,030 km)
  • Service ceiling: 15,800 ft (4,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 1,000 ft/min (5.1 m/s)
  • Wing loading: 25.3 lb/ft² (123.6 kg/m²)
  • Power/mass: 0.034 hp/lb (0.056 kW/kg)
  • Lift-to-drag ratio: 11.9

PBY Catalina Armament

  • 3× .30 cal (7.62 mm) machine guns (two in nose turret, one in ventral hatch at tail)
  • 2× .50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns (one in each waist blister)
  • 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) of bombs or depth charges; torpedo racks were also available

PBYBlackCat-1 Photo Credit: “Boosher” via

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Beautiful Aviation Art – Part Seven

If the title of this post is black and/or you see the fighter-pilot header, click on the title to view the featured-image header and continue reading. You can click on any image for a larger view and use the back button on your browser to return here.

My original intent was to publish this series in six parts, but my good friend and fellow ex-fighter pilot Yago F. de Bobadilla, Maj. Gen. SAF (ret), sent me additional examples of aviation art that deserve to be included. Here they are:


Slide03Ploesti, Romania, August 1, 1943–”Hell’s Wench,” a B-24 badly damaged by anti-aircraft artillery fire, led the 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) in its daring low level attack on the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania which supplied two-thirds of Germany’s petroleum production at that stage of World War II. Lieutenant Colonel Addison E. Baker, an Ohio National Guardsman who commanded the 93rd, ignored the fact he was flying over terrain suitable for safe landing. He refused to break up the lead formation and led his group to the target, where he dropped his bombs with devastating effect. Then he left the formation, but his valiant attempts to gain enough altitude for the crew to escape by parachute failed and the aircraft crashed. For their gallant leadership and extraordinary flying skill, both Baker and his pilot, Major John L. Jerstad, posthumously received the Medal of Honor . The raid, nicknamed “Operation Tidalwave“, was especially costly, with 54 of the 177 bombers lost and 532 of the 1,726 personnel engaged listed as dead, missing or interned.

Slide04Torpedo aircraft from the Akagi, the Hiryu and the Kaga targeted battleship row during this first wave. As portrayed in the painting, a Japanese Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” from the Akagi launches its torpedo from very low altitude against the USS West Virginia and Tennessee, virtual sitting ducks. The Japanese had trained carefully, and had modified their Kai Model 2 torpedoes to accommodate the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. While caught by surprise, the USN was fortunate that its carriers were not in port, and that the Japanese had failed to destroy many of the support and repair facilities.

Slide05Encountering a mortally-wounded B-17 limping back to England, Stigler anticipated an easy kill and another opportunity to avenge his brother’s death at the opening of WWII. As he approached the virtually helpless American plane, however, he saw the faces of the dead and wounded crewmen. Then, Stigler’s eyes met those of pilot Charles Brown. Despite the potentially severe consequences of letting an enemy plane escape, Stigler felt that he had to answer a higher call of honor . . . mercy.

Slide06On his first combat mission and expecting it to be his last, Brown marveled as the enemy Bf-109 stuck with him to the North Sea. His adversary then saluted and veered away, allowing the astonished Brown to journey safely home. With this encounter engraved into the minds of both pilots for decades after the war’s end, the two men remarkably located one another in 1990. In the years that followed, their friendship developed to the point where Stigler considered Brown to be as precious as the brother he had lost. Note: For a fascinating CNN article on this event and its aftermath so many years later, see this.

Slide078 October 1940: While taking his Hawker Hurricane off from Speke airfield, a raiding JU88 crossed the airfield in front of Flt Lt Denys Gillam, who promptly shot it down. It was the fastest air victory of the war, and probably of all time. Robert Taylor’s painting shows Gillam’s Hawker Hurricane, guns blazing while undercarriage is still retracting.


Slide09September 12, 1945. For countless American boys who sailed off to war in the Pacific, the Golden Gate Bridge was their last sight of home. Many would never return. Now, the veterans of WWII witness the joy of the nation they saved. A parade of watercraft escorts their convoy into San Francisco Bay while Corsairs of the “Black Sheep” provide an aerial salute. Stationed in California, the Black Sheep planes are factory fresh except for a war-weary model used for training. Like the heroes below, this tired fighter will soon retire, its mission accomplished. America is free. No homecoming would be sweeter than this.

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