January 12, 1968 An Air Combat First

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns.

To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky.  Like bantamweight boxers, each attempting to strike the winning blow.

The Snoopy story is fun but in the real world, Manfred von Richthofen was killed by a single bullet from the ground, while pursuing a Canadian pilot behind Allied lines.  The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died mere moments later. He was buried with full military honors.  By his enemies.

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Manfred von Richtofen

Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber modified to hunt submarines, in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns, but these three entered a full-on dogfight.

02b_am2015_milcoll_xviii_maxwell_5_live-ct.jpgStripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns ablaze. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber, shredding hydraulic systems and setting the right wing ablaze.

Rear-gunners returned fire as crew members frantically jettisoned depth charges.  With engines #3 and 4 dead, Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. kicked in full right rudder, throwing the massive aircraft into a skid and crash landing in the water, the aircraft breaking into three pieces.02d_am2015_b24_flak_live.jpgMaxwell had dubbed his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked.  Seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.

Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do to keep the soaking wet combatants from resuming the fight, on the decks of the destroyer.

The “Brass” got into the action in November 1942, when general Eisenhower and a high ranking entourage left London destined for Gibraltar in a fleet of 6 converted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. Five made the crossing without incident but one turned back due to mechanical problems.  Sure enough, the lone American bomber was lumbering overhead the following day when set upon by a flight of four German long-range fighters.c01d0637794c357f99670b25d4224b7f.jpgWith crew reduced to a minimum it was one-star General Jimmy Doolittle (yeah, That Jimmy Doolittle), who took the stick from a wounded pilot.  A Colonel, a Major and two senior civilian officials pitched in while one-star general Lyman Lemnitzer manned a machine gun, holding the fighters at bay.

The German squadron peeled off, probably low on fuel.  The B-17 made it with what must have been the most senior combat team, in aviation history.

The final air-to-air combat of WW2 took place on April 12 1945, between unarmed spotter aircraft. Two Americans were flying low near Berlin when the pair spotted a German Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft, even lower. Having the better air position the Americans opened fire with service pistols. As the Storch attempted to escape, the aircraft brushed a wing on the ground, and it was over.

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Last air-to-air combat of WW2

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, a single Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems.

The last anyone saw of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed into that hillside.

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Low Level, terrain-following radar

Later in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got so spooked he bailed out of a perfectly good aircraft, before a single shot was fired in his direction.

The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from a base in North Vietnam headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain was long used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerrilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800-foot massif.

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Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi Mountain

CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 from above.

Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire contact was over in less than 20 minutes.

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.

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Ann Holland holds a 2017 calendar — “Secret Ops of the CIA” — that represents the place where her husband’s unit was overrun in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Mel Holland was on a mountaintop radar station that guided B-52 bombers toward targets in North Vietnam. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.

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An Air combat First.  H/T artist Keith Woodcock

July 17, 1938 Wrong Way Corrigan

Aviation officials were apoplectic that a New York to California flight plan, would wind up in Ireland. 

In the period between the two World Wars, the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kittyhawk was well within living memory. The flying Aces of the Great War seemed like some kind of modern-day knights, and many became pop-culture heroes. Wood-and-fabric biplanes gave way to sleek, metal monoplanes, while air races and daring, record-setting flights seemed a constant feature of the daily news.

Heavier-than-air flight, once considered an impossibility, was coming of age.

Cal_banquetThe first non-stop transatlantic flight in history began on June 14, 1919, when British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown departed St. John’s, Newfoundland in a modified bomber, arriving in Ireland the following day.

Charles Lindbergh’s better known (and longer) New York to Ireland flight began in the early morning hours of May 20, 1927, when the custom-built, linen-skinned Ryan Aeronautical Company monoplane Spirit of St. Louis departed Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York.

33½ hours later, thousands of spectators’ cars were caught up in “the largest traffic jam in Paris history”, to be there for the landing at Le Bourget Aerodrome.

Five years later to the day, Amelia Earhart performed the first nonstop transatlantic crossing by a female pilot, completing the 2,000 mile crossing from Newfoundland to Ireland, in fifteen hours.

Amelia_Earhart_LOC_hec.40747Five years later, “Lady Lindy” disappeared over the South Pacific, along with copilot Frederick J. Noonan.

Few events so captured the world’s imagination, as the Earhart search of 1937, and the explosion aboard the Apollo spacecraft, in 1970.  On both occasions, breathless headlines the world over followed the unfolding drama.

The Apollo 13 story had a happy ending, as astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise returned safely, to earth.  It was thirty-three years since the Earhart disappearance, a mystery which remains unsolved, to this day.

The 1920s – 30s have been described as the “Golden Age of Aviation”.  This was the world of Douglas Corrigan.

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Douglas Corrigan

At the age of eighteen, Corrigan forked over $2.50 for a ride on a Curtiss Jenny biplane. He was hooked.  He began flying lessons a week later, making his first solo flight on March 25, 1926.

A man without the means or the fame of Charles Lindbergh, Douglas Corrigan brought himself up in the aviation world, with his hands.  He was an aircraft mechanic, and a good one.

It was Corrigan who assembled the wing and installed the fuel tanks and instrument panel, for Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis.  Corrigan and colleague Dan Burnett increased the lift of the aircraft, extending the wing an additional 10-ft. longer than any earlier Ryan-designed aircraft.

Following Lindbergh’s success, Corrigan set his sights on a transatlantic crossing of his own. Working as an aircraft mechanic with the Airtech Flight School in San Diego, Corrigan would work on his flight skills, during short lunch breaks. He would perform aerobatic stunts with company aircraft, much to the chagrin of his employer.   He continued to perform stunts after the company prohibited the practice, simply a little south, where the boss couldn’t see him.

Corrigan worked several jobs as aircraft mechanic, always using his employer’s planes to hone his flying skills.

In 1933, Corrigan paid $310 for a used 1929 Curtiss Robin monoplane, and began to modify it for transatlantic flight. He scavenged the parts from two old Wright Whirlwind engines, increasing the aircraft’s horsepower from 90 to 165. He installed additional fuel tanks and applied to the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1935, for permission to make the flight. The application was rejected.

corriganCorrigan made additional modifications and repeated applications over the next two years, all of which were rejected.  By 1935, the once-freelance aviation industry faced increasing government regulation.  Corrigan found his project losing ground. . In 1937, federal officials not only rebuffed his flight plan.  Authorities deemed Corrigan’s aircraft Sunshine unstable for safe flight, and denied renewal of its license to fly.

That was it.  If he couldn’t get the permit, he’d do it without.

Corrigan flew in from California, arriving in Brooklyn unannounced and nauseous from a fuel leak. All was confusion at the time, with Howard Hughes preparing to take off on a world tour. Corrigan filed his flight plan for a return trip to California and headed out at first dawn on July 17, 1938, headed east with two chocolate bars, a couple boxes of fig bars, and a quart of water.

This was not the well-backed, bountifully financed custom aircraft of the Lindbergh days.  This was the soapbox derby of airplanes, literally held together with baling wire and a quiltwork of patches, welded to the hood.  Let journalist H. R. Knickerbocker, pick up the story:

“You may say that Corrigan’s flight could not be compared to Lindbergh’s in its sensational appeal as the first solo flight across the ocean. Yes, but in another way the obscure little Irishman’s flight was the more audacious of the two. Lindbergh had a plane specially constructed, the finest money could buy. He had lavish financial backing, friends to help him at every turn. Corrigan had nothing but his own ambition, courage, and ability. His plane, a nine-year-old Curtiss Robin, was the most wretched-looking jalopy…The door behind which Corrigan crouched for twenty-eight hours was fastened together with a piece of baling wire. The reserve gasoline tanks put together by Corrigan, left him so little room that he had to sit hunched forward with his knees cramped, and not enough window space to see the ground when landing”.

Ten hours into the flight, Corrigan discovered his ‘cold feet’ were the result of gasoline, sloshing around the cockpit. He poked a hole with a screwdriver, and kept going. 26 hours in, he claimed to have discovered a “navigation error”. The Robin was still over water. 28 hours and 13 minutes after leaving Brooklyn, Corrigan touched down at Baldonnel Aerodrome, in Dublin.

Wrong_Way_Corrigan HeadlineAviation officials were apoplectic that a New York to California flight plan, would wind up in Ireland.  At a time when Western Union charged by the word, the pilot was excoriated with a 600-word diatribe, enumerating the pilot’s transgressions.  Corrigan served a 14-day suspension of his flying license, ending the day he returned with his aircraft aboard the steamship Manhattan.

“Wrong Way” Corrigan returned to a ticker-tape parade, larger than the one given Lindbergh, himself.

The flight mechanic was a celebrity, writing an autobiography and endorsing a line of “Wrongway” products, including a watch that ran backward. He appeared on a 1957 episode of To Tell the Truth, and earned $75,000 portraying himself in the RKO film, The Flying Irishman. It would have taken thirty years to earn that much, at any of his airfield jobs.

To his great disappointment, Charles Lindbergh, Corrigan’s hero and the reason he had made the flight in the first place, never acknowledged his feat.

Corrigan-autographed-500x378Wrong Way Corrigan flight tested bombers during WW2 and retired in 1950, and bought an orange grove in Santa Ana, California. He claimed he knew nothing about growing oranges, he just copied what his neighbors were doing.

The old Robin came out of its hangar one last time on the golden anniversary of the flight, reassembled and the engine restarted, successfully.  Corrigan became so excited that event organizers placed guards at the aircraft’s wings – they even considered tying the tail to a police car – fearful that the old man would once again, take off in the thing.

At age 84, Douglas Corrigan was elected an Honorary Member of the ‘Liars Club of America’, an honor which he politely, but firmly, refused. To the end of his days, Wrong Way Corrigan insisted that his transatlantic flight was nothing more than a navigation error.  He was as surprised to find himself in Ireland, as anyone else.

The autobiography is out of print but still available, if you’re interested.  It’s about fifty bucks, in hard cover, the title is That’s my Story.

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May 13, 1916 Lafayette Escadrille

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.

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Norman Prince

Knowing that his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.  A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight in the war against the Axis Powers, joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin, would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons, though he would not live to see the article.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

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Lt. Col. William Thaw II with_lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.  Explanations that this was an “African dog” were less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

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French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault & Fram, 1917

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo, but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit, and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette. Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

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Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916. Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918, when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916, when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

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Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

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Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

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Lafayette Escadrille, July 1917. Standing (left to right) Soubiron, Doolittle, Campbell, Persons, Bridgman, Dugan, MacMonagle, Lowell, Willis, Jones, Peterson and de Maison-Rouge. Seated (left to right) Hill, Masson with “Soda,” Thaw, Thénault, Lufbery with “Whiskey,” Johnson, Bigelow and Rockwell. Georges Thenault’s dog “Fram” sits in the foreground.