There I was, flying my first solo and getting into position to land. I brought the plane into the landing pattern and was gliding over the field to get into the correct position for my touchdown. I looked down at the runway and lined myself up. I looked at the field. The instructors, the whole gallery of them, were on their feet staring at me in what appeared to be horror. I was going into my landing stall, leveling off, too high from the ground.
I pulled the stick back, and pulled the nose up. I gave the plane more gas, and she began to move up, up, up and out of the landing position.Pull the stick back a little more, Irving, add more throttle, add power and I was soaring back up to the five hundred foot level.
I was flying solo, I was flying solo. I hadn’t been able to put it down properly, but that didn’t matter. I had recovered before the disaster. Going around again was always good practice. I was flying. It was a feeling of indescribable joy, mixed with just a bit of trepidation.
How had I misjudged the landing position? Shoot. But there was no question that I would be able to bring her down, easily, properly, completely.
Yet, I was a little shook up. I flew around the airfield a few more times and then decided I would have to set it down.
I went into the landing pattern again, and when I thought I was at the right level, I pulled the nose up into the proper stall, and felt the wheels touch the ground. G-O-O--O--D.
But then, and I don’t know how, I will never know how-- Instead of going straight ahead, as it should, the airplane made a large circle on the ground, a ground loop. It went around once and stalled. I was sitting in the middle of the landing runway, engine stalled, feeling stupid and inept.
The senior civilian instructor had been watching.
He walked over to where I sat in the immovable airplane and looked up at me.
“Mister,” he said “Do you want to be in the walking Army, Mister?”
“No, no sir.”
“Do that again, Mister and you will be.”
Guy was not happy. We had the impression that part of his compensation was based on the number of men who soloed successfully, and this was not a successful solo. He didn’t shout, though. Nor did he ever take me up again.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said. “You have to have a military check flight. The commanding officer or his staff will have to check you out to see if you know enough and have what it takes to continue pilot training.”
A couple of days later I was scheduled for a flight with one of he commissioned officers, one of the check pilots.
We took off, and I think I was permitted to do it all. I flew it off the ground, climbed and went through the procedures that he asked me to do, through the gosports. I felt I had done well. We had even flown maneuvers, and I know I had executed a really super Immelman which is a sweeping, climbing l80 degree turn. But, unfortunately, it was not good enough. When we landed, he washed me out.
My career as an Army Air Corps pilot was over.
Ed Phillips, I remember, was as distressed as I was. He thought I walked on water, and now I was up to my neck on a different military career path.
I was told to get ready to ship out, pack my barracks bags and wait for orders. I think I was ambivalent about this. I was told that I would go to gunnery school and then to Navigator School. I was going to become an aerial navigator. The red-necked instructor back in Massachusetts had been right: I didn’t have what it took to be a pilot. He had of course, set me up for the failure. He had insisted I was of no value and would never make it in the pilot’s seat. According to him, I just couldn’t cut the mustard. He may have been right, but as an impressionable kid, not yet even nineteen, I think that had he offered encouragement I might have done better. Who knows?
For years I have thought that he did me a favor. I was pretty reckless in those years, and I have felt that had I continued flying, I might very well have killed myself in one of the airplanes they put us in. Lots of guys did just that.Within a few days one of the other men in Guy’s training crew and I were on our way to Fort Myers, Florida, where there was a school for Aerial gunnery. Jay was a little older than I, another New York Jewish boy. But he was bitter and pissed off. Our aerial infractions were similar. But he was sure that other men, as he put it Goyish (gentile) men had done worse than we and not been washed out. “It’s the way the ‘momsarem,’” he ranted, “keep the Jews from becoming pilots. They don’t want us Yidden to fly. It is their way of practicing anti--Semitism.”
(‘Momser’ is the Yiddish word for a person who is born out of wedlock. In those years it was a terrible thing to call someone.)
At the time I discounted his rantings.
But as the years have gone by and I see how the services dealt with various ethnicities at that time I suspect he may have been right. It is an allegation that can never be proven. We New York Jews had had sad experiences. In our world, fresh out of the depression, Anti-Semitism was rife. We could all cite case after case of people who were refused jobs or promotions or entrance to college programs and graduate schools, because of their religion. Add to that the Nazi outrages, and this attitude became a living thing.
As a matter of record, after the war when I got to college, the campus social life was fraternity driven--there was no fraternity that welcomed Jewish men. So we went to the dean of the college and asked for permission to start a Jewish fraternity. The dean, a pompous jackass looked at us, about a dozen Jewish Veterans, many of whom had been Prisoners of War, and said: “We won’t ever have enough Jewish men on this campus to justify such a fraternity.”
He was not willing to grant permission. We started one anyway. It won all the scholastic awards for years, and lasted four decades before it ran out of steam.
It was mid-November when we got to the aerial gunnery school at Fort Myers, Florida. There we joined other cadet washouts from primary flying fields all over the east, and enlistees direct from Basic training in learning how to be aerial gunners.
We spent hours learning about the fifty-caliber machine gun, which was the basic armament on the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers. We took the gun apart and put it back together again. We learned to field strip it to check it out. A field strip demands us to take the gun apart to make sure everything is working correctly.
We did this with heavy gloves on. If you had to fix your gun at altitude you had to do it with gloves on: if bare flesh touched a metal gun at altitudes where the temperature was minus fifty or seventy-five degrees below zero Celsius, one’s fingers would meld permanently to the metal. Our instructors spent hours telling us about the dangers of high altitude flying in unheated, unpressurized aircraft.
Once you could manage to field strip the guns quickly, wearing gloves, you then had to take the darn thing apart and put it together blind folded. We became pretty deft at working with that lethal piece of machinery taking it apart, putting it together again.
Once we were totally capable of dealing with the mechanics of the Browning machine gun, we went to the firing range where we were taught again to use a rifle to shoot at moving targets. We were taught windage, how to lead the target with a rifle, as a hunter would, and then with a shot gun.
We were introduced to one of the sports of the wealthy: shooting skeet. We spent hours on the skeet range learning to shoot at the clay pigeons as they came out of the ‘skeet shacks’. We took turns in the wooden ‘skeet shack’ loading the clay pigeons into the catapult so other cadets could shoot at them.
We would stand on the shooting path, shotguns to our shoulders and shout, “PULL.” The cadet or GI in the skeet shack would pull the cord and the ‘bird’, the clay pigeon, would sail into the sky. Our job was to get the bird, smash it before it hit the ground. We had to get a percentage of the birds, in order to continue. Learning to hit the clay pigeons was important, because we had to learn to ‘lead’ a moving target. You just can’t shoot at a moving target.
You have to judge the speed and put your bullets in front of it, so it will run into them. That’s why we were taught to shoot skeet. It is like hunting quail. The quail starts to fly, you have to get well enough in front to hit it with the spread of the shot. We did this for hours, and then, the next step was to shoot skeet from the back of a moving truck! That was something that was unique to our training. Not even the world class competitive skeet shooters were taught to do that.
This unusual training technique was famous in America at that time. It was the subject of a national advertising campaign for one of the major cigarette brands. We kept ourselves under control, the ads said, by smoking their brand of cigarette, thus we could do this difficult and challenging task.
It was a challenge all right. We stood on the back of an open pickup truck that had been rigged with a metal railing so we couldn’t fall off.
As the truck sped along a huge semicircle path, we took turns firing at the clay pigeons which came out of a variety of skeet shacks in a panoply of directions. When it was your turn, you balanced yourself at the back of he truck and waited for the ‘bird’ to pass. You had to pick it off as you drove by.
It was a challenge, it was fun and it almost did me in. One of the bozos on the truck with me, got too excited. He didn’t realize that I was almost in the way, and he fired the gun about two inches from my left ear, missing me by inches. My ears rang for a week. I could have killed the s.o.b., but my friends and the pain in my ear and head stopped me. He wasn’t even contrite.
The instructor was a little unhappy. He wrote it off. That sort of thing happened often in the training cycle.
We fired on the machine gun range. Fifty-caliber machine guns are not hand held, ever. They are heavy. The Browning weighs in at 60.6 pounds. No one can hand hold one of those and fire it, regardless of what you may have seen in the movies of that time. These weapons have a kick (recoil) like an angry zebra. The guns on the firing range were mounted on a fixed pedestal, with a rotating top, limited to only l80 degrees. If the guns moved through a complete circle, some jerk would have, no doubt, swung his gun around and shot up the men waiting to get their turn at the firing range. On the gunnery range we shot first at a ground level stationery target and then a moving target . The firing range was setup with a high embankment, behind the targets.
Behind the thick earth barricade was a road, down which a jeep equipped with a large target flag attached to a heavy pole drove. The flag mast was well above the level of the earthen embankments. We were to shoot at the flag as it sped past us at varying speeds. Hits were recorded by colored paint on the projectiles. After we became proficient at that, we were allowed to shoot at low-flying airplanes dragging long targets behind them. We learned to fire short bursts and to deal with the noise and the recoil.
I have a strange memory of that firing line. One afternoon, I was at my machine gun, shooting at the target being dragged by the airplane when a fairly large bird flies down into the firing range. There may have been thirty or forty men firing machine guns at that time. Some, I am sure, targeted the bird. It swooped, flapped its wings and took off.
No one, fortunately, hit it. A strange memory, I think, but as vivid today as it was that afternoon over sixty years ago.
Irv Pliskin is a retired advertising agency owner. He is a combat veteran of World War II and an Ex Prisoner of War of the Germans. Married, with three kids, and four grandchildren he devotes his time to writing flash fiction. He hopes, that someday, he may become the Grandma Moses of flash fiction. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Cherry Hill,NJ.