The Man Who Asked Smart Questions

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It was the summer of 1944. I had just been promoted to captain in the Ferrying Division of the Air Transportation Corps. My job was to deliver various types of aircraft to all parts of the country and half the world. One day I was sent to the Bell Aircraft plant at Niagara Falls, New York, to pick up a new P-6 3 Kingcobra Fighter and ferry it to Fairbanks, Alaska, by way of Great Falls, Montana, for delivery to the Russians. I had made the same trip a few times before and enjoyed this type of long flight.

When I reported to Flight Operations to pick up my delivery orders, I found that I was not going to Alaska after all but to Wright-Patterson Field, in Dayton, Ohio. The Operations officer told me that I would be ferrying a new type of P-63 that was not only experimental but secret.

He pointed out the aircraft on the flight line and said, “You can’t miss it, it’s painted orange! They already have a nickname for it—‘Pinball.’”

I had a briefing by the Bell test pilot, who told me what was different about the plane: besides being painted orange, it carried no guns, was two thousand pounds heavier than the usual P-63s, had extra armor plating around the cockpit area, bulletproof glass throughout, and thicker aluminum skin overall. No wonder it weighed so much.

It was also covered with thousands of little spots that, the test pilot explained, were electronic sensors. The plane was designed for air-to-air simulated combat at the Army Air Corps gunnery schools. Gunnery students would fire at the plane using special plastic bullets. Every hit would register on a dial in the plane. Hence the nickname Pinball.

I soon found out that Pinball was a monster to fly. It took almost eight thousand feet of runway to get it in the air, and it flew like a truck once aloft.

By the time I reached Wright-Patterson Field, I was eager to get rid of this plane. I parked near the Operations Office and noticed a delegation standing in front of the Flight Test Office. They began walking toward me, and I wondered what this might be about.

There was a sprinkling of colonels, a three-star general, and a few majors and captains. As I got out of the plane, the three-star general asked me to step over for a minute. He wanted to know what in the world this orange airplane was. I explained it to him and the others, plus an elderly civilian in a funny-looking derby hat. When I finished, the elderly civilian in the derby came up to me and began asking questions about the plane. How long did it take to get it off the ground? How fast did it go? What was it like to fly such a heavy aircraft? At what air speed would it stall?

Pinball was a monster to fly. It took eight thousand feet of runway and flew like a truck once aloft.

These were pretty intelligent questions, I thought, and wondered if this elderly man might be a World War I pilot visiting the air base. After looking the plane over carefully, the delegation thanked me and began walking away.

When I got into Operations, I asked the major behind the desk who all those people were out there. He told me there was to be some sort of a presentation to someone. Then I asked him about the civilian I’d been talking to. Was he an old pilot, or what? The major replied, “Oh, the guy in the funny derby hat? That was Orville Wright. You remember the Wright brothers don’t you?”

I ran to the window to get one last look at the man in the funny hat who had started it all.

—Capt. Ben L. Brown, U.S.A.F., Ret. lives in Monclova, Ohio.