The Toughest Flying In The World

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Cookie Byrd is punching my card. We’ve just met in the convention center at Harrah’s, in Reno. Cookie is the official chaplain of the Hump Pilots Association, and he hands out plastic “chaplain’s cards” at all the association’s reunions, to remind the guys of World War Il days, flew the Hump. “Hump” is GI understatement: the Hump was the Himalayas, and they flew over them to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Army by air from India after the Japanese occupied eastern China and southeast Asia early in the war. The Humpsters flew unarmed two- and four-engine cargo planes through some of the worst weather in the world. They suffered horrendous attrition, losing more than one thousand men and nearly four hundred planes over four years. Whenever one of them got the blues, panicked, or thought he was going Hump happy from the strain, the flight surgeon or the commander would say something like, “Yeah, sure, go talk to the chaplain, get your card punched. Then get your butt back here.”

Punching the cards he hands out is Cookie’s standard greeting at Hump reunions. He’s a devout Seventh-Day Adventist from Savannah who earns his living as a cookie manufacturer; in the war he was not a chaplain—he was a pilot who flew 166 missions. When he pulls out his chrome-plated punch, everyone grins. Across forty intervening years, no one who flew the Hump has forgotten any of it.

It’s the collective memory I’m after. The hundreds of Humpsters at their fortieth reunion in 1985 are a distinguished bunch—doctors and lawyers and colonels, airline pilots, real estate men, engineers, what have you —but their working years are mostly behind them and they’d be the first to tell you that flying the Hump was the high point, no pun intended, of their lives. “A kind of apogee of life experiences,” one of them sums up. “You know there’s just no way to top it, and the balance of life becomes almost anticlimactic.” It happened once in history, on a monumental scale, and because the jet engine has replaced the internal-combustion engine in aircraft and carries its crews high above the weather, it can never happen again. Ordinary commercial jets now fly over the Himalayas in perfect comfort.

 

Flying the Hump was a rearguard action. Keep China supplied and fighting and we’d have a second front to distract the Japanese while Douglas MacArthur moved the Army and Chester Nimitz the Navy to reconquer the Pacific. Weighed against so vital a mission—to tie down a million or more Japanese troops—a few thousand men and machines were expendable. First priority went to the fuel and cargo delivered—650,000 tons in all—and the pilots paid a heavy toll. Jap Zeros shot them out of the sky; their engines fell off and they parachuted into headhunter country; they smashed into mountains; the violent weather got them. Almost every day they shuttled from the Assam Valley, in what is now northeast India and Bangladesh, across Burma, to bases in western China and back. They came to call the wreckagestrewn ground beneath the route the Aluminum Highway.

They flew C-46s and C-47s—“Dumbos” and “gooney birds,” twin-engine cargo aircraft designed originally in the 1930s as passenger planes, never intended for high-altitude work and therefore inadequately powered and unpressurized. The higher a jet flies the better, but the higher an internal-combustion engine flies the worse. The peaks at the top of the Hump gouged up above sixteen thousand feet, higher than the highest Rockies. What the Hump crews couldn’t fly over they flew around or between, engines at full throttle hauling them to maybe eighteen thousand feet on a good day, indicated airspeed when approaching that altitude no better than 120 miles per hour, the airplane hanging on the props.

“Back in the early days we had no air traffic control,” the collective voice explains. “A pilot took off, climbed, and took potluck in the sky. There were no assigned altitudes. You just got the bird up and flew. If you had to hit the gauges, you prayed you were in good with the Lord. We had no radar (what was radar?) and no navigational aids except for radio direction-finding stations at the India-China bases that were turned on only by special coded request. You simply had to cut in close with your navigating.”

That explains a favorite initiation ritual. Pilot is checking out a copilot on instruments on his first flight over the Hump. Nothing visible but murk. “Mark the time and give me twenty seconds!” pilot yells. Green copilot complies. At twenty seconds pilot makes a sharp right turn. “Give me ten seconds!” pilot yells. Copilot does. Sharp left turn, then straight ahead. Pilot waits a beat and remarks casually, “Some of these mountain peaks are hell to get around.”