The Toughest Flying In The World

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They got to India by flying new planes out from the States, puddle-jump range and no midair refueling. They flew from West Palm Beach to Puerto Rico, from Puerto Rico to Guyana, from Guyana to Brazil. At Natal, on the easternmost bulge of South America, they stopped to buy calf-length leather boots (out-ofuniform customizing was an Air Force indulgence), to refill their Zippo lighters with aviation gasoline, and to scoff at the GIs lined up outside the authorized local whorehouse, succor the new fliers didn’t yet crave. Then the flight across the ocean to the volcanic cone of Ascension, a perch on the immensity of the South Atlantic; then to Accra and Kano and Khartoum. A few hours in Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, then on to the base—often dirt airstrips, with bamboo bashas for their bunks, places with names like Sylhet, Chabua, Myitkyina (“Mee-chee-naw”), Sookerating (“Sook-er-ting,” “Sook”).

Now they patched the backs of their seal-brown horsehide A-2 flight jackets with inscribed Chinese flags that promised a reward to Chinese who helped them escape from the Japanese if they were downed. (The collective Humpster exhumes his A-2 jacket for the annual reunions; some even fit. Cookie’s A-2 looks almost new. “It ought to be in good shape,” he said. “I take it out and rub it with mink oil twice a year.”) A check pilot checked them out, and they were on their own, twenty- and twenty-one-year-olds with twenty-four-year-old commanders. “Bring me men to match my weather” was the Hump motto. That meant, bluntly, you’ve got to have losses or you’re not taking enough risks.

“Okay, Sook tower,” radios the collective voice, “give us the nod and we’ll leave the sod.” “Roger,” Sook tower chants back, “the man behind the glass says you can boot it in the ass.” They wear baseball caps with oxygen masks clipped on. They’re hauling anything and everything—”from ammunition to Kotex,” they claim at the reunion. One pilot’s individual flight record—his ticket back to Uncle Sugar, because you had to fly a specified number of missions to rotate home—speaks for them all. He carried, on 100 missions, in 42 different aircraft: 36 loads of 100-octane gasoline in 55-gallon drums, 18 loads of gasoline pipeline, 2 loads of grenades, 10 loads of mixed ammo, 2 of Jeeps, 1 of trailers, 2 of Chinese soldiers, 2 of trucks, 1 of canned tomatoes, 3 of small arms, 1 of canned beans, 17 of mortar shells, 2 of aircraft engines and parts, 3 of 100-pound demolition bombs. Remember the preponderance of flammables and explosives among these loads.

 

Started on takeoff from Sook,” the collective voice warms up. “It was night, instrument weather, dark as hell, full-load. The takeoff roll was smooth and normal. As we broke ground—Wham! Updraft! I mean, boy, did we go up. By the time the tail wheel was retracted, we were passing fifteen hundred feet and climbing at about the same rate per minute.”

They climbed through rain to altitude, approaching the corrugated ranges. Almost always there was weather, the warm, moist monsoons of India rolling up the mountain barricade and the frigid air of central Asia streaming south. “Strong winds, with speeds sometimes exceeding one hundred miles per hour, created mountain waves and vertical sheers that could overturn an aircraft, send it rocketing upward for thousands of feet or plunge it downward into the mountains. According to the season, thunderstorms, torrential rains, hail, sleet, snow, and severe icing held sway.” The average icing level over the Hump varied from ten thousand to twenty thousand feet. The planes flew through it both going up and coming down, and sometimes stayed in it the whole way to China. A test pilot sent out from Uncle Sugar to look into the excess of crashes concluded that carburetor icing was the most common cause of engine failure.

“Once in a while a thundercloud rolls up,” the collective voice goes on, “and we plow right through. At first a series of short hard jars, then suddenly you feel like something is pushing you through the floor.” A pilot recalls: “The wind howled and the rain poured; the ferocious strength of this storm was simply unbelievable. It grabbed us from every direction at once. The instrument panel was shaking so violently that I could hardly read it at all; however, a glance at the altimeter showed that we were going to be spit out of the top. That was just the thing, I thought, if this old tub would just hold together. Soon we were out of the top and at twenty-seven thousand feet, but now I knew we were faced with the ultimate downdrafts and more turbulence. Sure enough, the altimeter began to unwind and we began dropping at two thousand feet per minute. I put on full props, full engine power, but I couldn’t stop the descent. My only hope now was that my path through the storm would put us into the valley before we crashed into a mountain. The navigator couldn’t get a thing out of his radios because of the electrical smash. All we had left was the flight log and God.”