- Historic Sites
The Toughest Flying In The World
These World War II airmen had one of the most dangerous missions of all, piloting unarmed cargo planes over the Hump—the high and treacherous Himalayas
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
Suspend them there. Many invoked the Deity in emergencies, turning to God the Troubleshooter when the engines quit: “I asked God what was wrong with the plane and what I could do, and I received the answer to pump the gas wobble pump.” When fired on by a Zero, one pilot encountered Jesus the Comforting Hallucination: “I saw straight ahead, and a little higher than us, what appeared to be an oval opening in which stood the Lord Jesus Christ, facing us, clad in a white robe, His hair falling neatly upon His shoulders. His right arm was outstretched toward us, palm up, and He spoke two words: Tear not.’ Then He faded from view. What makes this all the more remarkable to me is that at the time I was not a member of any church.”
When the enemy appeared, our men might hide in a cloud. “I could see the red ball on his wing, and I did a wingover to the right, slammed everything to the fire wall, and went hell-bent for a buildup. We bumped around inside that cumulus for about twenty minutes before taking a peek out the top. ‘Well, does anybody see the son-of-a-bitch?’”As it turned out, it was a Photo Tojo, as unarmed as they. They were more likely to encounter Japanese fighters early in the war; toward the end, the Japanese used their remaining aircraft for home defense and in the Pacific.
There were nights when St. Elmo’s fire danced on the windshield and lit up the arcs of the spinning props. “One night when we were getting an extra lot of it, I kept noticing something tickling my left ear. I’d reach up and rub it. Finally the crew chief clued me in. St. Elmo’s fire was jumping from the window frame to my ear. When I turned to look, the damned stuff jumped to my nose. Odd stuff.” In certain cloud formations the charged raindrops struck the windshield in tiny bursts of light.
Worse was ball lightning: “A blue fireball bounced across the flight deck and scared the livin’ b’jeesus out of us.” Or hail the size of grapefruit, “thundering against the wings and fuselage like cannonballs.”
On clearer nights they learned that a bright aircraft light approaching them from the west was usually Venus. They saw flocks of geese migrating high above them at twenty-five thousand feet. “I can remember more than one occasion flying at night,” says a pilot, “noting the copilot, flight engineer, and radio operator sleeping, and then dozing off momentarily myself.” Nearer terra firma a buzzard could explode through the windshield, knock out pilot and copilot, and leave the enlisted crew to save the plane. Sometimes they succeeded.
“Flying the Hump consisted of frequent alternation between abject boredom and stark terror,” the collective voice concurs. “All of us eventually came to the same conclusion. If it is not your time to go, you will not go. If it is your time to go, nothing can be done to avert it.” Such is the protective metaphysics of twenty-year-olds. They tipped their oxygen masks aside to have a smoke at seventeen thousand feet, with gasoline sloshing in the gutters. If it blew, it blew.
When engines failed or fuel ran out in the middle of nowhere, they jumped. “I trimmed the plane with a very special, precise concern, then got out of the seat, and cinched my chute. The crew had abandoned their oxygen masks to dump the cargo, and everyone was groggy. The exertion and lack of oxygen made them look like zombies. The crew chief pulled the emergency lever and dropped the rear door, and the cold, misty air rushed into the ship through the large and moonlit opening with nothing beyond firmer to jump on than a fleecy bed of milkish clouds. I ran until I ran out of solid stuff to run on.”
A hundred, two hundred men running out the rear ends of airplanes into thin air, on different days and nights, in different years. They tell each other not different stories, but the same story with slight variations: “As soon as I saw the tail go by, I pulled the rip cord and the chute opened. I didn’t have time to put the plane on autopilot, but it was trimmed pretty well for level flight. I could see its running lights, and as I watched, it made a 180-degree turn and headed back for us. I thought it was going to hit me, but it turned again, hit a mountain, blew up, and burned.”
Plunging into the clouds: “Instantaneous transition, from extreme urgency, commotion, and interaction with the crew, to silence, isolation, and suspended animation, engulfed in dense fog with no visual reference or sense of motion. It was not unlike what I imagined the experience of dying would be.”