Close Call on a Tight Runway
The early summer of 1945 found me in Kunming, China, a second lieutenant C-47 pilot in the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron of the Chinese American Composite Wing. Our primary job was to pick up the war supplies that Air Transport Command (ATC) flew in from India and to distribute them to the joint Chinese-American observation teams scattered all over China, many of them behind Japanese lines.
One clear, bright summer day I had returned from a mission, arriving at Kunming about 4:00 p.m. I had been reloaded and was ready to leave for our base at Chengkung, about 15 miles south of Kunming. My loaded plane would then fly out the next day with another 27th crew.
I called Kunming tower for permission to take off and was told: “Army one, two, three, you’re cleared to number one; call when ready to go.” I started the engines and began to roll slowly out onto the taxi strip. Number one position was about three-quarters of a mile away. I had plenty of time to warm up, make my preflight check, and take a look around the field. It was totally dead; I was the only plane in motion. Quite unusual for that large base between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. Great, I thought, I’ll get back in plenty of time to clean up and get a hot supper.
We had rolled no more than 100 feet when the tower said, “All aircraft, hold your position! We have a Daisy on the field!” I stopped where I was and locked the brakes. I switched to the intercom, called my radioman, and asked if he had his codebook for the day.
“Oh yes, sir,” he said. I asked him what in the world a Daisy was. I saw nothing in the air or on the ground. I still had the field to myself, but I was now parked on the right side of the main taxiway to the number one takeoff position.
After some delay my radioman came back and said, “Sir, it’s not too clear to me; all it says here is ‘Viceroy of India,’ whatever that means.”
Of all the bad luck, I thought. Lord Mountbatten was either due in or leaving, and we could be sitting here for hours if necessary until he was clear of Kunming. I told the crew to break out the comic books. I was going to kill the engines, but I didn’t. Parked where we were, I didn’t want to be a dead duck.
We hadn’t been there two minutes when I heard a far-off rumbling noise. I knew it was an aircraft, but where? We saw nothing. Soon the sound became a loud roar, getting much louder very fast. Now the ear-piercing scream of geared blowers cut in; still, I saw nothing. For an instant I was frozen in fear. Then, with a fantastic roaring scream, the monster was upon us. A huge, jet black, four-engine avro Lancaster passed me on the left not 30 feet away, going at least 60 miles per hour. It rocked our C-47 so violently I thought he had hit us, but his wingtip must have passed over mine with inches to spare. The 15-foot yellow-orange fire plumes from the Merlin engines seemed to come right in my window; I know that dirt, stones, and dust did.
When I realized we were O.K., I remembered that these limey pilots dearly loved to scare the pants off us Yanks whenever they could, in the air or on the ground. This one knew just how close he could cut a C-47. He must have been the best—how else would he have gotten to be Mountbatten’s pilot?
He pulled into number one takeoff and did his mag checks right on the runway. I or any other Army pilot would have been grounded for such a trick. The aircraft was gorgeous. Any Lancs we saw were a dull, flat black and covered with yellow dust. This one was shiny, not a thumbprint anywhere. It reminded me of a brand-new Buick Limited Series 90 sedan I had once seen in a showroom back home in Columbus, Ohio.
The tower broke in with “Aircraft in number one, you’re clear to go when ready.” About 10 seconds later another voice came on: “Kunming tower, I have a loaded C-46 on a single-engine emergency for a straight-in approach to runway 18.” The tower came back matter-of-factly: “Charlie 46, pull it up and go around. We have a Daisy on the field.” Oh boy, I thought, I’ve got to see this. I was parked facing number one and had a panoramic view of Mountbatten’s Lancaster and any other plane for miles around.
Almost immediately the big Lanc roared into action and began its takeoff roll. I couldn’t see the incoming plane yet, and all seemed O.K. Then, very low and very close in, I saw him: a bright new C-46 with wheels down, the right engine feathered, and a blown cylinder sticking half-way through its cowling. He was much lower and closer than I had expected, and he was falling like a rock. I saw no attempt to pull the plane up; the pilot was going down or in, and very fast. From my position I could see the two planes were going to meet about 300 feet down the runway. I grabbed my microphone and in a frantic voice shouted, “Lancaster, hold your position; that 46 is right on your back!” I saw his main gear-wheels lock. He pitched down hard and skidded 10 or 15 feet. His momentum raised the fuselage to an almost horizontal position, and the tail wheel left the ground a foot or more. When he came to a stop, the tail fell back down with a terrific whump, producing a large cloud of dust. Anyone sitting in the rear section must have felt a bump he would never forget.
The C-46 continued right on in and hit about 50 feet in front of the now-stationary Lancaster. The pilot made what we jokingly called an ATC three-point—that is, bang-boom-bam—left wheel, right wheel, tail wheel. I couldn’t believe a C-46 could hit the ground so hard and not break up. He bounced once, 4 or 5 feet, and then rolled down the runway as if nothing had happened.
Following my warning, the radio was strangely silent; no one in the tower, the Lancaster, or the C-46 said a word. I had the feeling I was going to catch it for butting in. Then the tower said, “Charlie 46, clear the runway to the right at the next taxi strip.” Which he did, nice as you please, on only one engine. The tower then said, “Aircraft in number one, you may go when ready.” Mountbatten’s pilot poured the coal on that big Lancaster and got it airborne, wheels up, and headed back to India in seconds. I’ll bet he’d had a bellyful of us Yanks that day.
The tower then said, “Army one, two, three, you’re cleared to number one takeoff.” I gave my “wilco,” popped the brakes off, pulled into position, did my run-up, and took off for Chengkung.
I never heard another word about the incident, which suited me fine. I doubt whether the Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia ever knew how close he had come to his last airplane ride. I’ve often wondered how his pilot explained that bump they got in Kunming. If any of his crew are still alive, I’ll bet a ten-spot of my own money they remember it as clearly as I do.