Posts Tagged ‘World War 2’

My Oshkosh 2009: A real life hero; an amazing coincidence; the most beautiful airplane ever

August 2, 2009

As expected, my first Experimental Aviation Association annual Oshkosh fly-in was overwhelming, an airplane-buff’s utopia. Way too much to describe in detail, but here’s a couple high points.

One of the main features of this year’s show was the arrival of one of only two flying examples of the WWII Avro Lancaster heavy bomber, which flew night missions over Germany for the RAF from 1942-45. I described to friend Kate and 9-year-old nephew Lucas how grim and terrifying those missions were –  in the dark and cold at 20,000 feet, knowing that at any moment a German nightfighter or flak could turn your roaring heavy truck of a bomber into a flaming coffin with no warning whatsoever.


Lancaster at EAA, 2006

Lancaster at EAA, 2006

When I was not much older than Lucas I read one amazing story about a Lanc’ tailgunner’s near-death experience. The rear turret was so cramped that the gunner could not wear a parachute. He crawled in though a small hatch at the rear of the fuselage, the door of which had to be closed for the turret to rotate. If the plane was hit the idea was that he would climb back through the hatch, put on the ‘chute, and jump.

Yeah, right. Kate, Lucas and I were able to peer into the rear turret and confirm that, yep, you could not sit in there with a parachute on.

Anyway, the story I read decades ago told of a gunner whose plane was hit and was going down in flames. He reached for his chute, but it was a smoldering ruin from the fire. The airman, 21-year-old Nicholas Alkemade,  faced a grim choice – burn to death or jump without a chute. He jumped. Amazingly, he lived, falling through pine boughs and landing in a snow drift.

After my long talk with the Spitfire pilot (below), while sitting below the wing of that gorgeous fighter with Lucas putting on sunscreen, I was repeating the story to a young gal who was there with the Spit’s owner, Vintage Wings of Canada. We were politely interrupted by an elderly gentleman:

“Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind the interruption, but I was in Stalag Luft III with the man who jumped from that plane.”

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather! Not just at the coincidence, not just the living history, but because I was instantly aware that we were in the presence a hero. Why? My friends, there was only one way to become a “guest” of this infamous German Luftwaffe POW camp for allied aircrew (the camp at which The Great Escape occurred), and that was to survive getting shot down over occupied Europe.

The new participant was Bill Whitney, a B-26 Marauder pilot who was shot down in flames over Dunkirk in May, 1944. (Read about it on his “My ‘Shot Down’ Story” webpage, here.)

Bill Whitney in 1944 (He looks the same in 2009 except older).

Bill Whitney in 1944 (He looks the same in 2009 except older).

If there was one mission worse than flying Lancasters in the cold and dark over Hitler’s Germany, it was flying medium bombers like the B-26 on “straight and level” bombing runs over some of the most heavily defended targets of the war. Unlike the “heavies” – B-17s, B-24s, Lancasters – which flew at 24,000 feet or higher, “mediums” like the B-26 flew at much lower altitudes. Mr. Whitney’s formation was at just 14,000 feet when his plane was hit by flack. Up above 20,000 feet only the big ’88s could reach the heavies, but everything above 20mms could reach out and touch aircraft flying below 15,000 feet – and did.

I salute you for your service, Mr. Whitney, and am proud to have met you. Like many of his generation he is modest and matter-of-fact about what he did – it’s just what you did in that time and place. Yes, just as leaping without a chute from a burning Lancaster is just what you did in that circumstance, also. Incredible men, incredible times.

Mr. Whitney added this little tidbit to the Nicholas Alkemade story: The orderly Germans were so blown away that he had survived the leap that they gave him a certificate stating that he had bailed out without a parachute and lived.

Bill Whitney is 87, and said this will probably be his last Oshkosh. I now realize why I should have attended long ago – these guys are going fast now – but my sister chided me for saying so, correctly observing that I should be glad for the experience I did get to enjoy. I’m also glad that 9-year-old Lucas now has his own piece of first-person WWII history to pass on for another 80 years or so.

 BTW, here’s  the story of the no-parachuted survival as related in wiki:

On March 24, 1944, 21 year old Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (1923 – 1987) was a member of No. 115 Squadron RAF. His Lancaster II “S for Sugar” was flying to the east of Schmallenberg, Germany on its return from a 300 bomber raid on Berlin, when it was attacked by a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 night-fighter, caught fire and began to spiral out of control. Because his parachute was destroyed by the fire, Alkemade opted to jump from the aircraft without one, preferring his death to be quick, rather than being burnt to death. He fell 18,000 feet (5500 m) to the ground below. His fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. He was able to move his arms and legs and suffered only a sprained leg.


That’s the people story of my Oshkosh, here’s the hardware one (also with some people parts). I spent a couple joyful hours worshipping at a temple of the most beautiful airplane in the history of manned flight, the Supermarine Spitfire. And not just any Spit, but perhaps the most beautiful of all Spits – a Mark 16 with teardrop canopy and full elliptical wings. The Mark 16 was a Mark 9 with Packard Merlin, and they all came off the line with cropped wings. This one had the full ellipticals because it was the personal aircraft of Sir James Robb, RAF Air Chief Marshall, who had places to go and people to see, so they put the easily-added wingtips on his plane (giving slightly better high altitude performance at the expense of low-level speed).

Vintage Wings of Canada Spitfire Mk. 16

Vintage Wings of Canada Spitfire Mk. 16

Much thanks to pilot John Aitken, an ex-RCAF Voodoo and F-104  jock*,  who was most generous with his time offering detailed information about the aircraft and his own fascinating career. (Poor guy – his last air force duty was evaluating the various types under consideration when Canada adopted the F-18. John was forced to fly the F-16, Mirage F1, and possibly one other. And then, years after retiring, for his sins they gave him a Spit to fly!)

I also spent some time swapping history stories with another Spitfire worshipper as we paid homage together to this magnificent aircraft. We both agreed that but for the Spit, the Brits almost certainly would have lost the Battle of Britain, cut a deal with Hitler and dropped out of the war (this was Hitler’s actual goal in the summer of 1940 – he didn’t really want to invade Britain).

If that had happened Germany would have had a free hand when it invaded Russia in the spring of 1941, and given how close the Wehrmacht’s panzers came to victory that fall, probably would have won the war. (Among other things Barbarossa would not have been delayed by a campaign in Greece to pull Mussolini’s rear end out of the fire – a delay that proved fatal when the Russian winter closed in early six months later.)  It’s entirely plausible that from the Atlantic to the Urals, Europe today would still be part of the Greater Third Reich, and under the rule of Hitler’s successors.

“But for a nail the shoe was lost; but for a shoe the horse was lost; but for a horse the soldier was lost; but for a soldier the war was lost.”

But for the Spitfire, and its designer Reginald Mitchell . . .

*Interesting sidelight: The F-104 Starfighter was kind of a Cold War version of the Spitfire – an ultra-high performance, short range, point-defence interceptor. Both aircraft had broader roles, but that’s that they were really born and bred for.