by Jim "Twitch" Tittle
Article Type: Book Review
Article Date: February 08, 2002
Spans the History of Air CombatFighter Pilot: A History and Celebration ambitiously covers air combat seen through the eyes of the pilots from World War I to the Gulf War. Well-known airmen are covered as well as those you never heard of adding a balanced perspective of accounts of how it was “over there.”
|Fighter Pilot (one version of the cover) |
The photo selection combines some of the usual images of pilots and planes but goes much further to include aircraft workers, ground crews, leisure activities, equipment, era artwork, buildings and more making a kaleidoscope of perspectives from eighty-five years of aerial combat and all that surrounds it.
|A 48-hr. pass= Chorus girls in London |
Many are candid shots of personnel involved in a range of activities while others are posed. It blends color and black and white photographs into a collage of memories documenting the history of air combat. Sometimes a simple modern-day photo of the weather-beaten RAF tower at Tangmere can say more than its 1,000 words when one recalls that the likes of aces such as Johnnie Johnson flew from there.
The collection is not in the weary timeline format either. Each turn of a page reveals, perhaps, a different era’s imagery. A P-40 cockpit is followed by the grave marker of Spitfire creator Reginald Mitchell with an AT-6 next followed by an Fw 190 cockpit then a Sopwith Pup in flight.
|Era illustrations abound |
Posters, era art and printed memorabilia are faithfully reproduced so one sees more than the standard “airplane book” illustrations. A decaying building, a pair of old flight goggles, a plotting map table and a page from a pilot’s flight log blend together as the visions unfold.
|Poignant detail |
There is much more than the fine photographic parade. The excerpts of combat related experiences really makes the volume shine. I’ve met and talked with many of these guys but there is always something more that they have to say and many passages here are quoted for the first time.
|Well-reproduced artwork throughout |
My favorite pilots being Salvatore “Don” Gentile and John Godfrey, I have accumulated everything I could find on them, but there is a quote from Gentile I’m certain is a newspaper story by the way it is quoted that describes their first epic team up on March 8, 1944 over Berlin. Their orchestrated ballet in enemy skies defined teamwork for all time.
Gentile puts to rest for all time the maneuvering comparisons of the P-51 versus the Bf 109, which they called Me, for Messerschmitt, 109s then. “I got a straggler, and Johnny got one, and I got another one fast. A Hun tried to out-turn me, and this was a mistake on his part. Not only can a Messerschmitt 109 not out-turn a Mustang in the upstairs air, but even if he had succeeded, there was Johnny back from his kill and sitting on my tail waiting to shoot him down.”
And Godfrey is quoted in the description of his final kills before becoming a POW due to ground fire. “The USAAF had issued a directive stating that all German planes destroyed on the ground would be given as credits to a pilot’s score. I often think they were wrong for doing this…”
Godfrey didn’t mean the credit was wrong but the fact that many top aces were lost or captured making strafing runs against highly defended airfields, which was his fate. Godfrey ended the air-to-air scoring with eighteen and another eighteen on the ground but his last mission should have given him forty total or at least 39 ½. He began this run with 32 total and he picks it up from there.
“…eight juicy fat Ju 52s sitting peacefully at the edge of the field. One pass, I promised myself; there’s no harm in that,” says Godfrey. By now Gentile had rotated home and he was alone with a green wingman. He smoked the first Ju easily in one pass then became driven to get them all. “Again, again, again—five passes and each time my bullets hit home.”
Every gun on the field was operating now but Godfrey continued, “I heard the crunch of a shell as it exploded near my wing. But down again I flew to assure the destruction of the last two planes on the field.”
Even though he felt hits on his plane he stubbornly went down for the final Junkers. On one of these last couple of dives his wingman accompanied him. Godfrey pulled up after his final run with a damaged engine. He bellied in to become a POW. Since only his wingman’s gun camera film survived it showed him actually flying into his wingie’s bullets, which also struck on Ju 52. For unknown reasons each man was awarded four destroyed though Godfrey should have had at least 39 ½ total air/ground kills.
I have met Navy ace Randy “Duke” Cunningham and read his book but don’t remember exactly his description of his third kill—the first of three in a day that ultimately made him the first ace in Vietnam. A pair of MiGs took on Cunningham and his wingman Brian, who called out, “Duke, you have two MiG 17s at your seven o’clock shooting!”
|F-4's office, one of many cockpit photos |
“Two 17s flew right by Brian’s F-4, about 500 feet away…I popped my wing back down and reversed hard port in time to see a 17 pull in behind and start firing.
“My first instinct was to break into him…A quick glance at the MiG told me he was closing on me at high speed, meaning controls that were hard to move. I broke into him anyway.
“The MiG driver just didn’t have the muscle to move that stick. He overshot the top of my 2 o’clock, but his wingman, who was back about 1,500 feet…”
Duke’s wingman called out, “I’ll take care of the guy at your six.”
“With utter confidence in Brian,” Cunningham continues, “I turned my attention back to the other MiG. When I squeezed off a Sidewinder, the enemy fighter was well within minimum range, but by the time the missile got him he was about 2,500 feet out in front of me…that’s how fast he was going. The ‘Winder blew him to pieces. That engagement last about fifteen seconds.”
Gideon Livni of the Israeli Air Force got six victories flying a Mirage IIICJ in the Yom Kipper War of 1973 and later flew F-16s. He spoke of gunnery.
“Great gunnery is the key factor in scoring fast and saving ammunition. A good shooter is able to snap-shoot the enemy as he crosses the gunsight line.” In two of his kills he did exactly that, “…at close range, low speed and a high-aspect angle.
“Gunnery today is much easier. All aspect missiles can be launched at any angle. The missile ‘eye’ is slaved to various sensor sources such as radar, a helmet sight, etc. And the shooting envelope is calculated by computers.” Here’s one ace that is happy to have advanced technology on his side.
Kaplan's Fighter Pilot reflects the WWI era with pictures and words well. An incident involving my favorite French ace of the war, Georges Guynemeyer, is recalled. I had never read about it though it involved the famous Ernst Udet who ended the war with sixty-two kills.
Udet in an Albatross met Guynemeyer’s Spad VII in mid-1917. An aerial brawl ensued. Udet was green at the time and Guynemeyer had the best of him. When Udet did get the Spad in his sights he found his guns both jammed. He beat on them to no avail.
Now comes the chivalry of the times. Guynemeyer noticing the predicament waved and flew toward his lines. What could have ended the career of a later top-ranking German ace was not pursued. That was the “knights of the air” behavior we’ve often read about at work. It just wasn’t sporting to down a helpless enemy airman.
The only Marine ace flying F-86s in Korea brought an insight I had never knew of. John Bolt scored twelve times against Japanese aircraft in WWII and flew with top ace Joseph McConnell before he rotated home.
Of his six kills some were at very high altitude. We know that at 40,000 plus aircraft don’t burn as they do lower with more oxygen to illustrate the flames. What I didn’t know was that, “the kills rules were, if you got seven hits on one, they would give you the kill. They didn’t torch off at high altitude. They simply would not burn because of the air density. So they would count the incendiary hits on them from the gun camera footage. They figured if you got seven hits in the fuselage, the odds were it was dead, and they’d give you a kill. They count the incendiary hits, and they knew that every third round was an incendiary so, in effect, if you got three incendiary hits in the gun camera, they would say that it was a dead MiG.”
|Loading a 'Winder on F-15 in Gulf War |
All these excellent narratives come in random order not historically chronographically, which makes it interesting as you don’t know what to expect next. Only until you read down to the end do you see who is quoted.
I’m reminded of a joke told by Hans Busch, an Me 262 pilot I know. A bomber pilot was killed and went to Heaven. Saint Peter invites him in but he asks, “Are there any fighter pilots here? I won’t come in if there are.” Saint Peter replies, “Oh no. They’re all in the other place. In the gardens of heaven the bomber pilot strolled around to see a fellow in white robes with white hair and beard making the fighter pilot maneuvering illustrations with his hands. The bomber pilot demanded, “I thought you said there were no fighter pilots here!” Saint Peter answered, “Oh that’s God, he just always wanted to be a fighter pilot.”
|Crew load Gabby Gabreski's guns- Gabby passed on Feb. 2nd 2002 |
Fighter Pilot: A History and Celebration will make a nice addition to your aviation library. The ISBN number is 1-85410-614-7 and it is published by Aurum Press Ltd. 25 Bedford Avenue, London WC1B3AT. You can find it at Barnes and Noble for an astounding $9.95!
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