Friday, September 24, 2004

Greg Boyington, Crazy SOB

Pappy Boyington
Originally uploaded by Uncle Mikey.
Pappy Boyington of WWII Marine Fighter squadron VMF-214 was the first pilot to break WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker's record of 26 aerial kills, not to mention a Fying Tiger, hard drinker, barroom brawler, and inventor of the first Vought F4U Corsair autopilot. He was played by Robert Conrad in the '70s show Baa Baa Black Sheep, which I absolutely loved at the time but turns out to be a pretty slanderous depiction of some very principled and heroic men. From his autobiography, a description of how he managed the 5-hour flights from his field to enemy territory:

"I used to envy the bomber pilots, who had automatic pilots in their planes. So, for lack of an automatic, I would take along rubber bands and pieces of string, and I would rig these up on the instrument panel and on the brackets on the side of the cockpit, and I would have them all fixed up so that I could sleep most of the way going up to enemy territory. I would loosen my safety belt and half crawl out of my parachute straps, and then I would doze off.

"Rarely would I have to glance at the altimeter, for I was able to tell by the sound of my engine whether I was going up- or downhill. So, without opening my eyes, I would just reach out and tap the rear string, and everything would sound right and I could doze off again.

"If one wing dropped, I would lurch over to that side, gently tap the rubber band, and when the adjustment was made and I was sitting on an even keel, I would doze off once more."

You might well ask if this is a particularly good idea while flying combat in the Pacific (the sleeping, not the autopilot), and Pappy says when you have a bunch of eagle-eyed youngsters around who can see planes twice as far away as you, who cares. Get your snooze on. From what I have read there was a fair amount of sleeping during combat ops as far back as WWI, and in the Battle of Britain pilots got so exhausted they dozed off in the cockpit with dangerous frequency. Seven or eight missions a day will do that to you.

Pappy was apparently an enthusiastic smoker, and his pilots knew it was go time when they saw him pull back his canopy and toss a butt out.

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