Cumberland Times-News

Jim Goldsworthy - Anything and Everything

April 14, 2012

What of those who brought them to life?

— One risk associated with name-dropping (aside from the possibility that no one will be impressed) is that someone may ask, “Who?” at which point the whole thing falls into ruination.

I will drop a few names, anyway: Enola Gay, Jenny, George, Iron Annie, Whistling Death ... Whistling Death? Who the hell is that?

Those are the nicknames of some of the airplanes we saw at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va.

Enola Gay was the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb. The pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, named her after his mother.

Jenny is a Curtiss JN-4 biplane the U.S. Army used as a trainer, then sold dirt-cheap in large numbers as surplus to people who, after the end of World War I, wanted to fly.

George was the name assigned by the Allies to the Kawanishi N1K Japanese Navy fighter plane.

Iron Annie — or Tante (Auntie) Ju, to the Germans — is a three-engine Junkers Ju 52 transport plane.

Whistling Death was what the Japanese called the American F4U Corsair (and with good reason).

My friends from the Mountainside Detachment of the Marine Corps League and I were like a litter of puppies who just discovered we had tails.

We wondered what it must have been like to dive and climb, turn and dodge in the open-air cockpit of a World War I French Nieuport fighter, trying to evade the guns of a German Fokker like the one on display nearby.

Most likely, it was little different from what was experienced by the pilots of the World War II-era George and the Corsair, or the American F-86 and Russian-made MiG-15 that dueled in the skies over Korea. Regardless of the aircraft, the exhilaration, exhaustion, terror ... and death ... must always be the same.

In just about one lifetime, mankind went from airplanes fabricated from fabric and wood, with engines built one at a time in a machine shop, to the Space Shuttle (Enterprise was there) and the SR-71 Blackbird, the flat black spy plane that was designed nearly 50 years ago, but still holds speed records.

Someone said he’d heard the Blackbird leaked fuel like a sieve when it was on the runway. It did, but was built to do so because at high speed, the incredible heat produced by friction with the air caused the airframe to expand and seal itself.

Intact and not-so-intact remnants of Nazi Germany’s jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft and missiles had us thinking that World War II might have turned out differently if those weapons had been in the hands of people who knew how to use them. (Hitler also turned up his nose at the world’s first true assault rifle.) Some of the men who designed them later helped send America into space.

A battered fuselage segment was all that remained of a tiny, but incredibly fast Komet rocket-powered interceptor. Ominously visible was a large jagged hole in its canopy, possibly put there by a gunner on an American bomber ... a man who one day, high in the frigid skies over Germany, made the shot of his life.

Although much of aviation has been diverted toward mankind’s worst activity, far more of it has been devoted to what’s best about us.

It was in a far different frame of mind that we marveled at the capsules, pressure suits and all the amazing souvenirs from America’s space program, plus other aircraft devoted to research, travel and pure personal pleasure.

One-passenger ultralights consisting of little more than a wing, a small engine and a seat were hung from the rafters near the warplanes.

“There’s Sky King’s airplane!” exclaimed one man, pointing to a Cessna like the “Songbird” he and I and a generation of other kids watched on TV when we were kids. Not far away was a biplane that had been used to train the Tuskegee Airmen.

Also nearby were the supersonic Concorde jetliner and a West Virginia Air Guard Super Constellation — a passenger plane that had three vertical stabilizers (tailfins) instead of one and remains one of the most beautiful machines ever to take flight.

While some aircraft had been restored to mint condition, others remained in the battered configuration in which they once served — including a Vietnam-era Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, the Huey.

The Huey’s rotary wings made a distinctive sound, and more than one guy who survived that war has told me that hearing them in the distance often gave him hope that he would live to see another day.

One of my new friends, met just that day, was a Marine in Vietnam. He told us some of the heroic things he’d seen done by the Huey’s crews, and I remembered that it was a Huey my high school friend Jim Bosley was piloting the day he died. (Her nose art bore the name, “California Dreamer.”)

Like any other artifact, an airplane is nothing more than an inanimate object until someone brings it to life by doing something remarkable with it ... whether it’s simply for enjoyment, to defend mankind’s freedom or expand mankind’s knowledge, or to risk death so that other lives might be preserved.

There were no C-130 cargo planes on display, but it was in a Hercules that Grady Cooke — who might have become my friend — died with his crew while trying to resupply a besieged city in Vietnam. One of the men who took over that run, and did survive, became my friend the day we helped lay Grady to rest in Arlington National Cemetery more than 30 years after he went Missing In Action.

At last, I began to see not just airplanes, but the ghosts who were standing beside them ... ghosts of men and women who designed, built and served them, and who once climbed into them, “slipped the surly bonds of earth ... (and) Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

That quote comes from the immortal poem, “High Flight,” written by American aviator John Gillespie Magee Jr. shortly before his death during World War II.

Having flown a few times myself, I can tell you that if a better description exists, I have been unable to find it.

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