World War II

My life was in their hands ...

... to take these planes into the air to see if they will fly properly. 

by Russ Priestley

I'm a vet of WWII, but I was not one of the real heroes who helped to win the war on two fronts, Japan and Europe. Those heroes were the foot soldiers who struggled to gain position and faced the enemy in close combat, whether in France, or on the Pacific Islands of Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

I applied for pilot training, Army Air Corps. When I was called to active duty, there was a real need, so the training period was reduced from one year to nine months. I became a pilot and was sent to Test Pilot School in Texas to be trained as a test pilot. We were instructed to pilot a dozen or more different types of aircraft ... fighters, bombers and transport-cargo airplanes. After completion, I was assigned to an Air Depot Group with further training in GA, TX, and OK before going overseas to Guam. An Air Depot Group contains hundreds of specialists ... engine mechanics, sheet metal men, electrical workers, etc. Their function was to check new airplanes (hereafter called planes), repair the planes damaged in combat, until they were declared ready for a flight test.

Chronologically out of order, Russ flew this P-61 just after the war was over. By this time he had recorded hundreds of flights in 32 different types of aircraft.

This is where my duty started ... take these planes into the air to see if they will fly properly. My life was in their hands and my demise would be caused by mechanical failure, or my own stupidity. (Come to think of it, those were not good odds). It was necessary to study all of the Technical Orders for each type of plane. Knowledge meant survival.

There were two test pilots per Group and a total of five for the airbase. Some of the planes tested were fighters (P-47s and P-51s) which arrived on Guam aboard ships, with their wings detached to save space. Our mechanics attached the wings, checked the engines and readied them for a test flight of acceptance. I tested as many as five fighters per day...larger planes took longer. These others included B-25s, B-26s and A-26s (medium bombers), plus B-17s, B-24s and B-29s (heavy bombers) and C-46s, C-47s, C-54s.

In my spare time and for my proficiency and pleasure, I piloted one of our P-38s, twin-engine fighter-bombers. This plane was a big factor in the South Pacific and in the European theater earlier in the war. Among its engineering innovations were tricycle landing gear and twin turbo-supercharged engines. It was more versatile than other fighters and its "extra engine" saved many pilots. The Germans called it "The Fork-Tailed Devil" while the Japanese termed it "Two planes, one pilot". At the time, perhaps due to double maintenance on engines, compared to the P-47 and P-51, it was used for high-altitude reconnaissance.

One of my thrills occurred after our mechanics converted one P-38 to a two-seater ... second seat behind the pilot. I was able to take my crew chief for a flight. Fighter planes always had single seats so he had never flown in one. On attaining a safe altitude, I asked if he would like to do some acrobatics. With much anticipation, he said,"Okay". We did a slow roll, a gentle 360 degree roll of the plane, then a snap roll, a more violent version. When I asked if he would like to do a loop, he nodded. I went into a steep dive to gain the speed for this maneuver, then pulling up to continue the loop where the plane is upside down at the top. As we progressed to dive again and continue the loop, I looked back at him. Never have I seen such a mixed expression of fright and delight at the same time.

Another thrill occured when I was flying a light plane and the engine quit. I was about 1500 feet, without power and without the radio to contact the tower. However, I was close to the airfield. This called for a "dead-stick landing"... meaning the only control of the plane was to vary the glide path. When in view of the control tower, I wiggled my wings rapidly to indicate my predicament. The tower operator flashed a green light and I landed safely.

The final "nail biter" I shall relate, although I had no time to bite same, happened on the take-off of an A-26, twin-engine light bomber. One engine quit about 100 feet in the air...a most dangerous time. Rapidly, we (both pilots) feathered the propeller (turning the four blades 90 degrees to cause less drag, kept the other engine at full power, and changed the trim tabs to compensate for all of our power coming from one side. Turning away from the housing area and downwind while gaining altitude and calling the tower for an emergency landing, we made two more 90 degree turns and eased the plane back down on the runway. After returning to the flight line, with a little brow-wiping, we were ready for another plane.

Before leaving the military life for that of a civilian, I had risen to Chief Test Pilot and had flown 32 different types of planes.

February 8, 1999

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