Copyright ©2014 by Ralph Couey
Images from various sites on the Internet
Humans have designed and built incredible things, but I think the most miraculous are those machines that helped man to, in the words of John Magee, break the surly bonds of earth. The ability to fly was once the sole province of birds. But since the Wright brothers first powered flight in 1903, the ability to soar into the sky has become so common that it is difficult to find someone in this country who has never rode in an airplane.
Flying initially was a way for the military to improve the way they went about their business. But entrepreneurs soon saw the market for global air transport.
It is perhaps ironic that some of the most beautiful aircraft that ever took to the skies were those whose business was dealing death.
I fell in love with airplanes at an early age. My father traveled a lot, and I remember many evenings when we would make the trek to old Municipal Airport, literally in the shadow of downtown Kansas City, to see him climb aboard a multitude of airliners bound for destinations throughout the world. When he was home, sometimes on Sunday afternoons, we would go to the airport and park in a lot set aside for people to watch the planes take off and land. I thought that was just a perfect way to spend an afternoon with my Dad. Though I chose the sea from which to serve my country, I remain fascinated by flight.
Over the years, some airplanes have become favorites of mine, for various reasons. Probably the first favorite I had was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. This rugged, yet beautiful plane was the mainstay of the US Army Air Force during the daylight bomber campaign against Germany.
It was fast, for its day, had long range, a heavy bombload, and could defend itself with 10 to 12 machine guns. For my Dad and I, the old TV show "12 O'Clock High" was must-see programming, and it was in those episodes that I grew an affection for the Fort. I was at Long Beach Airport one afternoon when a B-17 paid a short visit. After asking, I was allowed to stick my head into the door and hatch, seeing the interior for the first time in person. And breathless I was when the plane taxied to the end of the runway and that signature roar of those four Wright Cyclones thundered across the field as the plane raced down the runway and soared into the sky.
Another one of my favorite warbirds from World War II was the P-40, as flown by the American Volunteer Group in China. The P-40 was fast, but not nearly as maneuverable as its primary opponent, the Mitsubishi Zero. But it could take a ton of punishment, and when properly flown within the tactics developed by General Chennault, sent a lot of Japanese aircraft, and their crews, smoking out of the skies.
The P-38 Lightning was developed before the war, but due to an accident following a premature cross-country speed dash, was not available to the Air Force until well after Pearl Harbor. The '38 was an unusual design, with twin engines flanking a central pod holding the cockpit and probably the most devastating concentration of firepower in any aircraft at the time. The nose held four of the superb Browning .50 caliber machine guns, along with a hard-hitting 20 mm cannon. Because the guns were mounted close together, the bullet streams converged almost immediately, burning holes in everything it shot at. At the time, it was the fastest production fighter in the world, and the longest range. Until the Mustang came along, it was the only aircraft that could stay with the B-17s and B-24s as their missions reached Germany. The Lightning was so fast that it encountered for the first time, those unpredictable problems that happened when aircraft approached the speed of sound. America's highest scoring ace, Richard Bong, downed 40 enemy planes flying this aircraft, which the Germans named, "The Fork-Tailed Devil."
In the Pacific, the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair had a difficult gestation. It was incredibly fast, above 400 knots, maneuverable, and the ability to accept damage and keep flying. The problem lay in it's unusual design. The big, powerful engine required a very long nose, and the huge propeller meant that engineers had to design an inverted gull wing to keep the prop from chewing up the pavement. That long nose made it very difficult for Navy aviators to land on carriers, so for a period of time, the "Bent Wing Bird" was passed to the Marines, where they racked up impressive totals against the Japanese. Perhaps the most well-known squadron was VMF-214, known as the Black Sheep, commanded by Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington. The '70's television show "Baa Baa Black Sheep" was a highly fictionalized account of the squadron's operations. One of the surviving Black Sheep once said that the only part of the show that resembled reality was that they both flew Corsairs. The Corsair proved itself to be a devastating ground attack platform as well, becoming a heroic sight to Leathernecks on the ground. The Japanese troops had a slightly different take. The sound of air rushing through the intercoolers earned the Corsair the sobriquet "Whistling Death." The Corsair stayed with the Navy and Marines through the Korean conflict.
With the end of World War II, the development of jet engines moved military aviation forward rapidly. The fastest American propeller-driven fighter that actually made it into production was the P-51 Mustang, which topped out at 437 mph. Less than two years after the war ended, the P-80 Shooting Star topped out at 584 mph. But it was the Soviet Union that changed the game with the introduction of the MiG-15 with a top speed of 658 mph, which outclassed everything flying at the time. The American response was the development of the North American F-86 Sabre. It was faster than the MiG, though lacking a bit in ceiling. Despite that, American pilots flying the Sabre enjoyed great success against the Russian-made (and flown) MiGs. I was attracted to the F-86 by its clean design and distinct appearance. To me, it is the most beautiful thing that's ever flown. I remember clearly the first time I saw one live at an air show in Columbia, Missouri. For several minutes, it flashed by the crowd at medium and low altitudes, it's engine roaring like the very sky was being ripped apart. This is my favorite airplane.
The advent of the cold war pushed aerospace technology even further. One of the planes developed during the late 1950's was a delta-winged supersonic medium bomber, the B-58 Hustler. It was the first Mach 2-capable bomber, carrying its payload, not in an internal bomb bay, but in a large pod slung under the fuselage. It went into operational service in 1960, but had a short 10-year operational career. The B-52, in comparison, will soon surpass 60 years of operations, and is expected to remain in the U.S. inventory until well into the 2040's, when they will be some 90 years old. The Hustler was originally designed to be a high-altitude bomber, but the rapid development of Soviet SAMs forced the plane into a low-level role, which severely limited its range and payload capability. Interestingly, because of the plane's high speed, Convair designed pods in which the crew would eject, fully protected. A human body thrown into a slipstream of Mach 2 magnitude would be literally torn apart. Because of the high heat generated at those speeds, some innovations were designed into the plane, such as honey comb subsurfaces, and air conditioning in the wheel wells (to keep the tires from melting) and the electronics bays. The Hustler was well-named. It looks fast, even when sitting perfectly still.
In the 1970s, the Navy went looking for a new air superiority fighter to take to sea. As it has done so many times before, the Navy found it's aircraft with the Grumman Company, the F-14 Tomcat. The F-14 was a swing-wing supersonic fighter, carrying what was at the time the most advanced weapon system, the partnership of the AWG-9 radar and the AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile. This gave the Tomcat the ability to track and engage targets at well over 100 miles away, before the opposing aircraft would even know the American fighters were there. American people saw the Tomcat, and fell in love, in the motion picture "Top Gun." which included incredible footage of the plane maneuvering in combat. The F-14 was a beautiful aircraft and held the front lines of naval aviation for 32 years before being replaced by the Super Hornet, a supersonic plane that performs a dual role as both fighter and bomber.
Lest you think I only study warplanes, let me introduce you to the Lockheed Constellation. The Connie, as it was affectionately known, first flew in 1943 and was one of the primary long-distance passenger airliners, flying between U.S. east coast airports and Europe. TWA flew the Connie between San Francisco and London, the plane staying airborne for almost 24 hours. The plane, with it's distinctive triple tail and graceful dolphin-shaped fuselage, was the first operational pressurized airliner, providing a comfortable environment for passengers. It was one of those planes I watched my Dad board as he went on his trips. The advent of jet airliners, such as the Boeing 707 forced the Constellation into retirement. The last U.S. domestic flight was in 1967, landing in Kansas City from Philadelphia, although the plane remained in airliner service in other countries until the 1990s.
The last on my list is the Boeing 707. The advent of this aircraft in 1958 with Pan Am was a fundamental shift in commercial air travel. It cruised at nearly 600 mph and had trans-oceanic range. It made air travel elegant. My first airplane ride was in a Boeing 707, and I'll never forget the thrill as the plane accelerated into takeoff and the incredible sight of my planet from 30,000 feet. The 707 flew for many airlines, but is most identified with Pan Am. Going aboard a Pan Am 707, whether you were flying to Paris or Pittsburgh was like going to a formal embassy dinner party. It was an atmosphere of class and elegance, rigidly enforced. People were literally not allowed to board unless they were "dressed" for the flight. That meant coats and ties for the gentlemen, and dresses for the ladies. This contrasts sharply with today, as people dress for air travel about the same way they'd dress to slop hogs. In honor of a classier era, I give you the Boeing 707.
These are my favorite airplanes, the ones that have captured my imagination and my heart, as they soared into the skies above the clouds 'neath an umbrella of stars.