Friday, July 28, 2006

Adios, Oshkosh

The temperatures pushed well into the 90s today, but I headed out to the flight line area anyway, an area of red-hot blacktop. Good thing, though, because the Blue Angels flew by in an unscheduled appearance. They can’t perform here because the “box”, an area of safety around any air show, isn’t big enough. But six F-18s flying in close formation is impressive as all getout anyway. Number 7 has been here all week and joined them on their final pass.

I stopped by to check out the RV-12 airplane again – that’s the one that’ll be available under the new light-sport rules (price yet to be determined and availability “sometime next year” according to Tom Greene) at Van’s Aircraft and introduced myself to one of the volunteer workers there who noted that “a lot of people had a hard time finding the RV BBQ you had.”

This gets me. I had a Web site, Van’s ran a half page column on it in the last newsletter they sent out, it was on Doug Reeve’s excellent Web site, the Yahoogroups list, the RVers list, about 4 other bulletin boards, sent out three individual e-mails, provided printable maps online and a step-by-step guide, and I even provided GPS coordinates accurate to 4 feet. It’s a good thing, I guess it wasn’t the navigation portion of a checkride.

I saw Lauran Paine Jr.’s new RV-8. He’s a retired (I think) airline pilot and regular columnist for Sport Aviation magazine who built parts of it as he traveled around the country for his airline. He’d take a small part, work on it, add it to the other small parts, and one day there was only one part left so he stuck an engine and a propeller on it and there it was. OK, maybe it was a little more than that. A sign on it said “it’s not finished yet but it’s finished enough to get to Oshkosh.” He flew in from Spokane.

I could only last so long in the heat so I made my way to the EAA museum since it’s air conditioned and, besides, I haven’t spent anywhere near enough time there during Oshkosh weeks past. Lots of heroes of various stripes speak there during the week. And I’ve never heard a one of them.

Today I did.

A lot of folks who know me know I have a special spot for the Greatest Generation. Years ago I had the idea of writing a book with interviews of that generation, average people who went off and did special things, like saving the world, then went back home and resumed average lives as if it wasn’t nuthin’. I never did the book, but Tom Brokaw did. He’s famous now and I’m living in a tent in a field in the middle of Wisconsin dairy country. Life is funny like that.

Tex Hill was one of the Flying Tigers. The U.S. wasn’t in the war in China, so it gave money to the Chinese government, and the Chinese then hired a company here to employ and provide warbird pilots.

Let’s review how good the Flying Tigers were. Two-hundred-and-sixty-nine planes went over to China. Only four pilots died in aerial combat with the Japanese. “We were the first guys to defeat the Japs,” Hill noted. The Japanese had been bombing a city called Rangun in Burma when the Tigers, a highly mobile group, arrived. “That was my first experience with war,” he said. “When we landed there were dead people everywhere. The Japanese were bombing the city every day.”

The next day the Japanese bombers came back again. None of them made it back to their bases.

“I was in a dogfight with a guy and I lined him up and I was only a few feet away from him and I could see him and I shot him down,” he said, “and another guy from overhead was coming at me and he put 33 holes in my airplane, but I got around on him and I shot him down,” Hill said.

It was real flying back then. Here at Oshkosh the vendors are hawking fancy instruments with satellite maps that tell you where you are and where you’re going. “We had no navaids,” Hill said. “We had some maps but when they agreed with what was actually there, it was a coincidence. We didn’t get any good maps until we shot down some Japanese.” They navigated their way home by having several listening posts on the ground and as they made their way back from a mission, they’d fire their guns into the ground, and the “listeners” on the ground would hear it and tell them where they were. I’ll bet he could’ve found his way to the RV BBQ.

Back then, the “red Chinese” – as Hill still calls them – were fighting the nationalists, but joined together to fight a common enemy. “They saved an awful lot of our guys,” he said.

“They were such a friendly people. When we stopped that bombing, the people just loved us. And we loved them,” Hill said. On one raid, we got to a field with over 100 bombers and over 100 fighters on it. It was one of those raids where you either lose everybody or you don’t lose anybody. It had to be total surprise. We got right down on the deck, about 50-150 feet, and they hit this airport that was essential to the Japanese. They got 7 fighters off and I shot the first one down and the guy behind me got the other six. Not one guy got one bullet hole in his plane.”

“I don’t know how long I’m supposed to talk,” Hill then said. “As long as you want,” someone in the audience shouted.

Remember Pappy Boyington? The TV series “Black Sheep Squadron,” made him a hero. But not to Tex. “That’s like hitting me with a cattle prod,” he said when asked about him. “Unfortunately the guy had a drinking problem. When you’re drunk you’re not fit for duty. He only flew 6 combat missions while he was over there.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that old Tex is a Republican. “I don’t think any president in this country has the burden this one has. Things are moving so fast,” he said, showing no concern for what we used to call political correctness when he addressed the Islamic movement. “Everywhere those people go, there’s problems. Even the moderates, if they embrace the Quran, there’s no room for anyone else.”

He’s an old man now, there’s not much voice left, and he had to be helped from a wheelchair up the steps to the small stage. When he sat down, 200 people stood up to give him a standing ovation, appearing to applaud not a man, but a generation.

It wasn’t nuthin’.

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