by Hap Rocketto
I am a man whose hobby is collecting expensive hobbies. Shooting, flying, and baseball are my three favorite avocations. We all know how much treasure it takes to complete a summer’s shooting campaign. An hour spent aloft can pay for a weekend rifle match. Two hours in the air is equal to a sausage and pepper sub, coke, bag of peanuts, parking, and a ducat for a seat along the first base line at Fenway.
Flying first captured my imagination as young lad because of television. In its early days TV programming was made up of televised established radio programs and older movies. B movies from the 1940s filled the airwaves and war movies were typical TV fare.
Growing up in the early 1950s in New London, Connecticut, home of the US Navy Submarine School, World War II submarine films like Crash Dive and Destination Tokyo struck home. My friends Mike Walker and Antone Gallaher’s fathers, Francis and Antone, Sr., had, just a few years earlier, commanded subs in the Pacific and been awarded the Navy Cross-Walker twice and Gallaher four times. But to me they were just my playmate’s fathers, men who might grill me a hot dog on a Sunday afternoon and give me a ride to school the next day. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized they were not just another couple of Navy fathers on the street but the real heroes portrayed on screen by Cary Grant and Tyrone Power.
But what really attracted my attention were flying movies: John Wayne in Flying Tigers, William Wyler’s classic The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Howard Hawks Air Force, Tyrone power as A Yank in the RAF, Dive Bomber featuring Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray, and Spencer Tracy as the great Jimmy Doolittle in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
I developed a particular liking for a quirky 1942 film titled Captains of the Clouds that starred James Cagney. It was about a quartet of salty old Canadian bush pilots who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and were assigned instructor duties. It was a pot boiler, it seemed to be on every two or three weeks and because of that, and the spectacular flying scenes, I came to like it.
A pivotal scene has two bush pilots buzz an RCAF winging ceremony and was filmed at the actual winging ceremony where John Gillespie Magee, who would gain fame as the author of the classic flying poem High Flight, received his brevet. As Cagney’s character, who had been earlier cashiered from the RCAF for reckless behavior flathatted the field he yelled out at the distinguished officer awarding the wings something like, “How do you like that flying Billy?”
My brother pointed out to me that the officer portrayed, and to whom Cagney was yelling, actually was Air Marshal William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO and Bar, MC, DFC, ED in a cameo performance. Bishop was Canada’s leading First World War flying ace, officially credited with 72 victories.
I have come to find that Bishop and I have a few things in common. We are both pilots but Bishop flew an “aeroplane” which had an axle, was made of canvas, and had an engine that spewed its lubricating castor oil into the slip steam and onto the pilot. The oily mist gave rise to two of aviation’s enduring traditions. The first is the white silk scarf used to clean the oil from goggles. The second is the need to drink large amounts of brandy and single malt Scotch to counter the laxative effect of the castor oil.
Like me he was less than successful at school. He avoided team activity, preferring solitary sports such as shooting and was a good shot. Bishop was natural with a gun and excelled on the firing range. His extraordinary eyesight gave him a big edge at long range shooting.
Bishop was much like his World War II successor George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling DSO, DFC, DFM & Bar. Beurling was the most successful Canadian fighter pilot of the Second World War, with 31 confirmed kills. Beurling also had fantastic vision and could even call his shots within a few feet of where they’d hit while engaged in G loaded gut wrenching high speed dog fight.
Many leading United States Aces such as Richard Bong, Thomas McGuire, David McCampbell, and Gregory Boyington were said to be able to pick out aircraft when others just thought they were just looking at oil flecks on the windscreen. “Ace in A Day” Chuck Yeager shot down five Nazi aircraft on October 18, 1944 and was said to have the eyes of a hawk in his younger days.
It is on these two points where Bishop, along with the other great pilots mentioned, and I differ. His eyes and flying skill far exceed my ability to see clearly or pilot a plane.
There exists a pyramid of pilots who exhibit “The Right Stuff.” I am at the base of that pyramid and the likes of Bishop are close to the capstone. But in the close company of pilots even the most ham handed pilot, such as me, is welcome. So much so that, believe it or not, Bishop and I belong, on equal footing, to the same pilots’ organization. In The Quiet Birdmen all pilots are considered peers, regardless of hours in the log book or accomplishments, and all are on a first name basis.
I find the same fraternity among competitive riflemen as I do among Quiet Birdmen. As rifleman you can be good, bad, or in between. But, if you have a passion for the sport, a desire to excel, respect for the traditions, and play the game the right way, than you are accepted and treated as an equal no matter what your skill level.