Friday, May 26, 2017
Book Review 389: Fighter Pilot's Heaven
When I was about 8 years old and just beginning to read newspapers, I knew the names of more test pilots than I did big league ballplayers. The test pilots were on page one, the ballplayers were not.
These once famous men have since dropped entirely out of the script of popular culture, except for Chuck Yeager. There was a time, though, when every informed American knew names like Iven Kincheloe.
The record-setters flew out of Edwards in California, but there were many more test pilots that I didn’t know about. These men did opertional testing for the Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force men were based at Eglin in Florida, in those days a desolate, uninhabited backwater in northwest Florida.
Don Lopez, a fighter ace who had been making war in China, was assigned to the flight test squadron even before World War II ended, and the big excitement was the arrival of the first jets, notably the Lockheed P80 Shooting Star.
The P80 seems tame today, with an engine thrust less than a tenth of an F16’s and a top speed of a poky 550 miles an hour. But in the late 1940s they were amazingly fast, and Lopez and his fellow pilots spent many weekends showing off the P80 at community events.
“Fighter Pilot’s Heaven” doesn’t make any big revelations but is rather a memoir with funny stories. Like the attempt to make the P51 Mustang more comfortable on long flights by replacing the seat with a hammock.
The hammock was slung on 4 hooks. The flight surgeon who came up with this idea forgot that fighters do aerobatics. When Lopez went upside down, some of the grommets slipped off their hooks and Lopez found himself unable to lift himself by his butt to rehook them or to shake the remaining grommets off.
As a result he couldn’t see out of the cockpit nor fully control his plane.
He managed to wrestle himself into a crouched position and get down, claiming to have been the only pilot to have landed a Mustang “standing up.”
Not all the stories are so amusing. Many of the test plots were killed, some by the inherent hazards of testing technologically novel equipment but more by the foolhardiness of the pilots.