Heroes come in all stripes, including a freshly minted second lieutenant who had the courage to take control of a bomber from his superior officer.
I don’t tell hero stories very often, primarily because I don’t have many to tell. But there was one occasion in a Boeing B-50 when I earned my U.S. Air Force pay.
Shortly after my arrival at Castle Air Force Base in California in January 1953, newlywed and wet behind the ears, I was crewed up with a distinguished veteran of World War II, Captain Chet Schmidt. That March we were sent to Hunter AFB in Georgia for simulator training. The B-50 simulator was pretty primitive compared to modern three-axis simulators, but it was impressive to us, and by the end of a session it was realistic enough for me to open the window to look out and see if the chocks were in place.
One of the last simulator lessons involved an emergency the Boeing engineers assured us could never happen in the B-50: a complete electrical failure. But, in the unlikely event it did, the flap indicator would drop from full up to full down, the propellers would run away and the electric flight instruments would remain relatively static for an interval until the gyros wound down. No problem, it was never going to happen. Right then is when we should have been suspicious.
On my first flight in a B-50 upon our return to Castle, I was asked to substitute as a copilot with another crew. The aircraft commander was a fine pilot and a good man, but he was suffering under a handicap. Humor in the Air Force then was fierce and personal. No flaw was too private to be the butt of a joke, and we were, in fact, not very sensitive.
The aircraft commander had had one major accident and a couple of minor scrapes. His nickname, naturally, was “Crash.” It was totally unfair, and the nickname made him bitter.
It was natural that Crash and his crew would be skeptical about a green-bean second Louie like me, and the general message I got was “Watch but don’t touch.” Still, they were nice enough and we went through the usual preflight drill, including the copilot’s task of getting the inflight lunches.
It was a typical winter day in the San Joaquin Valley, with fog, low ceilings and clouds forecast up to about 10,000 feet. One has to experience the San Joaquin fog to truly understand it—on more than one occasion I had to drive to the base by opening my car door and following the highway’s white dividing line.
Everything was normal on the takeoff, and we climbed out through the luminous early morning light, engines roaring in a wet sea of mist. The B-50’s big Plexiglass windows seemed to part the clouds in rivulets of water, and I was glad that it was too warm for structural icing.
At about 3,000 feet on the climb out, I suddenly noticed that my needle and ball indicated a slip, with the needle moving to the left and the ball skidding to the right. As I checked the instrument panel, the flap indicator dropped from full up to full down. I can still see it in my mind’s eye a fall as sinister as the drop of a guillotine blade. I glanced at the aircraft commander’s attitude indicator, and it showed a level climb. I realized at once: complete electrical failure!
I also realized that I was a brand new copilot, with maybe 20 hours in the airplane, flying with a strange crew and an aircraft commander who was understandably a little sensitive about criticism. Nothing happened, my ball slipped more to the right, the needle dipped more to the left, and I saw the rate-of-climb indicator pass through zero to about a 300 feet per minute descent. We were in trouble!
In a move that was not unlike Mr. Christian grabbing the ship’s wheel from Captain Bligh, I yelled, “I’ve got the airplane!” At the same time that I booted right rudder I grabbed the prop controls, pulling them back just as the tachometers began to surge. I yelled “cruise power” to the irate flight engineer, who wondered what the hell I was doing, but I didn’t want the props to run away.
Using the needle and ball, airspeed indicator and altimeter, I fought the airplane, which by that time was in a fairly steep bank with the nose coming down. We were already below 3,000 feet; in another 20 seconds we would be in an unrecoverable dive.
As the airplane slowly leveled out, Crash looked at me like I was crazy, and I could hear the flight engineer bitching about me messing with the power settings. Even when I yelled “complete electrical failure” they didn’t get it—they had not been to the simulator yet. Finally, when they looked closely at the panel and saw that the electrically operated flight instruments were not working, they began to understand.
Crash watched me as I began a 300-foot-per-minute climb on needle, ball and airspeed until we broke out of the clouds, by which time the flight engineer had worked the problem through and gotten electrical power back on. Crash shook the wheel, indicating he was resuming control, and we flew the rest of the mission without a hitch.
When we got back, Crash got out without a word and went into the debriefing, but as I edged past the flight engineer, he grinned, turned his thumb up and said, “Good job.” It was high praise coming from a seasoned NCO to a new guy.
We convened for the informal debriefing, and not a word was said about the incident. I was naive enough to think that maybe Crash would commend me for saving the airplane. Not a chance, for it would have reflected poorly on him. As I later realized, Crash couldn’t take any more blows to his reputation. I was too new to the squadron to mention the incident myself, and the whole matter dropped.
Oddly enough, I never really felt shortchanged, for I knew what I had done, and the simple thumbs-up and “good job” from the flight engineer was praise enough.
Longtime Aviation History contributing editor Walter J. Boyne passed away on January 9, 2020. Boyne was a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former director of the National Air and Space Museum. Blue skies, Walt!
For more on Boyne’s life in aviation, see this article from our sister publication Air Force Times.