27 June, 2008

Profile 12 - THE WEST by gawd VIRGINIAN - flown by Robert "Punchy" Powell

There are a number of websites, books and magazines containing pictures of the illustrated P51B Mustang, "The West 'by Gawd' Virginian with its middle section burned out lying in the middle of an English field. One would think that having an ammo and fuel-laden airplane burst into flames shortly after takeoff and having to belly-land it would be enough of a thrill.

However, pilot Bob 'Punchy' Powell tells of a mission that he maintains gave him a more meaningful thrill. On May 4, 1944, the 328th Squadron of the 352nd Fighter Group, led by Col. John C. Meyer, Jr., took off on a "Ramrod" (bomber escort) mission. Four flights of four, 16 Mustangs in all, climbed into a low-hanging overcast expecting to breakout at about 8,000 feet.

Typically, the squadron leader flew on his instruments and the other 15 pilots, flying only 15 to 20 feet apart, focused intently on the silhouetted aircraft next to them to maintain their position with virtually zero visibility.

But the human element is a slippery factor. Just imagine 16 aircraft loaded with fuel and ammunition, flying in dense, dark clouds just a few feet apart and the intense concentration required of these pilots just to maintain their position in the formation. Someone must surely crack . . . lose their cool. Or, loosen up a fraction, and slide a few deadly feet left or right...or maybe forget to switch fuel tanks, and the sputtering engine slows the plane just enough to collide with an airplane behind...

The reported 8,000 foot ceiling never opened. Instead, the thick clouds (called soup) continued up and past the assigned 27,000 feet altitude of the formation. There, they got a call that the bombers had been ordered to abort the mission. No Ramrod today. Time elapsed? About 90 minutes.

Anyone who's ever driven in a white-out blizzard at 5 mpg can testify that after 15 minutes, nerves get frayed. To imagine nearly two hours of the stuff, in wing-to-wing traffic at 250 mph is staggering!

Nevertheless, the 328th wasn't going to stay in the air forever, and landing at one of the plentiful Luftwaffe airfields wasn't an option. So, J. C. Meyer called to the three squadrons to make precise, incremental turns, still on instruments, to return to base, still depending on their skills and fortitude to get home safely. Regardless of one's affections, faith becomes quite tangible considering the variables offered them.

Each of the three squadrons began their 180 degree turns and opting to let down to try to get under the dense clouds. (Punchy recalls cold sweat on his face and body from the lengthy stress of flying tight formation for such a long period). Finally, they punched through the base of the overcast still over enemy territory. Without a word of command, these pilots quickly moved to combat formation as if on signal. Punchy remembers his feeling of pride in this exhibition of precise teamwork on this memorable mission, one of the 87 he flew.