24 May, 2009

Profile 32: SNEEZY as flown by Donald "Mac" McKibben

"Olive Drab" is the official name but in reality, the color runs everywhere from forest green to sludge brown. Sun, rain, oil, sand all played a role in altering the hue after the plane left the factory. We'll never know exactly of the true shade of SNEEZY's Olive Drab. Instead, a handful of people make their educated decrees - "a little browner..." or "...kinda more darkish sorta."

To someone watching the process, I bet we appear nuts.

Yet, SNEEZY, a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, blew a fast one at me when her pilot revealed the airplane was polished with car wax. And, not some government issue car-wax, but the best stuff girlfriend* Nita could find back in Long Island. Mac recalls that she "...virtually corner(ed) the market for Simoniz (and shipped) it off to me in Bodney (England)." No kidding about cornering the market - there's at least four Buicks in a single P-47; can you imagine the number of cans it took to complete the job?!

And I wonder, "How on earth do I get a car-polish sheen on this thing?!" Well, you be the judge. Mac maintains the polish didn't so much change the color as it did merely add sheen. However, the main reason for the polish wasn't about the shine, but the speed.

Drag is "cubed" as velocity increases. In other words, the faster something goes, the resistance from drag grows stronger and stronger. The result of eliminating dust, dirt and scratches through a thorough polishing has been estimated to have provided as much as a 10 knot increase in airspeed! Those extra mph's could mean life and death, adding an extra second to close in on a surprise bounce or another inch distance away from an otherwise mortal bullet.

Suddenly, little details of paint become rather more interesting, don't you think?

The photo below shows Mac on SNEEZY's wing, and Crew Chief, Luman Morey. Though Mac trusted his life to Morey's mechanical prowess, he maintains that plenty of his own sweat was scrubbed into SNEEZY's Simoniz job.

*Nita later became Don's wife.
**"Sneezy" is named after one of Snow White's seven dwarves.
***Yes, Walt Disney's Sneezy had a tan coat. Mac's had a blue coat.
****Oh - Bill Creech (profile 17) Simonized his squadron's F-100s in Vietnam. Ironically, they were the 352nd FS.

Photos courtesy of Don McKibben via the 352nd Fighter Group Association.

23 May, 2009

Profile 32: SNEEZY Preview

This is my latest work-in-progress, a P-47 Thunderbolt flown by "Mac" McKibben of the 352nd FG. I wanted to get something up in time for Memorial Day. For some reason, I always start with the nose.

Anyway, historian Marc L. Hamel published a story about this particular airplane that's quite fascinating. Marc's letting me share his retelling of the account - click here for a downloadable .pdf on the details of a harrowing day for both pilot and civilian alike.

Nevertheless, "SNEEZY" heaved her last breath on March 8, 1944 over England when the airplane (and Mac) was involved in a multi-airplane mid-air collision. They were assembling formation in extreme fog and someone moved a few inches in the wrong direction...kabang! Tons of aluminum, gasoline and ammo clashed at 200knots. A multi-plane pile up in the sky.

Mac bailed out, SNEEZY augured in. Again, click here to download Marc's in-depth version.

Suffice it to say, accidents killed more of the 352nd than the Nazis. Accidents, such as those that happen while trying to get a formation of 12,000lb fighters together in 10 foot visibility. Risking one's life in mortal combat with the enemy may be honorable, but loss and pain because of an accident before the battle begins seems especially cheap and tragic.

Today, in peace and safety, a pilot would be using basic reasoning to stand on the airfield and announce to the wall of cloud, "No way am I going to take off in this soup!" But in 1944, the greater good overruled and the 352nd climbed to meet their particular responsibility.

The facts are, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are the result of decisions made regardless of odds or circumstances. They don't happen by accident.

Oops! Just found out that SNEEZY was a P-47 C-5 instead of a D-5. Perish the thought!

17 May, 2009

Profile 31: 18 as flown by Eugene "Red" James

History buffs will quickly recognize that the airplane above isn't WW2 vintage. For those who aren't so buffy, the clue that this Corsair is post-1945 is the red bar on the insignia. That feature was added circa 1947. To 99% of the population, such things aren't important. I could put "WW2 fighter plane" under the bottom and most wouldn't care any more or less. But I’m a history buff and try to get the details right.

Nevertheless, "18" was flown during the Korean Conflict by "Red" James, a Marine pilot. He flew Corsairs in both WW2 and Korea. I chose to do his Korean mount because of the sheer number of reference material - in fact, “18” is on display at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida. Easy details - just look.

Last Friday, Red told of how he was "called up" again for service in 1951. Remember, the American military had just decommissioned its gigantic WW2 force when the Korean situation ignited. Plenty of combat-experienced personnel were available for the call, almost immediately. For specialized warriors like pilots, a month or two of refresher courses is much more efficient than a year or more of raising pilots from scratch.

But by the time the North Korean Communists moved South, Red James had added a new experience to his resume on top of Corsair and carrier qualifications. He was a dad with two little kids and a wife. Though Red had a lot to offer the Marines by virtue of his skill and experience, he also had a lot more to lose.

Through these interviews, I’m challenged to think about beliefs on war, justice, duty - working to distinguish the feel-good thoughts from true conviction. In the course of Friday’s conversation, we discussed a word that can fan flames in emotionally-charged circles - Cowardice. I asked Red how he defined the term and his answer was devilishly simple - "Someone who doesn't do what they're supposed to do."

The men that I’ve interviewed are no longer the pilots of 1943 or 1951. They’ve gone on, living whole new lifetimes that proportionately, make their moments in combat just blips in time. But when they share their wisdom - hardened by The Great Depression and war, softened by some of the most prosperous decades in American record - I learn fine points that I could never get on my own.

The details of history offer the courage to do what "we're supposed to do."

I am grateful for Red's example.

Update: Red's granddaughter asked me to post a picture of him from his service days, so I here it is. It's an "official" Marine Corps photo. The paper is thick and brittle but the grain is unbelievably tight. No digital pixels, no washed-out insta-matic film - this is crisp, clear life circa 1944. I swear I can smell developer chemicals on my fingers after holding the photo.

Anyway, I've never met Red's granddaughter. But a round-about set of circumstances caused her to write me a note (real paper!) to "...talk to my grandfather! He flew Corsairs!" So, I call, write, draw, send, talk, email, post...and through the glory of 21st century technology, we're connected. She'll send this post onto a bunch of people, my kids will read this after dinner, someone else, somewhere will see the censor scratches on the photo and email, "Why did they do that? And so on.

Flash, 1944 blends with today. Trite? Naw. It's freaking amazing. Ordinary people being inspired by the reality of life makes history so very present and powerful. And, if we do what we're supposed to do, we all live forever.