Missing Wingman

When I was a kid my dad had a business across the street from what is now the world's busiest general aviation airport as well as 18th busiest airport in the world - Van Nuys Airport, California. [For you aviation buffs out there - an outstanding -and I mean outstanding - movie is available on DVD about the history of Van Nuys Airport titled "One Six Right" with great pictures, music, famous personalities you didn't know were pilots, aerial scenes, etc.] Van Nuys Airport was a big part of my life growing up. The house my family lived in when I was born was just a few blocks from it.

An aeronautical engineer and pilot, Dad owned a few airplanes over the years, the first two being the two seat Ercoupe. Perhaps I'll write in more detail about them another time. I don't remember much about the first one other than it had cloth covered wings and tail, and a red engine cowling on which he painted a reindeer with a red nose and the name "Rudolph". While he refurbished the second one, in addition to taking me flying on occasion, he would take me with him to the airport and let me just hang around and sit in the cockpit.

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1946 Ercoupe

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Young Pandabonium in Ercoupe "47 Hotel" in the late 1950's

That 1946 Ercoupe, number N2047H or "47 Hotel" in aviation radio jargon, is still flying by the way - three owners and a full restoration later. She is now yellow with black trim.

There were also some WWII salvage aircraft and parts on the tarmac at Van Nuys. My favorite was a Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter plane. It sat forlorn, parked in a corner with the paint gone, tires flat, one door missing (yes, the P-39 had doors on each side) and the Plexiglas windows either crazed and opaque or broken altogether. Inside, the instrument panel had been stripped of anything useful and one faced empty holes with wires and cables dangling behind. But to a 10-year-old kid, that old hulk was a ticket to a flight of dreams.

I would sit in the bare metal cockpit, my head below the level of the windows (no parachute to sit on), and yell "clear!" as I fired up the 1,150 horsepower Allison engine in my mind. Then I'd grab the control stick, shove the throttle forward and fly that bird to the windswept heights, firing the cannon at my imaginary foe. My secret wish was to buy it for $50 and park it in our front yard where I could restore it with money from my allowance, mowing lawns and paper route. That's part of the beauty of being a kid - your dreams don't have to be "practical".

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Bell P-39 Airacobra

The XP-39 was a state of the art fighter plane in 1939. A radical design, it placed the engine behind the cockpit to make room in the nose for powerful 37mm cannon that fired through the propeller hub. It could fly the pants off anything the Axis had in production. Before accepting it, however, the Army Air Corps engineers made several (very poor) design changes, the worst of which was to do away with a two stage supercharger, which resulted in what pilots of the time called "an iron dog". Bell was furious, but the company was nearly bankrupt and accepted the changes to make the sale. As re-designed, the P-39 could not handle high altitude, was slow climbing, the cannon often jammed after a few shots, and it was difficult to control. Still, at lower altitudes with a good pilot, it could even hold its own with the awesome Mitsubishi Zero. The Soviets actually did well with it against the superior German machines. Whatever its drawbacks, as America entered the war, it was one of the few aircraft the Air Force had and so it was put into service "warts and all".

Adding to my interest in planes, I had an uncle who retired in the 1960s as a full-bird colonel in the USAF. He flew P-40s in the Pacific theater as well as transports in Alaska during the war. He (and my aunt) also influenced my early interest in Japan and Hawaii as he was stationed in Japan in the 1950's and commanded Wheeler AFB on Oahu after that. I remember visiting them in the early 1960's at Wheeler. His office still had bullet holes in the walls left as a reminder of December 7, 1941.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, large numbers of P-39s were flown to the South Pacific and some were stationed in Nadi (pronounced Nan-dee), Fiji to protect those islands as well as the hundreds of fighter and bomber aircraft being ferried across the Pacific that used Nadi as a refueling point.

On April 22nd of 1942, a flight of two P-39s took off from Nadi on a sortie over the main island of Viti Levu. After ten minutes or so they were called back to base. Only one of the planes returned. The aircraft of one Lt. James W Blose went missing. The pilot has been on the MIA list ever since; the plane and pilot having disappeared in Viti Levu's mountainous jungle-covered interior. That is, until now.

In late 2004, a pig hunter came across wreckage of a plane now believed to be the missing P-39. Last month, an Air Force medical unit was sent to Fiji to train military members and participate in a health outreach program giving free medical and dental check ups. (Yes, the US Military still does some things worthy of praise.) While there, they have been taken to the wreck site and found human remains including part of a skull. These will be returned to Hawaii for identification.

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Lt.Col. (Doctor) Mylene Huynh and Capt. Kari Stone inspect their gear loaded on a C-17 Globemaster III while preparing to depart on a mission to Suva, Fiji from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii on June 14, 2006.

It is likely, I think, that the remains will be confirmed to be those of Lt. Blose and will be laid to rest at long last in the USA. Though the P-39 had plenty of quirks that could be the basis for speculation, the cause of the crash will no doubt always remain a mystery.

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May you rest in peace, Lt. Blose. Thank you for your service. I am also grateful for a story that brings back wonderful memories of my childhood dreams to "dance the skies on laughter silvered wings".


FH2O said...

Nice story and educational too! Thanks.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Welcome home at last, soldier!

(At least we hope so...)

Thanks a lot for the info about the P-39. As interested in WWII planes as I've always been, there is surprisingly little to be found about that machine. Back in my school days my friends and I were collecting 1/72 scale model aircraft...almost like a sort of arms buildup between us...and when one of them came up with a P-39 we were all going, "What the heck is that?" I then did my best to track it down in the library, but there was little said about it anywhere except that it was a "surprisingly radical" (even "too radical") pre-war design that was replaced as quickly as possible. It was probably the only fighter used by the U.S. during the war that got no respect whatsoever.

Ironic that it was an example of military bureaucracy wrecking a promising piece of engineering.

Pandabonium said...

FH2O - Thanks. You're welcome.

MM - No more need for kids building models to make trips to the library to look for information now days. There are some good articles about it on the internet.

Later in the war, the plane was changed again (for the better this time) and became the P-63 Kingcobra, realizing its true potential. But by then newer, superior designs like the P-51 were already flying.

Ellie said...

Your site is Intresting en
beautyful foto's !
Lot of Greetings Ellie (NEDERLAND)

Pandabonium said...

Thanks for visiting Ellie. I visited Holland a long time ago and got to play in a conecert on your national radio station. Beautiful country.

Flighty said...

As a lifelong aviation enthusiast, albeit mostly as a sofa flyer, I found this entry a truly fascinating read. Many thanks.

Pandabonium said...

Thanks for visiting Flighty. I'll come check out your blog. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

While some remained sane