Sunday, June 24, 2012

Book Review: "China Pilot: Flying for Chiang and Chennault" by Felix Smith

There are two very good reasons to read Capt. Felix Smith's memoir, China Pilot. The first is to follow the author as he makes his way through the chaos that was Chinese aviation in the late 1940's. It's a fascinating journey taken as pre-war China disintegrated and the People's Republic was being born.

The second reason is to make the acquaintance of the man known as Earthquake Magoon [1]. That name, originally given by Al Capp to the comic-strip character he drew as the "world's dirtiest rassler", was the sobriquet inevitably bestowed on the legendary, Falstaffian James B. McGovern, Jr. Earthquake fit a lifetime of exploits into a decade in the Far East. In certain circles even today, nearly 60 years after his untimely death, Earthquake is spoken of with awe and amazement and Felix Smith brings him to life here in a skillful, loving tribute to an unforgettable friend.

But the journey begins in 1945 with the author dropping a DC-3 into a short, smoke-shrouded strip in the Yangtze River at Chungking. This was the end of his work with China National Aviation Corp. (CNAC), the largest civil airline in China. Felix, who'd grown up in Milwaukee and learned to fly in the pre-war years, had been invited into the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, and assigned to the Army Service of Supply – which had chartered the CNAC fleet and needed pilots to fly its aircraft "over the Hump" from India. With the war ending, CNAC was reverting to its civilian role. Smith was redundant, and headed back home.

Airline jobs back in the States beckoned, but Felix Smith had become smitten with China. General Claire L. Chennault, famous for leading the Flying Tigers, was organizing a new civil airline that would "distribute relief supplies throughout war-ravaged China." The General was looking for pilots, and Felix Smith signed on.

After a delay (during which the author flew a C-47 for a missionary group) Chennault's new airline acquired a name – Civil Air Transport (CAT) – and a clutch of surplus Curtiss C-46 Commando's. Capt. Smith participated in the recovery of the C-46's from a boneyard in Hawaii and the ferry flight back to Shanghai (no small adventure itself), and then began to fly cargo deliveries among China's cities. Hungjao. Hankow. Nanking. Kunming. Kweilin. Shanghai.

The flights were fraught affairs, plagued by lack of spare parts, the refusal of competing CNAC to turn on radio beacons for CAT flights, obstruction by mendacious Chinese Air Force officers, and a heavy dose of god-awful weather. The CAT pilots earned their pay, even though they weren't being paid. They'd voluntarily deferred their salaries, working for expenses until the airline was on a sound financial footing.

Between trips, the pilots recovered in Shanghai. One favorite spot was the bar at the Palace Hotel, where an actual cold beer could be had. It was there that Smith first saw...

"a broad foreign man with a bluff face and a black Vandyke beard. Massive eyebrows, like inverted gull wings, reached around the sides of his forehead. Feet planted on the lobby floor, hands on huge hips, he bent forward and scowled..."
The big man recognized the author and his companion as fellow Americans and joined them, leaving the bar in their company and walking with them to CAT's offices where they'd collect their expense checks. Along the way...

"The giant chuckled and put out his hand. 'Jim McGovern.' And then, gruffly, 'Friends call me Earthquake Magoon.'"
And after their business was finished...
"When...I turned to go, Earthquake Magoon was rooted to the floor, staring into a roomful of secretaries.

Glossy hair flowed neatly over their high-necked cheongsams, but the modesty of the prim neck-girdling collars was belied by the rest of the tailoring. Skintight, the dresses accentuated beguiling curves, while split skirts flashed glimpses of ivory thighs. Earthquake Magoon was as motionless as a taxidermist's bear. Speared by lust.

On our way down the stairs...Earthquake Magoon was uncharacteristically quiet, but when we got outside he said, "How does a guy get a job in this lash-up?"

In 1947 the Chinese civil war started to heat up. The Nationalists governed by Chiang Kai-shek, held most of the cities but the Communists under Mao Tse-tung dominated the countryside. As a result the cities were besieged one by one, and CAT became their aerial lifeline. Felix and Earthquake and their compatriots flew C-46's and C-47's into and out of increasingly precarious landing zones.

Repeatedly, Nationalist officers refused to admit how close the enemy was and more than once CAT crews were stranded, or nearly so, as the Nationalist resistance collapsed. The author's descriptions of these operations – the siege of Weihsien, the fall of Tsinan, the debacle in Manchuria – are riveting accounts reflecting the casual bravery of the CAT pilots, and of the Nationalist leaders the incompetence and occasional cowardice of many and the inspiring bravery of a few.

All of the cities fell to the Communists. Peiping. Tsingtao. Shanghai. CAT withdrew its operations to Hong Kong. Felix Smith became the Station Manager. They continued to fly to the mainland, landing within the ever-shrinking perimeter of Nationalist control. Chiang Kai-shek moved his seat of government to Taiwan.

As the 1940's ended, CAT settled into a Taiwan-based routine. But all semblance of routine ended in June 1950 when North Korean forces invaded the south. CAT promptly offered its services to the Air Force. The offer was at first declined, but soon the climate changed.

Newcomers appeared among the executive ranks. An OSS veteran, Alfred Cox, became CAT's CEO. Other 'suits' with military rather than airline experience appeared. In fact, CAT had been acquired by the U.S. government and was now a wholly-owned operating subsidiary of the CIA. The pilots were returned to full salary. And started flying intensively in Korea.

With the advent of CIA sponsorship, the flying soon included trips to French Indochina. The names would become heartbreakingly familiar – Saigon, Hanoi, Haiphong, Vientiane, Dien Bien Phu. The author describes the colonial society that the French were trying to return to a status quo ante bellum that would never re-emerge.

From 1951 through 1953, CAT (and the author) flew support missions in Korea and in Indochina. The latter involved use of Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar's given by the United States to the French. As the war began to go badly for the French forces, the re-supply missions grew increasingly hazardous. The C-119's were coming home with bullet holes in them.

Finally the French commander chose to make an ill-advised stand at Dien Bien Phu. Inexplicably, the high ground was conceded to the Vietnamese forces, and soon their artillery began to make itself felt. As the French situation grew desperate, air drops from the CAT C-119's became the only source of supply. The flights began to suffer casualties.

On 6 May 1954, attempting to drop an artillery piece to besieged French paratroopers, Earthquake Magoon's C-119 was struck by two anti-aircraft shells.

"Steve Kusak, in another C-119, closed in to help in any way he could. Oil from Earthquake's shell-torn engine spattered over Kusak's windshield.
'Which way are the hills lowest?' Earthquake called.
'Turn right,' Kusak answered.
Earthquake drifted down, toward the Lao village of Muong Het, sixty miles ahead, where a short dirt strip lay alongside a river in a narrow valley.
Kusak called, 'Bail out!'
'Shut up, I'm busy.'
Kusak followed him down. A few miles short of the village, Earthquake spoke his last words. Calm, matter-of-fact, he said, 'Looks like this is it, son.'
It was.
James McGovern, alias Earthquake Magoon, died in the crash along with his co-pilot, Wallace Buford. Dien Bien Phu fell the next day.
"I had just come in from Korea when I heard. I wanted to cry but couldn't. Just a long-term ache that returns as I write. Once in a lifetime you know someone who deserves special dispensation from the Fates to live forever. Earthquake Magoon was my candidate, but he didn't live half the span of an ordinary mortal."
The tone of the book becomes subdued after the account of Earthquake's last flight. There are tales to tell, friends to remember, debts to repay, and the author discharges these responsibilities with skill. But some of his heart is not in it. Still, he moves the narrative forward to February 1968 when a CAT Boeing 727 crashed during an ILS approach to Taipei. The CIA had been shifting its emphasis to its Air America operation and in the ensuing controversy was content to allow CAT to die.

In October 1968 Capt. Felix Smith left what remained of CAT. He would spend the rest of his career in the airline business in Asia but his time as a China Pilot was done. It was an incredible time, full of adventures and amazing characters and Felix Smith bears fair witness to all. Whether you come for the history or the Soldier-of-Fortune tale, you'll be welcomed and rewarded by this work.

Through the efforts of former CAT pilots led by Felix Smith, the remains of James B. McGovern, Jr., 'Earthquake Magoon', were recovered from Laos in 2002 and subsequently positively identified. On 24 May 2007 he was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

[1]: Most sources refer to James McGovern as 'Earthquake McGoon, but in this book Capt. Smith consistently uses the spelling Magoon, and here I have followed suit.(back)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury (8/22/1920-6/5/2012)

Word comes that Ray Douglas Bradbury has gone West, peacefully, at age 91. He blended soaring imagination with exquisite prose to conjure worlds more wonderful than we could conceive without his help.

So many of us grew up partly in his worlds. On the veldt. At the dark carnival. Gazing at the fire. Hearing the sound of thunder. Contemplating the coming of soft rains. He was of the Golden Age and yet somehow apart from it. The other giants stood together; Bradbury stood alone in magnificent splendor. Something wondrous came this way and we shan't soon see it again. R.I.P.

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

-- Sara Teasdale

Friday, June 1, 2012

Some Days It's Not a Good Idea

The weather boffins have been saying all day that the afternoon and evening would be boisterous in the Mid-Atlantic states. The loud noises started around 18Z with thunderstorm cells forming in central Virginia and moving northeast toward the DC area.

My plan was to get a coastal route from ATC, depart Connecticut around 20Z, and fly south until I didn't like what I saw through the windshield. I was guessing I'd make it to Millville (KMIV). Here are a couple of the relevant Terminal Area Forecasts (TAF's) from 18Z:

KBDR 011740Z 0118/0218 10018KT P6SM SCT015 BKN070 BKN200 
     FM020100 11015G23KT P6SM OVC010 
     KBDR 011740Z 0118/0218 10018KT P6SM SCT015 BKN070 BKN200 
     FM020100 11015G23KT P6SM OVC010 
     FM020400 11015G21KT 3SM -RA BR OVC004 
     FM020700 13013G20KT 2SM RA BR OVC004 
     FM021000 17012KT 3SM SHRA BKN005 OVC012 
     FM021400 19007KT P6SM BKN025 
     FM021600 21008KT P6SM SCT030

KACY 012012Z 0120/0218 11011G19KT P6SM BKN020 
     FM012200 12012G21KT P6SM BKN030 
     FM020100 14012G22KT P6SM -SHRA SCT015 OVC035 WS020/19040 
     FM020400 15010G18KT 3SM SHRA BR OVC015 WS020/19045KT 
     TEMPO 0204/0207 2SM +TSRA BR OVC008CB 
     FM021000 28009KT 4SM -SHRA BR SCT015 OVC035 
     FM021200 29010KT P6SM BKN120 
     FM021500 29012G18KT P6SM SCT040
The forecasts have the rain starting in Atlantic City around 01Z and in Bridgeport not until midnight.

But Air Traffic Control had other ideas. When I requested the routing I wanted I was told that there were no routes available into the DC area due to weather. I understand their point...here are some images of what's going on around DC as I write:

This is the Surface Analysis released at 1933Z. (Click to enlarge.) It shows the warm front draped right across DC and the DelMarVa peninsula and the cold front pushing into western Virginia. The convective activity in the warm sector between the two fronts is no surprise.

And here's the long range base-reflectivity display from the Sterling, VA NEXRAD site at 2012Z. You can see that New Jersey looks good, but the weather is encroaching on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In fact, it was moving from a 210 heading at approximately 30 knots. And yes, the red polygons are tornado warnings.

This one got my attention. It's the Tornado Watch updated at 2017Z. It warns of a moderate risk of severe tornadoes and 2" hail, over the entire DC and Maryland area. Upon reflection, I don't think I want to go there. So, based on a preponderance of the evidence I've concluded that this is one of those days when it's not a good idea to fly. Time to come up with Plan 'B'!

My options were:

  • Depart Bridgeport VFR and fly as far south as seemed to make sense, then land and 'hole up' until the worst of the weather passed (note to self: Could be pretty late), or get a motel room and press on tomorrow.
  • Hustle over to the railroad station and catch the AMTRAK train that departs at 5:02 and is scheduled into Washington about 10:45. Expect to get home about midnight. (Down-side: Then I'm forced onto the train on Monday morning for the return trip.)
  • Pack it in for today. File a flight plan for a 'Dawn Patrol' departure tomorrow morning, then go find someone who will sell me a burger. (Note to self: Turn in early for the early departure.)
The third option wins, hands down...provided the weather forecast for tomorrow morning supports it. Taking another look at the TAF for Bridgeport as it relates to an 0930Z departure:
KBDR 011740Z 0118/0218 ... 
     FM020700 13013G20KT 2SM RA BR OVC004 
     FM021000 17012KT 3SM SHRA BKN005 OVC012 
     FM021400 19007KT P6SM BKN025 
That's acceptable. A normal, rainy IFR departure. If I file for a route west to Sparta VOR (SAX), thence over toward Allentown and then Reading, I'll be moving away from the weather. Here's the Reading (KRDG) TAF for the period:
KRDG 011750Z 0118/0218 ... 
     FM020800 25008KT 4SM -SHRA BR SCT015 OVC035 
     FM021000 29010KT P6SM BKN120 
     FM021500 29012G17KT P6SM BKN040
By the time I get over there, the weather will be clear (although the ride may be bumpy in the aftermath of the cold front). And finally, for arrival at KVKX around 12Z, here's the TAF for KDCA:
KDCA 012001Z 0120/0218 15016G25KT 4SM TSRA BKN035CB OVC050 
     FM020100 17012G20KT 4SM TSRA BKN025CB OVC040 
     FM020500 30010KT P6SM BKN050 
     FM021100 30012KT P6SM SCT050 
     FM021600 29014G18KT P6SM FEW050
That should serve nicely – scattered clouds at 5,000 feet and a mild northwest wind.

So that's the plan. I'm off to find dinner, then an early bedtime and an oh-dark-thirty wake-up. I wish you all a pleasant evening.