Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: "Fighter Pilot's Heaven" by Donald S. Lopez

Just a few weeks ago I posted here a review of Don Lopez' first memoir, "Into the Teeth of the Tiger." That volume was an account of the author's experiences as a fighter pilot with the 75th Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group in China from mid-1943 to early 1945. The present book, extending the story to cover Col. Lopez' five year stint (1945 – 50) as a test pilot at Eglin Field in Florida, is very different.

The previous volume was a riveting account of aerial warfare at the far end of the spear. It would hold the interest of the average reader as much as that of the aviation enthusiast. In a sense, the Warhawks and Mustangs are peripheral to the story...at its core it's about the young men going into harm's way.

A tonal shift occurs in Fighter Pilot's Heaven. The author's stories are still told well, and still entail risk and the ability to execute in situations fraught with hazard. Pilots die. But there is no longer a volitional enemy doing his best to kill or a mission where death is the intended outcome. In this new environment the "enemy" is the failure of design or workmanship that leaves a new machine inadequate for the task...or the moment of carelessness, incapacity or neglect that leaves the pilot exposed to disaster. Or, sometimes, just fate.

And so, this second book is about the airplanes, and how Don Lopez and his colleagues battled the risks inherent in flying immature designs on a daily basis. It's about staying alive long enough to learn lessons and to develop fixes so that in the future pilots of ordinary skill could come to regard flight in these machines as just another day at the office. The resulting book is certain to fascinate the aviation buff, but may prove less interesting than its predecessor to the general-interest reader.

Don Lopez was thrilled and excited to be assigned to Eglin in mid-1945. He writes:

"Eglin Field was the headquarters of the Air Proving Ground Command. All Army Air Force aircraft, weapons, and flight equipment were tested there for operational suitability. At Wright Field in Ohio and Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base) in California, aircraft were tested as aircraft, to ensure that they met their design specifications. At Eglin, they were tested as weapons to determine their compatibility with various types of armament and the best method of employment. It was a particularly desirable assignment because of the opportunity to fly many different types of aircraft, including the latest models. Equally exciting was the chance to use the experience I had gained in combat to influence the design of the aircraft I was to test."
There was variety, in spades. Over the course of the book, the author discusses his flights in the P-38, P-47, P-51, P-61, P-82, XF8B and F7F piston fighters, and the P-59, P-80, FR-1, P-84 and F-86 jet fighters. He also describes time logged in A-26, B-26 and B-45 bombers and cargo/utility types including the C-45, C-47, UC-64, AT-6 and PBY. We learn, sometimes a lot and sometimes a little, about each type. One thing that we learn is that Don Lopez was an extraordinarily skilled pilot.

Soon after arriving at Eglin, the author was "checked out" in a jet, specifically the new Bell P-59 Airacomet. The P-59 wasn't much of a fighter but it was something completely different. Lopez explains:

"I ran the engines up to full power (16,800 rpm), and released the brakes. Instead of pushing me back in the seat with its acceleration, it gained speed very slowly. The engines were so smooth and silent that I had the eerie feeling that the plane shouldn't be moving. I felt as though I were in a glider being pulled by an invisible tow plane. Gen. Adolf Galland, leader of the Luftwaffe fighters in World War II and a 104-victory ace, had somewhat the same feeling on his first jet flight in an Me-262. He, however, expressed it much better when he said, "It felt like the angels were pushing."

The author goes on to describe many flight experiences ranging from interesting to well past, as he puts it, "hairy". In several cases, fortune smiled and he lived to fly another day – as some of his friends did not. One episode obviously held great import for him even four decades later as he uses it in the preface to set the book's tone, and then returns to it for a detailed account in a late chapter.

In November 1948 he and his fellow pilots were participating in a "firepower demonstration". Lopez and his two wingmen in Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star's were to join up with Maj. Si Johnson in a new Republic P-84B Thunderjet and then the four-ship formation would conduct a simulated attack on a low-flying B-29. This they did with great elan and then, in the pull-up, Major Johnson's Thunderjet suddenly disintegrated so quickly that they could not be sure what had happened. Later, reviewing film of the event, it was clear that the fighter's right wing had severed near the root and the aircraft had rolled violently right and quickly "augered in". The pilot never stood a chance. It was eventually learned that an aerodynamic quirk involving the wingtip fuel tanks overloaded the wing structure leading to failure. A simple fix was implemented.

In reflecting on this mishap, Don Lopez has this to say:

"In combat, the death of a fellow pilot is easier to accept for two reasons: it is expected (after all, kill or be killed is the name of the game), and combat pilots are seldom acquainted with each other's families, which distances them from the family's suffering when a husband and father is killed. Death is an ever-present threat in flying and an even larger threat in test flying, but it occurred, fortunately, far less often than in combat."
Don Lopez would fly for nearly another two years as a test pilot at Eglin. In 1950, he was reassigned to the Pentagon. Later the Air Force sent him to Cal Tech for a masters degree in Aeronautics. He was one of the first faculty members at the Air Force Academy and after his retirement he worked as an engineer on several NASA space programs. His last assignment was as head of the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. But with those decades of varied experience, when he was writing this book, Don Lopez wrote something revealing. On the nature of test pilots, he said:
"Death is not the major fear for test pilots. What we fear most is screwing up in a way that causes the loss of the airplane or the loss of someone else's life. Alive or dead, the flier's image as an outstanding pilot – a precious commodity indeed – would be damaged or destroyed."
Note well: he said "we". Col. Donald S. Lopez, test pilot, went west in March 2008 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He has left us with two valuable memoirs, and this second one will bring great rewards to any reader interested in aviation history, the transition from propellers to jets, and the world of flight test.

No comments: