Lt. Robert Wehrman, 22, smiles from the seat of the P-51 Mustang
Lt. Robert Wehrman, 22, smiles from the seat of the P-51 Mustang he crash landed in the English countryside in March 1944. He later recalled, “I’m sitting up high like that because the cockpit was full of dirt it scooped up as I slid along on the belly.”

Improbable Escapes

First it was Sully and the Miracle on the Hudson. Then came Tammie Jo Shults and Southwest Airlines Flight 1380’s engine failure and subsequent emergency landing. Just like Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles, former U.S. Navy F-18 fighter pilot Shults and her second-in-command Darren Ellisor (a former Air Force pilot) remained calm and professional during their emergency, much to the apparent amazement of headline writers everywhere. But as AvWeb blogger Paul Bertorelli wrote, “Well, of course she remained calm. Would we expect anything less? And besides, screaming and panic sound really bad on the tape.”

I’d be the last person to take anything away from these pilots’ skill and sangfroid. But this kerfuffle got me reflecting on a time not that long ago when pilots faced similar or far more dire emergencies on a nearly daily basis. There are miles of footage of combat airplanes returning from World War II missions with seemingly impossible battle damage, and untold numbers of still photos showing airplanes with huge sections ripped apart by flak, enemy fighters, or midair collisions.

In many of the pictures, the pilot can be seen poking through a gaping hole in the tail or wing and wearing a big smile. And many of those pilots and other crewmembers had not yet reached their 25th birthday. I was privileged to meet several of them in their later years—most are gone now—and they all remembered their improbable escapes not so much as “fantastic stories” but rather, as little more than “all in a day’s work.”

But they did recall those escapes in vivid detail. One B-17 combat pilot, sitting in the left seat of a parked “Flying Fortress” and describing one mission for me, calmly pointed to exactly where the 20mm canon shell passed through the flight deck; it went out the other side, he said, and exploded when it hit the inboard right engine, setting it on fire. The way he described it, you might have thought he was talking about the time his son knocked a baseball through the garage window.

While brewing a cup of tea in his suburban kitchen in northern New Jersey, aging P-51 Mustang fighter pilot Herb Blanchfield described how he was strafing a German airfield on May 9, 1944 in St. Dizier, France. Anti-aircraft fire hit his engine and he had to pull up to about 3,000 feet to bail out, his leather flying jacket soaked with oil and coolant gushing from his engine. I asked him what that had felt like. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. You just…do it.” Turning back to squeeze out his teabag, he muttered something about the alternative to bailing out being much less attractive.

Twenty-two-year-old Bob Wehrman from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, was attacked from behind by Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Fw-190s over France in his single-seat P-47 Thunderbolt on Feb. 4, 1944. A canon shell came through the cockpit, destroyed most of the instrument panel and continued on to the engine, where it blew one of the Pratt & Whitney R2800’s 18 cylinders completely off. Bleeding from a leg wound, he turned toward his base in England.

He told me this story in the early 1990s while we were riding in his Cadillac, on our way to lunch in Southern California. “Somehow, the engine kept running…sort of,” he said. “But the windshield was covered with oil and I couldn’t see out.” The only instruments still operating were his turn-and-bank/slip-skid indicator (“needle and ball”) and his airspeed indicator, the bare minimum for staying right side up, even when you’re not bleeding and large parts of your engine have disintegrated. “They trained us to sing out loud to ourselves so we’d focus on the procedure for flying on partial-panel. So I kept repeating, ‘[in sing-song tones] Needle, ball, and airspeed/Needle, ball, and airspeed…’”

Bob made it back to his base and recovered from his wounds. A month and a day later, he was flying again and crash-landed a spanking new Mustang through thick fog, taking down power lines in East Sussex, England. The engine had quit due to mechanical failure as he was returning from a mission over German-occupied France. Bob had only a few seconds to pick a landing spot once he broke through the low overcast.

He told me how the man who helped pull him from the cockpit took him to the local pub to “steady his nerves.” Because of the power outage, it was dark inside. “No one there could tell I was the pilot, and I kept quiet, because the locals were complaining about why the ‘bloody Yank, whoever the ’ell he was’ couldn’t have come down a few more yards off the road, instead.”

Frank Speer of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, was another Mustang pilot I got to know pretty well. He destroyed six German airplanes, got shot down by flak, and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Frank wrote a few books about his experiences, and I helped edit one of them. I even got to fly with him. One time—probably after I’d asked him one more question about some minute detail—he told me, “I’m just amazed that you’re still interested in all this stuff. I think it’s great! Hardly anyone today cares what we did back then.”

Maybe that’s because what was “routine” in their time seems almost unimaginable now.    

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