It was a moonless, starry night in Alabama in late 1943. The young student pilot placed his parachute in the front cockpit of his Vultee "Vibrator" trainer and carefully adjusted the straps so that later he could easily slip into the harness. His flashlight cut a bright path through the chilly air as he cautiously checked the wing and tail surfaces for frost. He meticulously went through the pre-flight checklist, and when satisfied that all was well he jauntily mounted his mighty steed.
|A Vultee BT-13 trainer plane.|
He was unafraid, invincible. There was a mighty rush of adrenaline as he fastened his seatbelt and started the engine, mentally ticking off the items on his before-takeoff checklist. He was on the threshold of his first solo nighttime cross-country flight.
After a flawless takeoff and climb out, he settled down to a "routine" flight belting out the words to the popular song "Stars Fell on Alabama." All was right with the world; tomorrow's flight check held no terror for him. He could almost feel the coveted silver wings through his flight jacket.
Suddenly he was enveloped by the loudest, most terrifying silence he had ever imagined! By the time he could focus on his instruments, RPM had dropped to zero and airspeed and altitude had begun to unwind. After attempting every corrective action he could remember, he finally decided that he had to use his parachute, the "nylon letdown."
He slid the canopy back, unlatched his seatbelt buckle, and stood up in the cockpit ready to jump. He looked into the total blackness beneath …
THE WOBBLE PUMP! A couple of loose wires in his brain touched. Try THE WOBBLE PUMP. That's the way to get fuel into the engine in an emergency!
Back in his seat he gave three or four mighty tugs on the pump nearly tearing the handle off. It caused a couple of puny sneezes before the engine suddenly roared and emerged from its hibernation. "NO SWEAT," he bellowed – followed by a heartfelt "THANK YOU, LORD."
A little carburetor heat and 30 minutes later a very unprofessional landing (a la Captain Kangaroo), a much wiser fledgling pilot cut the switch and set the parking brakes of his Vibrator. When his knees finally stopped shaking, he stood up in the cockpit to remove his chute.
WHERE ARE THE STRAPS? WHERE ARE THE HARNESS STRAPS? He looked down: right where he left them before takeoff — folded neatly on the seat cushion!
After a much-needed nightcap at the Officers' Club, I, the lucky pilot, retreated to my room in the BOQ. I opened my logbook and entered: "1 hour and 45 minutes of night pilot time" and then this note: "Engine runs intermittently, you lucky bastard."