“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!

Jack Frost: Preserving a Mini-Masterpiece!

Although this is not the “appropriate” season, it is finally time that a family treasure, a mini-masterpiece, be properly preserved, displayed, and enjoyed. The item in question is a watercolor done by my father, Alfred Kubitz, as a young man. He created this artwork in or around 1935. He would have been nineteen years of age in 1935.

This original painting on stiff paper stock was handed down to me by my dad. It had knocked-about for a number of years in my dresser drawer until finally being tucked in a folder and stored in a file cabinet for still more years. A few light creases are clearly visible in the piece, the result of years of casual handling and storage.

I had long been aware that the original theme of Jack Frost with his palette at work adorning the leaves with brilliant fall colors came from a famous old depiction by the illustrator, John T. McCutcheon. For decades, the piece was reprinted annually each fall by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. My family and I have Chicago roots, so my father would have been very familiar with McCutcheon’s picture. I myself had never actually seen that original rendition until very recently.

 

I was very surprised to see that my father’s interpretation of McCutcheon’s theme was quite different from the original artwork, contrary to my long-held supposition. In fact, I was quite blown away by the creative and colorful artistic embellishments my father supplied in his rendering.

It was then that I fully realized what a shame it was that this mini-masterpiece by my father was hidden away for so many decades. With the expert help of our local framer, Jo-Ellen, who always helps us get it “just right,” this little gem now hangs proudly on the wall directly above my bedroom dresser where I can see and enjoy it every single day, morning and night! I love that Dad signed the piece and that he painted it (and other wonderful art) at a time in his young life when he had little leisure time and no money for fancy art supplies. Whatever took me so long to get this properly done?

Memories of Knott’s Berry Farm

Some images and recollections stay with us for a very long time. Among my favorites are the memories of a family trip to southern California and Knott’s Berry Farm in 1954. I was a young lad of fourteen at the time. My younger sister and I both sat for on-the-fly charcoal portraits, rendered by two of the park’s resident “sidewalk artists.” We, thankfully, have kept these unique likenesses which are still in their original natural wood frames – even after decades of knocking about and sitting patiently in storage.

Last Thursday, after years of good intentions, I finally took mine into our favorite local framing shop for some TLC. Jo-Ellen, who always takes good care of our framing needs, will touch-up scratches in the original frame (important to keep). She will also replace the original cheap paper mat with a fine archival mat and seal it all behind special, non-reflective museum plexiglass. This effort to preserve and properly display what, to me, is now an important keepsake is way past due. I always thought that the artist, Liz, who created it, signed it, and dated it ’54 did a very good job! That was me – white T-shirt, cowlick and all in 1954!

Our family of four was in southern California visiting Uncle Gil, Aunt Virgie, and young cousin Craig at the time, and Knott’s Berry Farm was on our list of things to do.

Although the theme park remains alive and well, today, in Anaheim, California, nearby Disneyland corners more publicity. Knott’s has grown considerably since 1954, annually catering to throngs of visitors from across the globe. Back in 1954, the crowds were smaller, the park was simpler, and the overall texture of the experience was most pleasing for the very reasons stated. I will also add that a family vacation trip like ours to southern California via United Airlines on a DC-6B Mainliner from San Francisco was a very rare treat, indeed. Money was scarce, and we kids were decidedly unspoiled. In 1954, Disneyland was a year away from opening nearby in Anaheim, so Knott’s Berry Farm was still the place to go in the region.

I recall panning for gold in real sluice boxes with sand and running water – like an active creek. The three of us kids each came away with a little glass vial filled with water and containing a dozen or so small flakes of real gold. A small cork sealed the vial – much like a miniature time capsule! I was long fascinated by my little vial of real gold. It was not until many years later that I finally decided to get rid of it, so I did. I now wish I had kept it, being a tangible memory of boyhood enthusiasm and joy.

I also recall riding the full-size train around the park and enjoying the interesting items and “scenery” installed by the park for the enjoyment of the passengers. About two-thirds of the way along the journey, three masked desperados on horseback suddenly burst from a grove of trees and headed for the train at full gallop. Whooping and hollering and firing pistol blanks in the air, they chased down the train and proceeded to stage a holdup. When the shooting and commotion first broke out, young cousin Craig, who was about six at the time, cried out, “Are they gonna kill us?” After the initial burst of surprised laughter from the rest of us at my cousin’s honest reaction, it took some dedicated reassuring before young Craig could accept that the action was all in fun. It was one of those wonderful incidents that remain etched in one’s memory for a very long time.

Those were wonderful times and memories for us in southern California. The sun-drenched, uncrowded paradise that was southern California in the twenties and thirties could still be occasionally glimpsed in the nineteen-fifties. My re-framed charcoal portrait by “Liz” of Knott’s Berry Farm will soon be prominently displayed on our wall, a constant visual reminder of the fun we had. Thanks, Liz, for the memories.

My Father’s Enduring Legacy: A Love of Aviation…And a Prized Painting on Glass

My father was a most remarkable man. Today, at seventy-seven years of age, I have surpassed his longevity by one year. Even at this advanced age, my appreciation of him and his legacy continues to grow with passing time. There is much I could say about my father’s innate personal honesty, integrity, ambition, and commitment to excellence in all things, but I choose to dedicate this post to one particular aspect of his life and passion: His love of aviation and airplanes.

Here is the most important, early manifestation of that legacy for me, personally: a painting of his which is prominent in my earliest recollections of childhood.

I can still visualize this painting hanging on my bedroom wall in Chicago, Illinois when I was a youngster of six or seven. Today, this brilliantly created image hangs proudly in my den, high on the wall. Often, when in a pensive mood, I look upward and turn toward this painting for reflection, inspiration, and a renewed sense of longevity and permanence, qualities so absent in today’s peripatetic world. Few memories of mine go further back in time than this depiction of a furious World War I dogfight painted by my teen-age father around 1934/35. Correspondingly, few “things” in my life have been with me for as long as this little gem, painted on the back of glass using ordinary house-paints! My father’s family had no money for artist’s materials, so he did the best he could with what he had. His life-long ability to produce exceptional results in any endeavor is already evident in the clean, precise lines and brilliant images he produced while painting on the back of glass – a very difficult medium, indeed.

A Longing on My Part for “More”

As I matured into my teen-age years, I quizzed Dad about the painting – how old was he when he painted it, where he got the idea, etc. He told me that the individual images he painted were taken from “aviation pulp magazines,” inexpensive adventure accounts of the colorful aviators who flew in World War I, typically printed in slim, inexpensive monthly issues. These were targeted at and very popular with young boys in the nineteen-thirties. In my middle-age years, prior to the advent of the internet in the nineteen-nineties and prior to Google, I could only wish that I also had in my possession the original magazine issues whose colorful, eye-catching covers were depicted on Dad’s painting. Alas, even with the growth of computer technology and improved search engines, the dream seemed beyond the pale of possibility so many decades after the fact. Of all the depictions Dad chose for his picture, the brilliant red German Pfaltz airplane in the lower right-hand corner always intrigued me most as a youngster. A close examination reveals a trail of bullet-holes in the side of the red fuselage from the machine guns firing below. Clearly, the German pilot is “dramatically dead” based on the trajectory of fire!

Even though World War I aviation with its colorful dogfighting occurred well before Dad entered his teen-age years in 1929, he knew the stories and he knew about the aces and heroes, men like Captain Eddie Rickenbacker flying for the Allies, and “The Red Baron,” Manfred Von Richtofen, on the German side. Along with millions of Americans, Dad was captivated in 1927 by young Charles Lindbergh and his daring trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was clearly both a catalyst for my father’s life-long interest in aviation and an inspiration to him. Dad was eleven years old in 1927, and Lindbergh epitomized what an underdog can accomplish through intelligent dedication to a clearly defined goal. And dad did begin life as a definitive underdog, necessarily dropping out of high school after one year to support his struggling parents and siblings during the Depression. It was in the early nineteen-thirties when my father began to compile his aviation scrapbook, a serious collection of magazine and newspaper articles covering all aspects of the subject, meticulously assembled – as usual. Many of the entries have notable historical significance in aviation history: General Billy Mitchell’s analysis of the autogiro is present as is a photo/clipping of Jimmy Doolittle standing next to his bumble-bee-like Gee-Bee racer after setting an astounding new world speed record of 309 miles per hour! Dad had told me of his scrapbook early-on in my youth, but it had not been seen for decades, apparently lost in our move to California in 1948. “If only Dad’s scrapbook were not lost,” I often mused.

The Scrapbook Surfaces and Dad’s Aviation Legacy Grows

Miraculously, that very scrapbook surfaced in the early nineteen-sixties. I detailed the circumstances and the scrapbook itself in an earlier post which I attach in its entirety at the end of this post. Amazingly, loosely tucked between the pages were the pulp magazine “cutouts,” the very images Dad used for his dogfight painting on glass. These were taken directly from the aviation pulp magazine covers that he owned. For me, this was a dream-come-true, to possess not only this scrapbook, but the actual image-sources used for my prized painting.

 

It eerily seemed almost pre-destined that this should happen, that these objects, so strongly coveted in my imagination, should materialize out of the blue like that. Pasted within the book itself, are several other cut-outs from aviation magazine covers similar to those depicted in my painting.

Noteworthy, and not surprising given Dad’s aptitudes, many of the newspaper and magazine articles chosen for the scrapbook focus on technical aspects of the newest improvements in aviation and aeronautical engineering. The choices Dad made for inclusion in his book clearly reflect his early interest in mechanical engineering. In 1943, he left the production lines of the Schwinn bicycle company in Chicago to join United Air Lines as a draftsman and, later, as an employee in United’s Radio Laboratory. I recall him telling me many years ago that he just wanted to be around airplanes and the airline industry in some capacity or another – even if it meant washing airplanes!

Dad was transferred by United Air Lines in 1948 from Chicago to United’s maintenance base in San Francisco, California. My first-ever airplane flight was on a United DC-4 which took several hours to fly our family of four to SFO. As teenagers around our family dinner table listening to our parents re-living their day, my younger sister and I learned first-hand of the many workplace experiences (and frustrations) Dad encountered at United as he worked his way up through the ranks from draftsman to mechanical design engineer and ultimately to hands-on engineering manager of a ground-equipment design group in 1969. Achieving corporate recognition of his talents by United in the form of that last promotion was Dad’s ultimate professional goal. From 1969 until his retirement from United in 1981 after thirty-eight years, he was responsible for major portions of the ground equipment required to support United’s flight operations. He did major design work and structural analysis on jet engine maintenance scaffolding, food trucks, lavatory trucks, and baggage transporters used to efficiently load and unload United’s “Mainliners” on the tarmac. Quite a remarkable achievement for a self-motivated man who only had one year of high school! The lack of a college degree in aeronautics or engineering was a show-stopper at United even back then for anyone with significant engineering design aspirations. I often wonder how many of Dad’s colleagues, who realized he had no engineering degree yet came to appreciate and respect his mechanical engineering aptitude, had any idea of his lack of even a high school education! With each promotion and advancement, Dad had to prove and re-prove himself on the job, over and over again. Night classes in calculus, physics, and engineering at the local College of San Mateo fortified his innate abilities and enabled him to ultimately achieve the position and recognition he deserved at United. Dad was also very good at expressing his logical thought processes in clear, tautly-written memos – a must for any managerial candidate. Where he acquired his fine ability for written expression is still a puzzlement.

A few weeks ago, while cleaning out some cabinets, I came across a photo album which I had practically forgotten. The nicely displayed photos and memorabilia therein were of my father’s retirement party from United in 1981. My wife and I were present that night as were many of Dad’s colleagues and close friends from United. Some of the friendships present that evening spanned most of Dad’s thirty-seven years at United. What a contrast to today’s workplaces!

I noticed two UAL envelopes tucked into the front of the album. The typewritten, personally signed letters inside were on UAL letterhead stationery and dated 1969. One was from the corporate vice-president of base maintenance at UAL/SFO who knew Dad and took the time to personally congratulate him on his appointment in 1969 to engineering design manager. He knew and appreciated what Dad had achieved and how deserving he was of the promotion.

The other letter was from a long-time friend and colleague of Dad’s from the early Chicago days at UAL. Like my father, Duane Buckmaster was deeply rooted in aviation and on a steady-track of self-improvement. I will never forget the time he came out from Chicago to SFO on UAL business and came by our little San Mateo home to join the four of us for a home-cooked meal. This was around 1956/57. Dad gave me a heads-up prior to Mr. Buckmaster’s arrival that evening. He said, “You should know that Duane flew B-24 Liberators over Germany on bombing raids during World War II. His plane was shot down on June 6, 1944 (D-day) by German fighters during the famous Ploesti oil field raids. After parachuting with the rest of the crew from the doomed plane, he was captured by the Germans and held prisoner. He eventually escaped and found his way back across the enemy lines.” I recall Buckmaster’s story that evening and his detailed responses to the many questions from myself, my sister, and my parents. Needless to say, I was mesmerized by his story, and I have never forgotten that evening over all these years. Here is his congratulatory letter to Dad, dated July 7, 1969:

I especially appreciate his vivid comments about “our mutual struggles with the calculus” during “those nights at College of San Mateo.”

Duane Buckmaster was a good friend who, like Dad, also left his mark on United Air Lines, eventually becoming Executive Vice-President of Human Resources based in United’s Chicago offices. Predictably, Duane Buckmaster made it a point to be here, in California, to honor Dad at his retirement party in 1981.

United Air Lines runs deep in my veins for so many obvious reasons. It was and is a major part of my father’s aviation legacy. Dad and “Buck” Buckmaster worked for the airline during its glory days, days when flying was more than merely a quicker option to get from point A to point B. From United’s inception in 1926 and well into the nineteen-sixties, flying the “Friendly Skies” meant just that – an enjoyable, special experience – an event. Times and circumstances change, however, and not always for the better. United’s foundational president, W.A. Patterson ran United with a sure and steady hand for many years.

Patterson always valued United’s employees and their contributions as evidenced by the book High Horizons which he commissioned and gifted to every employee in 1951, on United’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The book is a revealing, well-illustrated history of United Air Lines over its first quarter-century. I remember my father’s copy which arrived at our house in 1951 and remained housed in our small dining room bookcase for many decades. Alas, it disappeared after my parents died. Such is the importance of United Air Lines and aviation in my life and recollections that I recently searched for and found a like-new copy of High Horizons on the internet. It arrived in the mail just days ago. Tucked inside is the original silver card insert that carried president Patterson’s personal thanks and best wishes to each employee – a class act. Employee regard for W.A. Patterson was high for obvious reasons. Patterson made United a great airline.

My father’s retirement years were heavily tinged with his continuing love of aviation. He obtained his private pilot’s license and became heavily involved with building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. I have written about his RC flying in previous blog posts about him and his dedication to excellence. He and my mother, who was always by his side through forty-nine years of marriage, spent several very happy years enjoying the retired life together before she passed away in 1989. Life was not the same for Dad or for us after she was gone; he followed her in 1992 leaving my sister and I and his grandchildren a fine legacy of remembrance, a special part of which I highlight, here, in this post/tribute.

The aviation bug, planted by my father, has been in my system for as long as I can remember. It periodically goes dormant for a while when one of my many other interests flares up yet again to reclaim its periodic turn in the spotlight of my attention. However, none of these is as deeply rooted in my consciousness as is aviation, thanks to Dad.

Pushing Hard to Complete the Arc of Dad’s Legacy

Two weeks ago, and after all these decades, I resumed my quest to learn still more about the aviation painting that hangs in my den. What were those magazines whose covers are depicted? Enlisting the aid of Google search, I was finally able to identify the specific aviation pulp magazines whose covers grace my father’s painting. Furthermore, I found the actual 1931 August and September issues of Battle Aces for sale on the internet. The cover artwork of the September issue carries the red German Pfaltz airplane so dramatically pictured by Dad in his painting. The August issue’s cover is not depicted in the painting; the July issue is.

 

This, and the image which follows are two of the covers which captured my father’s fancy as a young man. Finally, after decades of mystery and intrigue, my quest to intimately know the details pertinent to my prized painting has been satisfied. The cover art on all but four of the twenty-seven issues of Battle Aces which ran from October, 1930 through December, 1932 were painted by Frederick Manley Blakeslee at the beginning of his notable career as illustrator for early aviation publications, and later, railroading magazines.

As a final chapter to this part of my story, I also discovered that the original Blakeslee oil painting commissioned for the September, 1931 issue of Battle Aces was sold at auction in 2012 for $2200! The only thing better than having the magazine cover would be to own the original painting commissioned for it!

In 1988, my dad created an oil-on-canvas re-visitation of his early painting on glass. A few aspects of the aerial battle were modified in his new effort, but the red Pfaltz was depicted as before, only headed now in the opposite direction!

Aviation in World War II: The Latest Installment of the Legacy

There is one final chapter (at least for now) of the aviation legacy I inherited from my father. Conditioned by my lifelong involvement with Dad’s legacy and artwork which began with World War I, I have more recently taken note of today’s many fine artists and their fabulous work portraying airplanes and aviation history in the World War II theatre. I find particularly interesting the stories of wartime flyers like Duane Buckmaster who have incredible tales to tell. Fascinating, too, are the aces and the airplanes they flew that saved the western world from Hitler’s Germany and the Luftwaffe.

One of my earliest literary entries into World War II aviation is represented by this excellent book on the Air Force and air power published by Martin Caidin in 1957. I was a high school junior at that time, well into my aviation legacy and already a veteran when it came to building model airplanes. I recall seeing this book displayed in the window of a small bookshop in downtown San Mateo. When I asked to see it, the ten-dollar price on the jacket meant leaving without it, but the photo/text of the book proved fascinating. Every time I passed that bookstore window, the book beckoned. Finally, I had mowed enough neighborhood lawns to save the ten dollars and the book was mine. It seemingly was meant to be that I should have this book. In fact, at the very moment I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps Duane Buckmaster’s visit to our house in the month’s prior precipitated my burning desire to have this book – very possible, even likely, and interesting to contemplate! Today, I have assembled a small but meaningful reference library on aviation, airplanes, and aces – a collection which began with Caidin’s book, Air Force.

I published a previous post (see my archives) highlighting the fascinating story of A Higher Call, as portrayed in the book of the same title and depicted by the artwork of Florida artist, John D. Shaw. Shaw recently completed his most recent artistic rendering of the event in a new limited print edition titled Prey for Mercy.
Shaw’s artwork gives us a wonderful portrayal of the opening moments of a most improbable and unforgettable interaction between a B-17 bomber pilot and crew and a multiple ace of the German Luftwaffe on the threshold of earning the coveted Luftwaffe Flying Cross, needing just one more “kill” to his credit. I was taken with this limited-edition offering and recently received my print along with accompanying material and the actual signature card of the German flyer who was involved, Franz Stigler. Shaw’s earlier artistic rendering of the event is also beautifully done, but long sold-out and very hard to find on the secondary market.

The Legacy Continues!

My enthusiasm for aviation is hardly satisfied at this late date; there are still so many books on my shelves and stories waiting in the wings. Most significantly, both my curiosity about and my fascination with this life-long legacy of aviation gifted to me by my Father, Alfred Chester Kubitz, are still running strong. Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!

The Rolls-Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine: P-51 Mustang Power Defeated the Luftwaffe

The North American P-51 Mustang was the best fighter airplane in World War II. It became available to the U.S. fighter command as a potent package in enough time to tilt the air war with Germany in the Allies’ favor. I wrote about the justly-famous P-51 in a previous post (July 6, 2016). That post can be found in my home page archives. In it, I referred to the Merlin V-12 power plant which, when finally coupled with the great airframe platform from California-based North American Aviation, turned a decent performer into an iconic fighting airplane.

While “Rolls-Royce” on this engine clearly denotes an English heritage, the same can, surprisingly, be said of the P-51 itself. Designed and built by North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, the airplane’s genesis actually emanated from England. The P-51 began as a specification provided to North American by the British Purchasing Commission early in 1940. Incredibly, the first prototype appeared on September 9, 1940, a mere 102 days after the contract with North American was signed. The NA-73X airframe first flew on October 26, 1940.

Originally designed for the British Allison V-1710 engine, the Mustang prototypes demonstrated disappointing performance at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force typically cruised over 20,000 feet on their bombing missions into Germany from bases in England. During the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the German Luftwaffe was already flying their front-line fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. The Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190 would both prove to be a significant threat to Allied bombers in the skies over Germany throughout the war. Despite Britain’s just-in-time introduction in 1940 of their own top-line fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Me 109 still had advantages over it and the older Hawker Hurricane by way of its firepower and its fuel-injected engine. The Messerschmidt had, in addition to 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon firing through the spinner of its propeller. That deadly weapon coupled with the much longer firing-burst capability of its guns gave the Me 109 a significant advantage. The Hurricane and the Spitfire had carbureted engines with a typical float-chamber in the fuel system which caused the airplanes to hesitate when abruptly put into an evasive dive maneuver. The fuel-injected 109s had no such problem and could easily overtake their prey on the way down.

The major problem faced by the U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber command by 1942 was the vulnerability of its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers after leaving their bases in the English countryside and entering German air space. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was aptly named given the eventual array of thirteen 50 caliber machine guns in eight strategic locations around the aircraft. Early in the war, it was believed that bomber formations of aircraft with that degree of armament would be quite capable of protecting themselves from German fighter interceptors who came up to meet them over German territory. That assumption quickly proved very erroneous as losses mounted.

The solution? Provide fighter escorts for the bombers. Prior to the introduction of the P-51 in late 1943, that assignment was handed to fighter wings typically flying the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 had two major problems. To begin with, the airplane had a short fuel-limited range which forced it to turn back and abandon its escort duties soon after entering German airspace. That, of course, was precisely when the bomber formations would most likely encounter German fighter resistance. Besides, the chunky P-47 suffered severe disadvantages in aerial combat with the more agile and faster Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters. Bomber losses were severe from the combination of aerial flak guns and German interceptors, culminating in the disastrous bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany, where sixty bombers were lost in one day – some 600 men.

Enter the P-51 Mustang in late 1943 whose horsepower, speed, agility, and high-altitude performance provided a palpable advantage over German counterparts thanks to its supercharged Merlin engine which had replaced the original Allison V17-10 powerplant. With the airplane’s inherently large fuel capacity and an added pair of drop-tanks beneath its wings, the P-51 could go all the way to the target and back with the “heavies.” The bomber crews fondly referred to the Mustang escorts as their “little friends.”

Most of the eventual Mustang production of some 15,000 planes was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin built under license by the Packard Motor Car company in Detroit. The Merlin engine was also widely used in other notable wartime aircraft including England’s top fighter, the Spitfire. Nothing in the air during the war could match the powerfully effective Merlin/Mustang combination, however.

I recently watched a wartime documentary on the momentous effort to design and ramp up production of the Merlin engine in England during the early phases of WW II. This was a huge wartime effort on the part of the English who faced the possible invasion of their country and the subjugation of Europe at the hand of Hitler’s Germany. The film was totally enlightening and engrossing – so many history and social lessons to be derived from the can-do spirit of the English.

My wife and I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, which portrayed Winston Churchill’s lonely desperation in 1939/1940 as the destiny of England and, indeed, all of Europe became increasingly problematic. Fact is always stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and this fine movie drives home the point. So much hung in the balance, a balance which finally tilted favorably to the Allies on the knife-edge of numerous pivotal decisions and efforts. The Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang airframe from North American Aviation were two of those very decisive factors which ultimately doomed Hitler – especially as combined together in the final P-51 designs. In 1945, many of Germany’s major cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers based in England which, thanks to the Mustangs and their intrepid pilots, could now reach their targets.

I will close by calling upon a recollection from my earlier post on the iconic P-51 Mustang when the Collings Foundation brought their Wings of Freedom touring air show to nearby Moffett Field. My two young grandsons and I stood close by on the tarmac as their P-51, Betty Jane, prepared to fly.

Firing-Up the Big Merlin-Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.

Martha

Nothing defines who we are as individuals more than the essence of our natural mothers and fathers. We each come into this world preceded by one father, one mother and two grandfathers and two grandmothers who also influence our being. The lucky ones among us descended from men and women of fine character and ability. Those of us fortunate enough to have truly known and experienced all six of these key individuals while maturing into adulthood are additionally blessed. A few weeks ago, I was combing though some family photographs and came upon this one, a scarce image of my paternal grandmother, Martha Koss Kubitz. I possess few images of her and this is the most personal of those, taken late in life.

I “knew” and remember both sets of grandparents, but only through the gauzy veil of childhood memory given that our family of four left its Chicago roots in 1948 when we moved to California. I was then eight years old. Gazing at my grandmother’s image both fortified my distant memory of her and caused me to contemplate, yet again, the fleeting nature of our existence on this earth. Our own four young grandchildren have no real knowledge of Martha and her husband, Elmer, my grandfather. Nor are they likely ever to express the degree of curiosity which cares to know what kind of people their great-great grandparents were. It seems almost certain that today’s third generation removed will not be interested in their family roots beyond their own grandparents – and that seems such a shame. The connection between one’s own grandparents and grandchildren, a separation of four generations, seems palpable and significant to many of us in the middle of that generation span who are now in the later stages of life. I can see personality traits and physical resemblances that are recognizable across those four generations, but I know that once my time is up, those connections could easily be lost forever unless recorded somewhere. Martha and Elmer Kubitz would typically become merely names on census rolls and other archived documents in the years ahead. This written blog post about my grandmother Martha is my humble and personal attempt keep her memory alive in a medium separate from the vanishing recollections of her descendants. It was only within the last twenty years that I learned the bulk of what I know about Martha. Nancy, my childhood Chicago cousin, furnished much of that information via her handwritten letters from the East Coast.

I had earlier heard conjecture that Martha Koss emigrated to America from Hamburg, Germany which turned out to be partly true. Once here, she eventually found her way to the Chicago area where she met my grandfather, Elmer Chester Kubitz. Through internet perseverance, I was able to locate the immigration paper documenting her family’s arrival in New York aboard the ship Moravia on March 10, 1890. The ship’s ledger lists her father Anton Koss, her mother Marie, sisters Mathilde and Pauline, and brothers Auguste and Franz. Martha is the middle child at age 4. This document lists her hometown in Germany as Bolchau, not Hamburg, but the Moravia’s port of embarkation is noted as Hamburg/Kerre.

A 1910 U.S. census report from Chicago shows Elmer and Martha Kubitz residing with four-month old first child, Elmer Junior, and living next door to Martha’s parents and her brother Frank (formerly Franz). I have a photo-copy of Martha’s certificate of marriage to Elmer C. Kubitz in Michigan, dated July 17, 1909 – courtesy of my cousin Nancy.

Such documents gleaned from the internet that illuminate the family’s history are very special to me. There are no letters, original documents, or mementos of any kind in my possession that relate to my paternal grandparents save a few notes from my grandmother sent to me from Chicago in the 1960’s, long after my father was transferred to California by United Air Lines in 1948. Even during a time when sentimentality, a sense of personal history, and the luxury of introspection and perspective often played second fiddle to the urgencies of getting on with daily life and living, the dearth of things-saved with respect to both sets of my grandparents is sadly unusual.

My grandmother Martha was a dutiful wife and mother, raising four sons and one daughter while eking out a living in a small West Chicago storefront which was divided into a candy/toy store run by Martha and Grandpa Elmer’s radio repair shop. My grandparents lived in the back of the same building, just behind the storefront curtains, in spartan quarters quite devoid of natural light as I recall. It was only last year that I came upon a photo of that Diversey Avenue storefront circa 1950 with Uncle Elmer Kubitz Junior standing out-front, thanks to second cousin Mary.

I wish I had known my grandmother and grandfather better. There are so many things I would like to know. Throughout my youth, my father always spoke well of them both given the underlying tone that life was not easy for the family of seven. My grandfather was reportedly an intelligent, amiable man with a great sense of humor and an innate honesty. Despite his amiability, Grandpa Elmer believed in discipline when appropriate for his children. My father, and consequently I, both were raised to respect adult authority. My grandmother was a stoutly-built, caring woman who stood by her husband’s side through thick and thin during some very hard financial times. Doctor’s visits to the Kubitz household were virtually unknown due to the lack of money: Home remedies were the order of the day for any ills. Warm Castor oil in the ear was administered by Martha when my father had one of his frequent severe ear-aches. One of these bouts left him with a punctured ear-drum. I recall that my grandparents often retired to a local tavern after the day’s work was done, their way of dealing with life’s demands. I can picture the scene with Elmer calling out to Martha: “Hey Mart (he called her that), let’s go down for a beer!”

My dad, Alfred, attended only one year of high school at Chicago’s Austin High in order to work and contribute to the family’s support during the lean depression years. Despite Dad’s meager early education, he became the quintessential life-long learner who studied his way to a long and successful career in mechanical engineering at United Air Lines.

Dad’s mother was barely literate in the written English vernacular as evidenced by the few letters I received from her during my college years and after graduation. This language challenge was palpable despite her life-long residence in the United States after coming to America at age four. Nevertheless, my grandmother’s offspring all did well for themselves as career-oriented adults with families. Somehow, my grandparents managed to pass the torch of opportunity and achievement to their children despite their own humble beginnings. While writing this blog post, I retrieved from my files the cache of four items sent to me by my grandmother which I have fortunately retained. This excerpt from one of the letters she wrote to me in 1966 sums up my fondness and respect for my grandmother. Using some license in translation, page three reads:

“…that sweetheart of yours [my young wife, Linda] sure is pretty. You sure know how to pick them. I am glad that you like her…Linda looks to be a very nice girl. You bet she is pretty. So you had a good time together [in Hawaii]. This place here [probably her daughter’s house] was so dry – no beer, only Nehi Root Beer. Well, you can keep sober with that. Your Mother-Dad-Karen sure is a family to be proud of. I have four daughter-in-laws. I like them all: They’re are all good to me and they’re all good-looking. My sons know how to pick ‘em. Well, Alan, a simple letter: Really isn’t very much, but when it’s so sincerely said, it has a special touch and when it goes to someone who’s very dear to me.”

Grandma Kubitz
who loves you
and always will

What can I say? Thank goodness that I have a few such letters in my possession which shed light on the earthy and perceptive lady who was my grandmother. They, my dim recollections, and letters from cousins who knew Martha well are my sole substitute for all the years of isolation from my grandparents and other Chicago roots.

Despite my grandmother’s limited ability with written English, her son Alfred, my father, was surprisingly fluent with the written word given his truncated early schooling. This ability of self-expression was complemented by his fine aptitude for engineering and things mechanical. I still retain several tautly written letters by my father eloquently expressing displeasure over poor service or unreliable products he had encountered as an adult. One of these was addressed directly to Roger Smith, the past CEO of General Motors, expressing displeasure over some negative aspect of Dad’s Oldsmobile that was not adequately addressed by previous letters to GM’s lower management. Dad was very good at going right to the heart of the matter at hand and succinctly stating his case, reminiscent of an experienced attorney but without the legalese! Alas – predictably, Dad never heard from Mr. Smith… which frustrated him no end! I still marvel at his ability with the written word, and I wonder where in the world it came from and just how it blossomed in him as he matured. I wonder about that and so many other things connected with my grandparents and ancestors. As I write this, there is currently much discussion in the United States about “merit-based” immigration into this country – a policy which would give heavy preference to those applicants who already have resources and a solid education. While the proposal has some merit, I cannot help thinking that so many multi-generation success stories in the United States had their roots in seemingly unexceptional immigrants who came to America in crowded shipboard steerage with little to their name. Most likely, that was the case with Martha’s father, Anton Koss, who is listed in the 1910 U.S. Chicago census as a “hod-carrier” working on “new buildings.”

I sum up my feelings about my grandmother, who I barely knew, as follows: Martha, you and Elmer did good – real good – in passing the torch of opportunity to your offspring despite the great difficulties you both faced along the way. This is my acknowledgement of same and my personal tribute to you. Rest in peace…you are loved and remembered.