(Reading time 5 minutes)
In the days of World War 1, airplanes were in their infancy. Many stories were written about the romantic and daring adventurous lives of the brave pilots. Their escapades and the sportsmanlike camaraderie, even with the enemy were legendary. Some waved goodbye as their plane burned, on the way to the ground. Movies featured these fearless men in the early motion pictures like, “Wings”. Remember that one, with actors like Richard Dix, Marlene Dietrich, and Eric Von Stroheim?
Captain Bobby Garner was the father of one of my very good friends, who told this story many times. Bobby was one of those daring young men in their flying machines, who was a WW1 pilot in the Army Air Corp, based in England. The Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Corps were on a joint effort mission, to destroy German manufacturing.
While returning to a base, somewhere in France after a successful bombing mission on a German industrial center, Bobby’s plane hit a bird. His engine failed over France. He had to make an emergency, dead stick landing in a cow pasture, breaking formation with his returning victorious squadron. After a forced landing, he was able to remove the bird and make jury rig repairs with the aid of a farmer and some bailing wire. They successfully restarted the engine for his trip back to his airfield. Two problems had not been repaired however. The compass was damaged, which was needed for direction, and the turn and bank indicator on the instrument panel was smashed, which he needed to keep the plane level in flight, in cloud cover.
It was getting dark, but he decided he must fly by the seat of his pants to where he would be out of danger. He took off, circled, and unsuccessfully looked for some familiar landmarks. With no compass, he was lost. The ground fog covered anything identifiable, obscuring any hope of finding his way. After what seemed much too long circling, he was about to ditch anywhere. Suddenly, next to him was another plane of similar vintage, but with no identifying country’s markings. It appeared that they had been painted out. Being an open cockpit biplane, like his own, as were most fighters of the time, he noticed the other pilot continuously motioning to follow him. Bobby had to make a choice. Follow the seemingly friendly fellow pilot, or run out of gas and crash. The ground was shrouded in fog everywhere. With no compass or turn and bank indicator, he had two options: do it, or die. He decided to do it. After a few moments, the ghost plane was gone but there was his airfield ahead in the clearing fog, with burning oil barrels outlining the field. Bobby landed safely and survived. The ghost pilot however was not visible, nor had the other comrades seen him. With the collecting ground fog, no turn and band indicator, nor a compass, the choice was the right one. But there was no one to thank. The ghost flyer was gone. The unsung hero could not be found, nor his actual existence even believed.
Some people still don’t believe Bobby’s story, but I do. I experienced the same situation in my own plane dealing with ground fog, and I know the feeling even with my turn and bank indicator properly working. That feeling of helplessness must have been what John Kennedy Jr. experienced over the bay at Nantucket when he crashed. I almost crashed in the Chesapeake Bay, just like Kennedy, with my own plane, only to see a break in the fog at the last minute. Only then did I find my bearings for a safe landing. In my case, I was on my way to pick up a priest friend of mine in Baltimore. I made it to the airport safely, and there he was. I was late for arrival and had a hard time convincing him of my experience. I guess I need to thank God. He must have been looking out for the both of us that day. Thanks again God. Amen.