Saturday, December 08, 2007

Living History

I love airplanes. I enjoy seeing them, reading about them, flying them, visiting a museum full of them, and generally being around them. No matter the shape, size, purpose, or model, I'm a fan. One of these years I'd maybe like to own one, like a sporty Vans RV series (200mph + full aerobatics = wooHOO!) or even something as basic as a Cessna 172. But that's far into the future.

As I train, I'm of course talking to a variety of aircraft on a daily basis. Since the sectors I'm training on are low altitude (surface to 5500') all of the airliners, corporate planes, and jets pass overhead at 6000-10000. The majority of aircraft I work are Navy T-34s and H-47s, plus a few Cessnas and Pipers. We also get the Navajos, the Cirrus, the occasional Columbia, and other GA types that are passing through. I've talked to enough of these that, while not exactly "routine", they've become "regulars" whose patterns you recognize well.

However, every once in a while, I'll talk to an aircraft that'll bring out the airplane fan in me and put a smile on my face.

Two days ago, I was handed a strip for a N18P. He was traveling eastbound and I didn't recognize the aircraft type. "AA5" or something like that. I take the handoff and see that he's cruising at 200+ knots. He checks on, I give him the altimeter, and ask him his aircraft type.

He responds "Grumman FM-2 Wildcat".

A little history lesson: The Wildcat is a WWII aircraft carrier fighter that was featured in every theatre of the war - Pacific, North Atlantic, European, etc.. It was not the fastest, nor the most maneuverable, nor the most heavily armed fighter of the war. Its opponents like the Japanese Zero were much more maneuverable. It is often forgotten in lieu of flashier aircraft like the P-51 Mustang or the P-38 Lightning. Compared to the sleek F-4U Corsair or the massive P-47 Thunderbolt, it's a tubby little barrel of an airplane.

However, it is the quintessential "unsung hero" of the war, especially the war in the Pacific. In the battles of Midway, Coral Sea, Santa Cruz, and others, it protected American dive dombers and torpedo planes as they struck again and again at the Japanese naval fleet. In the Atlantic, it served aboard light escort carriers, conducting patrols and protecting convoys from the ubiquitous German U-boat threat and German airpower. In England, it became the first American-built aircraft in British service to score a combat kill.

The Wildcat had a large list of pros and cons. The Wildcat's hand-cranked, narrow-track landing gear made carrier operations very treacherous. On the other hand, while outperformed by the Zero, it could take far more damage thanks to its construction and self-sealing fuel tanks. Zero pilots could pour hundreds of rounds into a Wildcat and still not bring it down, whereas a few shots into a Zero would cause it to burst into flame. The Wildcat was simply able to bring its pilots home safely. As an example of the overall success of the design, Wildcat variants were produced from 1940 up until the final days of the Pacific war, even after more powerful replacement aircraft such as the F6F Hellcat had been introduced.

I had no other traffic at that point, so I talked with the pilot a few times. "Is that the one with the hand-cranked landing gear?" I could hear him perk up when he realized I knew exactly what he was flying. "Sure is!." I found out he was based at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum located in Texas. "Do you give rides?" I asked, hoping that maybe they'd modified it into a two seater like some P-51 owners had. "Only got one seat," he said, laughing. They apparently perform at air shows around the country. "I'd love to come here [Pensacola] for an air show," he said. "You're welcome anytime." I replied. He sounded like he was having a great time in that war bird. Eventually, I handed him off to Eglin AFB's controllers with a parting "Have a great flight."

It was just cool. I really enjoy history, and definitely appreciate the efforts of those who want to keep history alive. It's one thing to see a photo on the web or words in a book. It's quite another to see the real thing, engine roaring, pilot lifting it into the sky, giving modern audiences a taste of what aviation was like back then. Even when the folks who flew them into battle are gone, at least we'll have their machines to bring those lost stories to life for generations to come.

Some pics of the Wildcat, then and now.

Wildcat taking off from the USS Ranger.
Wildcat formation.

N18P taxiing.
N18P in flight.