March 7, 2017
A story as told to Hank Boerner
The daily news and tweets got you down? Here’s some light stuff for you. May or may not be fake news. Do Stay Tuned – to Mr. V. the Mysterious Pilot…
by Hank Boerner
Back in the day, when I was a young pilot and aviation journalist, I met Mr-V-the-Mysterious-Pilot.
In this era of fake news (2017), which is the taking of tiny facts and factoids and made up stuff and then weaving distortion around these, and sharing with other babbling idiots on the social media networks…well,. you may or may not believe the story I about to tell you.
This was 50 years ago, when all-things-aviation were the grist of hot news stories, print and broadcast features, many columns (like mine that ran in various print media), and most enjoyable, “hangar-flying.”
That’s when the weather was judged to be too risky to fly and so private and even commercial pilots would gather ’round in the hangar and radio shack and swap tales. Fake news? Maybe. Exaggerated experiences? Par for the course.
In my continuous rounds of large and small airline offices, commercial & private aviation offices, hangars-upon-hangars at airfields-upon-airfields, I met a lot of interesting characters.
Some were world famous: the courageous General Jimmy Doolittle, who led the 1942 raid on Tokyo; Roscoe Turner, the 1930s pilot who flew with a lion cub in the cockpit.
Women who were buddies of disappeared flyer Amelia Earhart; Mrs. Charles Lindbergh (herself a pilot, navigator and great author); astronaut Jim Irwin; the fabulous pilot “Jeeb Halaby, US Navy, former CEO of Pan Am and my partner in aviation business adventures, His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan, who flew me around in his helicopter over the Arabian Peninsula deserts; my flying buddy, Fearless Freddie Feldman, the WOR-Radio ttraffic and news pilot in New York City.
And Victor-the-Mysterious-Pilot. This is his story. Shades of James Turber’s “Walter Mitty” character and his fantasies: Instead of the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the tiny engines of the old bi-wing aircraft, this evening at dusk there was the vrooom, vrooom, vrooooom of the single-engine aluminum craft, running up before take-off at the small, out-of-the-way airfield not far from the city-center.
The usual run of 800 feet down the runway or so to lift off in the Piper Cub was now three times that distance. That’s because Mr.-V’s fuel load was several times that of the normal capacity. (He had installed extra gas tanks where seats were previously bolted down, all around him!)
Later tonight he is flying off the radar and long, long way off, he tells me.
The planned flight will head out to the deep blue waters of the North Atlantic Ocean…and then east/southeast a bit aiming towards Bermuda. Refuel there and then on to the Canary Islands. And then…nearby Lisbon, Antwerp, and then…destination secret.
What is this? The fiftieth flight, I’m told, by Mr. V, flying across the Atlantic, and his last in this single-engine small airplane, he says. Too risky. Not as sure-footed, he explains, as the un-marked vintage bombers he’s been flying to distant civil wars, like the one (going on back then) in Angola, Africa. The long-time Portuguese colonizers were battling “freedom fighters,” who seemed to be battling each other.
Mr. V. had a kind of mittle-European accent, claimed to be British, or at least was born in the”British Isles”; had a patch over one eye; was always clad in a flying suit (sort of fancy with trim) with shiny jodhpur boots — or — sometimes he showed up in a dashing blue blazer with flying insignia.
And that traditional, lovely flying silk scarf. Looking somewhat at times like “Flying Jack” or perhaps Terry-and-the-Pirates (remember those comics strip of your youth?).
This particular 1960s flight was to deliver the new (and very very small) single-engine aircraft made in America to some un-named purchaser in Eastern Europe. Or the Caucuses; or the Middle East…or Turkey….or…who knows where.
And the bombers? Mr. V. said these are surplus World War Two aircraft of the U.S. Army Air Corps and later, the successor US Air Force. Painted over (no insignia). Often decked out in gray or desert camouflage paint with darkened windows. Bomb bays still intact. Radio gear and radar updated. No machine guns (yet) pointing out of the windows.(They could be installed in Africa.)
Now, most trans-Atlantic flights of the day (this was still in the early years of jet airliners) were out of Idlewild / New York International — renamed Kennedy International (“JFK”) after the assassination of the young President of the United States in 1963. There at JFK were located the weather briefing rooms, FAA offices to log your flights, radars, services, and so on. Mr. V’s flights avoided JFK. Too much of a chance for his real mission to be detected.
He preferred little, out-of-the-way strips, preferably with unmarked hangars for flight preparation. That’s where I would usually meet him.
He would pilot neat little Mitchell B-25 light bombers (twin engines, vrooom, vroooom); a B-26 every now and then; a C-46 (cargo version of the ubiquitous DC-3 on the 1940s); an aging DC-4 (four engine, very old airliner with piston engines); a more modern DC-6 four engine airliner…and more, many more types of aircraft civil and military. Cargo craft; seaplanes; passenger craft; bombers; fighter aircraft; private aircraft of all types.
An “amphibian” (capable of land or water landings) was taken to Norway. A small airliner flown out to the west coast of Africa. A light bomber winged its way to Formosa (Taiwan) over Pacific Ocean waters, with many island-hopping stops for fuel. Maybe, just maybe, some of the aircraft being readied for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba. Maybe.
Mr. V. claimed he was raised in the USA, joined the U.S. military after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, and during the war flew “everything” — fighters, bombers, transports. He held the “Air Transport Rating” of the USA — one of the toughest to win as a pilot. He said, anyway.
Who were the clients? These and those. Sometimes they were “airlines,” or ” new aircraft owners in Europe or Latin America” … And others..
Well, to me he always seemed to work in the shadows with periodic appearances in regal gear to swap stories and quietly boast of new adventures. Real? Dunno. Fake news? I don’t think so.
These were mysterious times with mysterious combat going on here and there in the world. The Cold War was on!
His mission often was down-to-earth (at the end of the flight) — supplying unmarked old bombers to un-named folks in both real and fantasized faraway countries. That were at war internally or with neighbors. Or with colonizers. Or maybe getting ready to go to war. Or maybe they were very early terrorists.
One of these old bombers, Mr. V. told me when he was preparing it for that ocean flight (and I did see the real aircraft and sat in cockpit!), was stored for a long time at a secluded airport alongside a large factory in upstate New York where military aircraft were manufactured. A long time ago (remember, this was in the 1960s that I met him in hangar-flying bull sessions). How many were still there? A few. Many. Just enough to satisfy customer demand. Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe they were not really there but somewhere else, like in the Southwest desert.
As I think back: So was Mr-V-the-Mysterious-Pilot “real?” That is, was he “real” in today’s era of fake news? Were his missions real? Dunno.
He shared little “proof” or evidence (beyond me seeing various aircraft about to fly off). And this was long, long before Google searching, when searching out such information would have been difficult. I did not find anything on Mr. V. today in searching. Just the facts here in my notebook.
I enjoyed his tall stories until… One day, there was no more Mr. V. No one seemed to know where he had gone with the un-marked twin engine Mitchell B-25 light bomber with two engines and lots and lots of high-octane fuel — the last flight he prepared to go off to… as far as I know.
Maybe a spark over the deep ocean set off a catastrophe? Maybe he was captured at a jungle landing strip? Crashed into the Pyrenees between Spain and France?
So there you have the story as I remember it, and from my notes of the day. Shades of Walter Mitty in his imaginary yellow WW I biplane…pocketa, pocketa, pocketa…
CAVU to you, Mr-V-the-Mysterious-Pilot. Clear skies and unlimited visibility, where ever you may be today.
And for you dear friends, I hoped you liked his story, and that it took your mind away from the unhinging and lunacy that’s descended on our capital city.