B-26 Marauder 320th Bomb Group

 

Remembrances of the B-Dash-Crash & My Experiences with the 320th
by John (Jack) S. Harpster, 442nd Bomb Squadron

 

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The Only Instrument Flight Check I Ever Failed

 

 
 

 

Anyhow, back to RTU and B-26 training. Another “Shame on you” tale I can now tell is that of my first Instrument Check in a combat aircraft. Being a fighter pilot had always been my dream, so some of the less exciting parts of bomber crew training, like practicing instrument flight, was a bore to me in those days. The B-26 had a cloth hood used in instrument training for the pilot that was rather hard to install. After take off and once safely airborne, you would fight with all the snaps, hooks, and fasteners in an effort to fit it all the way around the pilots position. With the curtain in place, the pilot was completely cut off from any outside visual contact and the copilot was the safety observer. On this day of my instrument check, we took off and shortly thereafter my instructor said, “OK, now put up the hood. I struggled and fought with the durn thing for an eternity and finally he said, “Harpster, - take me home!  Obviously you have not been practicing instruments under the hood as you should have been. When you have learned how to install the xxx xxxx thing and have actually practiced with it, then we will have another try at your instrument check".

We went home and landed and I had failed my first, last, and only instrument flight check that I ever failed. My problem was with the instrument hood rather than the "Gauges” of the B-26. Later on, I did pass the second chance he gave me as attested by the Instrument card shown above.


"Scientific Breakthroughs" in B-26 Training

 

Link Trainers

 

 
 

Link Trainer

At Avon Park they now had Link Trainers that were closely akin to the performance of the B-26. The air speeds were about the same as the ‘26 and now we had to be able to handle decisions a lot faster while still flying in instrument flight conditions. The best glide speed of 140 mph and 2,000 foot per minute rate of climb were an added challenge to the new graduates from pilot training. Another new, and very welcome, addition to the instrument flight routine was that of a radio compass. This was an instrument with a movable needle on it’s face that, after being properly tuned to a radio station, would actually point directly to that particular radio station. What will they think of next? Wow! Modern technology for those days.


The "Bug"

 

 
 

The "Bug"

Another ‘scientific’ breakthrough was the addition of a so-called “Bug” to the Link Trainer equation. This was a small three-wheeled contraption fitted out with an inked stylus that would follow and trace every turn and heading that the student pursued. The Bug was laid out on top of a piece of paper with a map of the area over which we were supposed to be flying and thus could document your flight path very accurately. Upon dismounting from the trainer, there was no argument with the instructor as to what transpired during your period, at least as far as your path over the ground was concerned.

The instructor also had a set of instruments to watch. So the phrase of “Big Daddy is watching you” was a true statement in this exercise. In the above-pictured frame, the Bug was laid on top of a radio range station. These range stations were a primary means of orientation and a let down to final landing in the early WW II days. In fact, we were required to maintain proficiency in this skill well into the jet age.


Radio Range Let Down

 

 
 

Radio Range Let Down

A challenging part of instrument flight was solving a radio range let down. This system was one of the primary means of getting into an airfield during bad weather. I have roughly drawn a portion of a somewhat typical radio range station schematic. In simple terms it was used in this manner: After properly tuning in the station you would hear, depending on your location, an “A” which is a dot-dash in Morse code, or an “N” being a dash dot, or a solid signal which meant that you were right on one leg of the beam. Holding the prescribed heading you would either get a fade or build in volume which told you roughly where the station was.  You would then follow a series of preplanned and published turns, which would bring you directly over the station and the let down to landing, assuming of course you complied with the published criteria. This was a very usable, but rather archaic system that existed long into the jet era. This system, if used properly, would tell you where you were in reference to that radio station, how to best return to it, and more importantly, how to make a low approach and successfully land.

Once again, I digress to tell a “War Story”. Back in the B-47 jet bomber era we had a very fine three star Lt. General and 15th Air Force Commander. When a General Officer flew with the B-47’s, a long standing regulation and requirement was that this high ranking grade level must fly with a B-47 Instructor Pilot in the aircraft. One day the opportunity came to me to fly with one of the old hands and pillars of the Air Force. We were flying home together from a bomb competition in a B-47 with the General in the front seat. We were to land at another base prior to returning to home field. Unfortunately, the normal radio aids for this base such as the Radar and Ground Control Approach systems were out of order and the only thing left was to make an old fashioned, learned long ago in Cadet Days, Radio Range let down and approach to our scheduled landing field. I sat back and in significantly stormy and heavy weather watched the General make a beautiful, story book radio range orientation, let down, and perfect approach to the destination. I guess it’s like riding a bicycle - once learned it’s never forgotten.

There is a sequel to this same mission. After departure from this previous location we next headed for home at March Air Force Base. Our normal point of let down and approach to an instrument landing was over a radio station called Thermal Omni, not far from March Field and under Los Angeles traffic control. Reaching said point we called Los Angeles Approach Control for letdown clearance and landing at March. The Los Angeles weather was absolutely terrible and because of this, and to our dismay, we were told by Los Angeles Approach Control, “Negative on your request to land - expect an hour and thirty minute holding pattern delay prior being cleared for let down”. The General’s comments are not repeatable in this space, but I do recall him saying something else to the effect of “The Hell with that” as he started down on his own, self designed jet penetration. Using radar help from the navigator we successfully dodged between two towering 11,400 and 10,800 foot mountain peaks called Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, broke out of the overcast, and below the soup flew right into the down wind leg at March Field where we landed.

The base operations officer came out to us on the run and told us that Los Angeles Air Traffic control “requested” a word with the pilots as to how they got to March AFB sans Los Angeles Traffic Control’s blessing. Saying “I’ll take care of this”, the General stormed off in his staff car. I guess as Commanding Officer of 15th Air Force, he was able to some how “take care of it”. I never heard another word about it. OK - now back to the good old B-26 days. (Continued)


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