The Good Old Days

||| |---|---| | | | At first glance, I don't even recognize him. Nine years ago, Hank Potter was a vibrant, jolly soul, full of laughter, fire and stories of being Jimmy Doolittle's navigator on the famous B-25 raid of Tokyo in 1942. Today, he and the 11 other "Doolittle Raiders" who were able to make the event marking the 59th anniversary of the raid are a different group. The youngest of them is now 80, and time has taken its toll. Several need wheelchairs, and none of them are moving very fast. How did this happen? I don't feel as if I've aged in the past nine years-how could they have aged so much?

The fire is actually still there, somewhere inside them. Twelve B-25 bombers had flown to the event to give what might be a final homage to the Army Air Corps crews who took on the high-risk challenge of bombing Japan in the dark, early days of World War II. As the bombers' powerful radial engines simultaneously came to life with a smoky, bone-vibrating sound and rumble, the Raiders leapt to their feet with a yell, fists raised in exultation and tears watering in fierce, young-again eyes. For a moment, they were their 22-year-old selves again, taking on adventure and adversity on the deck of a carrier in the windswept Pacific seas.

But if their hearts still hold the fire, their bodies are slowly failing them. When organizers began planning the anniversary event, there were 22 Raiders fit enough to make the party. By the time the event happened, there were only 12. Time waits for no one-not lovers, not children, not even pilots who wish for one more moment with the sun on their wings. And those who took to the air by the thousands in the last great battle for the world are leaving us-1,100 of them every day, according to recent reports.

Like a child watching a dying parent, I want to ask them to linger; to tell me one more story, give me one more insight into the world they knew and the lessons it taught them before they go. But time presses, their transport is taxiing out, and I cannot stop its movement. Soon they will all be gone, leaving only the planes that they flew to remind us of their story. And one day, those planes may be gone from the skies, as well.

Fifty years from now, when there are perhaps only a few B-25s left in the world, will we still fly them? The World War I planes rarely fly anymore. They're too rare; too rickety. We've repaired and rebuilt the WWII planes several times over already, but I can imagine the day when spare engine parts can no longer be found, fuel itself is too hard to come by, or the hazards of losing the last remaining example become simply too high. Perhaps one day a crowd of people will even gather at Oshkosh to watch the last radial engine puff to life on a stand, like they did for the Wright Flyer engine at AirVenture last year. Indeed, our children and grandchildren may very well look upon WWII as an event as ancient and distant as the Civil War is to us, its planes unrecognizable relics from a time too long ago to seem real.

I was aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier when the U.S. Navy launched two B-25s off her deck to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Doolittle raid nine years ago. Not satisfied with the roped off and crowded press area on the deck, I used all my charm and skill to talk my way up to the top of the ship's island superstructure. I actually had the best seat in the house, perched on a narrow catwalk overhanging the deck, until some officer apparently decided that he wasn't comfortable with a female civilian hanging off the hardware five stories up. They made me move back onto the superstructure, but it was still a pretty good seat, even if it was right beneath the ship's steam horn. (And trust me on this one. You haven't lived until you've heard one of those long-distance noisemakers go off in your ear.)

But as I stood there among a small crowd of black-shoed sailors who had gathered to watch these old planes take off from their ship, the crewmen began asking me questions. Why, one sailor wanted to know, were the B-25 crews spending so long running up their engines?

"Well," I answered, "they want to make triple sure everything's running OK. Because if they lose an engine on this takeoff, they're going into the ocean."

"Well, the planes will, but the crews will eject, won't they?" asked another.

I looked at them, a little taken aback at their ignorance.

"World War Two planes didn't have ejection seats," I answered quietly. "If they lose an engine, they're going in the water."

There was a stunned silence for a long moment. Then, from the back of the group, a voice.

"What are they, NUTS?"

Ah. At last, a glimmer of comprehension. And when those two B-25 bombers lumbered noisily down the carrier's short deck and muscled their way into the air unassisted by a catapult (another shock to the sailors witnessing the event), the cheer that arose from the sailors around me said that now, perhaps, they understood a bit more.

But if sailors in the U.S. Navy knew so little about a remarkable Naval and Army Air Corps feat that had occurred only 50 years earlier, what will the sailors of tomorrow know? When the B-25s are silent and the old planes no longer take to the skies, what treasure will we have lost? We will have the stories written and told, of course, passed down like fairy tales of the time when canvas sails ruled the seas and horses explored the west. But the stories will no longer live and breathe with the inimitable smoky, staccato rumble of a 14-cylinder radial engine stuttering to life.

I have watched and helped friends rebuild some of these old planes almost from scratch, breathing new life and flying capability into machines built before any of us were born. But I have a hard time picturing anyone doing the same with retired F-18s down the line. They're too complicated, too expensive and far too computerized. You can't tinker with a fly-by-wire computer system as easily as you can a mechanical actuator, a fact well known by anyone who's tried to tinker with the computerized systems in most of the cars we now drive.

There's no use mourning the changing tides of time, of course. Life moves forward or it stagnates and dies. But we can appreciate the gift of our unique place in the movement of those tides. Pilots today may think we've missed the good old days of flight. But we, too, are in a special time and place. Indeed, pilots may someday look back on us with the same nostalgia that we sometimes feel for those who came before us. For while we may not have flown with the likes of Doolittle and Yeager, we were close enough to touch them and know the planes they flew.

I still consider myself fairly young. But I had the opportunity to interview and fly with famed air racer and aircraft designer Steve Wittman, whose original pilot's license was signed by none other than Orville Wright. I may have missed the original barnstorming days of the 1930s. But I can still hear the rumble of a round engine starting up, and I have felt and known the magic of an old biplane breaking free of the Earth for the song of the sky.

I am lucky. WE are lucky. For when the last biplane leaves the sky, a unique kind of music will have gone out of the world. Perhaps an echo of its song will still linger for a long time to come, since simple designs of wood and fabric can be replicated, even if different engines have to be fitted to the frames. But to have known and flown the originals is a gift not all pilots will have the chance to experience.

"Why is it," a friend of mine once asked, "that we never recognize the good old days when we're in the middle of them?" Indeed. Johnny Livingston and Jimmy Doolittle undoubtedly had their share of fun and adventures. But we are still in a golden time of aviation, where the simple planes are not so very old, where they still breathe and come to life, where they can still open a door for us to a time when the sky was an unexplored mystery and flight itself was young. We are close enough to the beginning of flight that we have met those who blazed the first trails in the sky, and yet we are close enough to the promise of the future that we can navigate by satellite and get weather information datalinked directly into our cockpits.

Time waits for no one, and I cannot slow or stop its movement. Nor perhaps would I, even if I could. All I can do is drink in the moment and be grateful for my own place in the changing dance of time-a place where I can touch the past, savor the present, and envision a future still worth reaching.


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