Two Sons and a Twin-Boomed Warbird

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Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the Country Inn and Suites, 6 p.m., July 27th. In the hotel pool, a lone six-year-old blonde boy cavorts under the watchful eye of his father. The dad and I get to talking. He's Greg Brandes, here with his son, John. This is Greg's 35th consecutive Oshkosh; he's been bringing John since he was two. This is, however, the first time in more than three decades that Greg has come without his father, as the senior Brandes has had a stroke two weeks ago. Although doing well and on better medications, he couldn't travel this time, this year.

Thirty-five consecutive trips across the country every summer with your dad; a gift most of us will never know. Now Greg is beginning a string with his son. I ask about what kind of airplane he flies. None, says Greg. I am not a pilot, he adds. He's not in aviation. He is, in fact, a lawyer. A lawyer with a penchant for warbirds. We talk some more and Greg agrees to give me a Cook's tour the next day of the warbirds section of AirVenture.

We assemble the next morning, John eager, Greg a little wistful, I sense, because of the absence of his father. After we visit some AT-6s and admire the B-25 Mitchell, I ask Greg to name his favorite. He thinks for a minute, then says, "To give you a direct answer, I guess I would say the P-38." When asked why he says simply that his father had fought in Guadalcanal and was taken with the P-38; an airplane that he thinks may have helped his dad survive the war.

We spot one nearby. Approaching cautiously, we spy several gawkers and two gentleman of proud bearing sitting in beach chairs under the fuselage. One is the owner, Ron Fagen; the other is Roy Easterwood, a pilot with 50 missions in this type during World War II under his belt. They seemed naturally drawn to each other. John, Greg and I sense a story is waiting under the wing.

As we wait for a knot of admirers to loosen and give us close access, I look up at the drab green twin-boom airplane. I know that the P-38 was used as an escort, a dive bomber, a strafer and for photo reconnaissance, but where and what contribution these airplanes made, I know very little. It is a beautiful Oshkosh day. Greg and I are in no hurry to crowd the others out. There is something to the respectful pace at AirVenture. Usually hurried men (mostly) find a way to slow down and savor. This is one of Oshkosh's greatest contributions to many. Young John, though, has the restless energy of any healthy six-year-old. He's swinging his arms, shifting his weight from one foot to another, circling out under the gear, touching the fuselage. His father keeps close account, occasionally shooing him away from the airplane, telling him to be patient.

Finally, we're up. Fagen and Easterwood point at each other and announce that the other guy is the one we want to talk to. Pilot Easterwood, with his majestic mustache, maintains that the airplane belongs to Ron Fagen and he's just getting out of the sun for a minute. Fagen points to Easterwood and says, "He's the guy. He's the man who flew this bird in combat. I'm just glad to know him."

Called "heavy fighters," the P-38 was the only American fighter aircraft to be in continuous production during the entirety of WWII. Each of the twin booms housed a 1,000-horsepower, 12-cylinder Allison engine with turbo-superchargers. The central nacelle accommodated the pilot and the guns. Apparently, the rigging of the armament was new; most machine guns up until then had a crossing pattern of fire into a "convergence zone." The P-38 didn't, increasing the range at which the guns could be deadly, creating a "buzz saw" effect.

At this moment the malignant intent of the airplane's design is not obvious to us, however. Ron and Roy are clearly enjoying the crowd. Ron proudly boasts that this is the only P-38 with functioning super-turbochargers. Trying not to look too dim, I ask them the difference between turbochargers and superchargers. Neither seems to know, so the crew chief, Mark Tisler, is summoned and provides us with a lengthy answer. It seems the turbocharger uses exhaust gas to spin a compressor that packs more air into the engine, whereas the supercharger is powered off the drive train itself for the same purpose. I think.

After Ron got back from Viet Nam in 1972, he began a lifelong interest in warbirds, their acquisition and their restoration. He's an owner of a P-40, too. Ron acquired the storied P-38 in 1994, when he traded an old Piper Warrior, a Christen Eagle and $1.7M for her. He is reluctant to answer questions about his total investment in the airplane looming above us, but is pretty clear that he still considers it a great deal.

The P-38 saw action in Europe and the Pacific. The nickname "Lightning" was a gift of the British. The airplane saw lots of action during the invasion of Normandy. Its profile was unlike any German airplane, and was thus easily recognized by Allied forces, decreasing the chances of inadvertent friendly fire damage. In North Africa, the P-38s were especially successful against German aircraft. On April 5, 1943, P-38s claimed 31 kills and helped establish air superiority for the Allies. The Germans called her the "Forked-Tailed Devil" thereafter.

** Ron Fagen and Roy Easterwood**

Roy flew 50 missions in Europe in the P-38, he tells us with a self-deprecating shrug. I am beginning to become dimly aware that if he hadn't, I might not be standing here. "I was frequently dinging the airplane," he says. "Usually shrapnel, but sometimes other things. One time I hit the wing when I jettisoned a belly tank." Ron looks on with amused pride. By now a gaggle of Southwest Airline pilots has gathered and we all share in the question asking. "Top speed is 415 an hour," says Roy. "That's miles, not knots. We used mph back then. High-speed cruise was 265, at 30 inches of manifold and 2150 rpm. She burns about a hundred gallons an hour like that." Roy reckons that he's got 1,200 hours in the P-38.

Roy's got us all now. He tells of training in California, living there with his wife and buying a convertible. "If I was going to be in California, I was going to have a convertible. She drove it all the way back to Michigan, after I shipped out, with two other wives. When I got home after the war, she had it all ready for me."

Though 10,000 P-38s were built, Ron says there are only six flying now. The most famous is Glacier Girl, an airplane dug out of several stories worth of ice in Greenland and restored just a few years ago. It was a member of the "Lost Squadron," six P-38s and two B-17s that set out from Presque Isle, Maine, for the United Kingdom in July 1942. On the Greenland-Iceland segment, airframe ice and low ceilings forced them back to Greenland, where they ran low on fuel and ditched on the ice cap. The crews survived and were rescued, but it wasn't until 1992 that the airplane known as Glacier Girl was rescued from 270 feet below the ice. Restored in Kentucky by a wealthy aficionado, the airplane first flew (again) in October 2002.

The P-38 has had other historic encounters. Its long range made it especially useful in the Pacific where the distances to the fight were long. Sixteen P-38s flew 435 miles from Guadalcanal at heights just 15 feet off the Pacific Ocean to intercept a flock of Japanese airplanes carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the man in charge of Japanese naval strategy in the Pacific. Japanese searchers found his body the next day.

And then there is this famous P-38 loss: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared on a flight from Corsica to France on July 31, 1944. The story isn't clear, as a German airman claimed in March 2008 that he had shot the famous author down; others claim that Saint-Exupéry had been depressed and committed suicide. A French scuba diver identified a P-38 near the crash site in 2000. It was confirmed to be Saint E's and there was no evidence of hostile fire.

Why a P-38? We ask Ron. "My Dad was in the 4th infantry. He was pinned down in Normandy. Three P-38s strafed the enemy. He survived. I grew up understanding the importance of the P-38." Greg and I look at each other. Under a wing in Wisconsin two sons are brought together by chance to find that their fathers' stories have a common thread: Both feel that this airplane under which we sit in freedom saved their fathers' lives. Both sons have flocked here repeatedly, year after year, honoring the role of this airplane in our national and their personal histories.

There is silence. Everybody gets it. Roy breaks the silence with a story. "The damn crew chief used to chew me out. 'You keep bringing this airplane back with all kinds of troubles. Holes in the wings, cracked windshields and so on. Dammit Easterbrook.' To which I would say: 'Yeah, but I brought it back.' " He smiled. We dispersed. There was nothing left to say.