In this issue:

Columns

Air to Ground
Antique Attic
Aviation Lifestyle
Close Calls
Common Cause
Dan Johnson
From the Logbook
Hot Air & Wings
Over the Airwaves
Plane Talk
Sal's Law

Feature Stories:

1910 - A Cosmic Journey
2009 Photo Contest
6 Minutes 13 Seconds
Be Thankful
Buck's White Christmas
The Collings Foundation
Corsair
From Spurs to Supersonic
How Chicken Wings Began
The Golden Knights
One Pilot's Logbook
My Tattoo Tells a Story
No Oil Pressure!!!
Noise: Take Time to Listen
Phil Boyer Interview
Quicksilver: Like No Other
Tattoos Today

Airshow News:

The Great Georgia Airshow
Grand Finale in Pensacola
Rotorfest

Fun Stuff:

Smilin' Jack
Chicken Wings
Tailwind Traveller
$100 Hamburger

 

From Spurs to Supersonic


The Remarkable Career of Lt. Col. Blair Davis

 

As we near the end of the first century of military aviation it is not unusual to read a profile of a pilot whose career spanned amazing changes. Aviation approached WWII in biplanes and came out of it in jets. The pilots whose flying careers encompassed that leap learned to fly in airplanes that traveled at barely 100 mph. Before they were done they had to think ahead of airplanes that flew as fast as sound itself. There is one retired Air Force pilot, though, whose operational career span surpassed even that. It began in the horse cavalry and culminated in the world of the Mach 3 Blackbirds.

The story of Lt. Col. Blair Davis’s military career begins in Columbus, Ohio, during the economic depression of the 1930s when a desire to take his high school sweetheart Naomi (now his wife of 67 years) riding was severely hampered by the fifty cent per hour cost of renting a horse.

Although the experiences of WWI and events then unfolding in Europe and Asia all provided strong evidence that mechanized forces would be the future of warfare, the world still was not quite ready to abandon the horse. It had, after all, been a powerful weapon of war not just for centuries, but for millennia. In the U.S., isolationist sentiment ran high, and there was a natural reluctance on the part of a strapped nation to invest in modernization of its armed forces. Thus, in 1938 there was still an Ohio National Guard Cavalry unit based at the state fairgrounds. When 16-year-old Blair Davis found out they would let him, and his girlfriend, use the horses any time he wanted, provided he joined up and became a cavalryman, he lied about his age, signed up and took the oath.

Two years later Private Blair Davis was working as an apprentice machinist for the Pennsylvania Railroad. As newspapers and newsreels in the U.S. told the unfolding story of the Panzers and Stukas of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg overrunning Europe, and of the modern forces of the Empire of Japan sweeping through Manchuria, the idea of riding into combat on horseback, brandishing a saber, began to seem like a bad idea. Flying seemed to be the future, so Blair asked for a discharge from the cavalry and turned his eyes north toward Canada.

With the declaration of war between Great Britain and Germany the entire British Commonwealth became involved. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was training pilots and sending them off to fight in the Battle of Britain. With the U.S. still officially neutral Blair literally “hung up his spurs” and drove north to take the required tests for entry into the RCAF. He was accepted and given a report date, but fate, in the form of the Columbus police force, intervened. Blair had just dropped off his sweetheart after a date and was driving into town to attend a blueprint reading class, but he had a habit of driving a bit fast. Actually, very fast. A police officer in a patrol car saw him pass and gave chase. He didn’t catch up to him on the road but finally came upon Blair’s car parked at the Pennsylvania R.R. parking lot. Blair hadn’t even known he was being pursued. He was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail for speeding. Having missed his report date because he was locked up, he was unsure about whether he still would be welcome in the pilot training program in the RCAF. While he mulled over his options fate intervened again, this time in the form of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

With the U.S. now at war, a trip to Canada became unnecessary. Enlistment in the U.S. Army Air Corps was the next step in Blair’s military career, but more obstacles had yet to be overcome. During peacetime, the Air Corps required pilots to have college degrees. It soon became apparent that there were not enough “college men” available in the U.S. with the aptitude to become pilots, but the Air Corps was not ready to give up on that requirement entirely. They came up with a program to give new aviation cadets a condensed college curriculum. Blair took a test to determine how much college he would need and soon found himself on a train to Alabama and enrollment in college as an “Aviation Student.”

Seven months later, his “college days” behind him, Blair reported to Parks Air College in Independence, Kansas, to begin training as an aviation cadet. His first trainer was the large, wooden-winged Fairchild PT-19. While most primary training was still being done in biplanes such as the Boeing Stearman, the PT-19 was a low-wing monoplane with a much higher wing loading and faster stalling speed. This made the PT-19, many thought, a more appropriate trainer to lead into the higher performance aircraft that were becoming the operational norm. Next came the 450 hp BT-14, a North American product often confused with its later cousin the ubiquitous AT-6 Texan. Finally, he won his wings and his commission flying the Curtis AT-9, a strange looking tailwheel airplane that sat very tall on long, spindly looking landing gear and had two enormous radial engines. It was used to transition pilots into the most demanding twin-engine warplanes such as the P-38 and the B-26. Its handling qualities were so tricky that it has been suggested that the P-38 should have been used as a trainer for the AT-9. In fact, its handling was considered so demanding that, after the war, the AT-9 trainer was never offered for sale on the surplus civilian market, although frontline fighters and bombers were.

Lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders and wings on his chest, Second Lieutenant Davis’ first operational assignment was to Altus, Oklahoma, to be an instrument instructor in BT-13s. Although he did a lot of flying, he was getting nowhere near the war that was, by then, raging around the world. When an opportunity arose he jumped at the chance for orders to go down to Aloe Army Airfield in Victoria, Texas, and go through fighter gunnery school in the AT-6 and the P-40 Warhawk of Flying Tigers fame. “We went down there and we thought, ‘Hot Dog, we’re gonna get single-engine fighter assignments!’” But the expected orders never came and everyone was sent back to their previous assignments so it was back up to Altus and the BT-13 again. Eventually a need for troop carrier pilots resulted in orders to the C- 47, the GI version of the famous DC-3, at that time still the finest civilian airliner in the world. Finally orders came to ship out for the Pacific.

Throughout Lt. Col. Davis’ flying career he always tried to fly as many different aircraft types as possible. Eventually that would result in him logging time in airplanes as diverse as the B-17, B-25, B-52, P-51, P-40, F-84, F-86, KC-135, CG4A troop carrier glider and many others. In 1945 he was offered the opportunity to go to Floridablanca Field in the Philippines (now a Philippine Air Force Base called Basa Field) and serve as copilot on a ferry flight of a new B-32 Dominator. As always, he jumped at the chance.

The Consolidated B-32, now nearly forgotten, was a long range, high altitude, pressurized bomber built to the same specifications and for the same mission as the B-29, but delays in its production, coupled with the already successful deployment of the Superfortress led to its early cancellation, and only a handful were ever delivered. On that day, however, it was still on active duty, and its size and sophistication impressed young Lt. Davis. “It was enormous, with four engines, a nosewheel that you steered with a little steering wheel and the inboard engines had reversible props to help slow you down after landing.” Compared to the C-47s and C-46s that he was flying on a regular basis it was a marvel of engineering. The date was August 6, and as he lifted off on his one flight in this rare giant another bomber, the famous B-29 Enola Gay, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, was already winging its way to Hiroshima.

When, nearly 60 years later, these two veterans met for lunch in Columbus, Ohio, the events of that day naturally came up. After lunch, as they were saying their goodbyes, Blair asked General Tibbets if he would mind autographing one of his books. The General thought a long time and finally wrote, “To the only pilot I ever met who ever flew a B-32.”

Soon after his flight in the B-32, the war ended and Lt. Davis spent several more months flying in support of the American occupation forces. These missions took him to airfields throughout territories formerly held by the Empire as well as to Japan proper. At one of these fields he found row upon row of captured Japanese aircraft that, in the end, were scrapped on orders from General MacArthur. Everyone had been warned to keep away from them and sentries were posted to enforce this policy, but the opportunity was irresistible. Blair waited until dark, crept in past the American sentries with a screwdriver and a pair of dikes and removed a large panel of switches and a box full of instruments. Packed in a crate, they went home as souvenirs. He kept them until, in 1970, he was visiting with Royal Frey (Lt. Col., USAF RET.), a close friend and former squadron mate who was then the curator of the Air Force Museum at Wright -Patterson AFB. It seems the museum had several WWII Japanese airplanes in its collection but they were all missing instruments. Frey had been trying to complete these aircraft for the museum but due to the very thorough nature of the scrapping of Japanese aircraft that was conducted at the end of the war, no replacements were available. As a museum curator, this was a serious disappointment to him. Blair’s unauthorized “midnight requisition” was revealed, and the instruments were subsequently donated to the museum, much to the consternation of Blair’s son, who as a child had mounted them in an old hot water heater box to create the most realistic spaceship cockpit in the neighborhood. They reside in the Air Force Museum to this day, installed in the aircraft on display.

After the war Blair returned home to his prewar job at the Pennsylvania Railroad, but flying was still in his blood so he approached the commander of an Ohio Air National Guard unit based at Lockbourne AFB. They flew the P-51 Mustang, considered by many to be the ultimate fighter of WWII, but they were reluctant to take him on because they considered him a transport pilot. He persisted and finally wore them down. In 1949 he was signed up with the admonition that, “If you kill yourself we are never hiring another transport pilot!” For his checkout he was given a P-51 manual, told to read the book, to go fly at least ten hours in a T-6 and come back and tell them when he was ready. He was back in four days having flown the ten hours over one long weekend. “I never wanted to fly an airplane so much in my life.” In the months to come Lt. Davis would be the most active pilot in the squadron, logging 265 hours in the P-51.

When America returned to war in Korea, Blair returned to active duty for good. In 1951, when his squadron transitioned to its first jet aircraft, the Republic F-84 Thunderjet, Lt. Davis was the first pilot in his squadron to go to Shaw AFB and make the transition, returning to serve as an instructor. He also was the first pilot in his squadron to get the new hard jet helmet, quite a status symbol when all the rest of his squadron mates had to make do with their old, cloth P-51 helmets. In the Cold War years to follow he served in Manston, England, and Ramstein, Germany, where, in the F-86D interceptor, he helped man the ramparts against Soviet aggression into Western Europe.

Eventually all Air Force pilots have to move out of the cockpit if they are to progress in their careers, so in 1961 now-Major Davis went off to maintenance officer school. When he graduated eight months later he found himself assigned, not back to Air Defense Command (ADC) as expected, but to Strategic Air Command (SAC). When he got to his base it was assumed he would just go across the field to Base Flight and fly the T-33 to maintain his flight proficiency, but Blair had other ideas. He’d logged lots of time in T-33s already, and flying in Base Flight might be fun but it was not really an operational mission. Instead he arranged to get checked out in the four-engine jet KC-135 Tanker. It’s often said that everyone who was alive then remembers where they were when they got the word that President Kennedy had been shot. Blair was airborne in a KC-135 when command post passed the word that they had been put on max alert, a frightening event in those days of Cold War nuclear brinksmanship.

In 1966 Lt. Col. Davis was coming due for a new assignment, and he got a call from a friend who was working in the Pentagon who asked if he would be interested in volunteering for a secret assignment. True to character, he simply volunteered. After being interviewed in Washington by a group of civilians he was transferred to Nellis AFB near Las Vegas, Nevada. On his first day at work he was driven through the desert to a real place whose very existence was then classified top secret. Today it is famous and almost mythical, surrounded by conspiracy theories of crashed UFOs and alien autopsies. At Area 51 they rolled back the hangar doors to reveal what must have been, and in fact remains today, a truly mind boggling sight: the brand new A-12 Blackbird.

The A-12, in case the designation doesn’t ring a bell, was the single-seat Mach 3 spy plane built by Kelly Johnson’s Lockheed Skunk Works for the CIA. It was later expanded to two seats and became the better known Air Force SR-71. (Only a trained eye can tell them apart and, in fact, the “SR-71” that everyone recognizes on the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York is in fact an A-12.) It was Lt. Col. Davis’s responsibility to develop procedures to keep the radical new A-12 flying safely and reliably. While actually assigned there as a maintenance officer, not as a pilot, he saw his chance and seized upon the opportunity to log time in the only A-12 trainer in existence.

In 1972 Lt. Col. Davis finally hung up his spurs again, figuratively this time. Along with the credit for his years flying instrument trainers, transports, fighters, bombers, tankers and a super secret reconnaissance blackbird, Blair was credited with two more years of service. For riding a horse.

 

By Edwin Ruhl