Not long ago, I got the ride of my life when I climbed aboard the very aircraft that my Uncle Herbert Hopp flew to glory in the South Pacific during World War II — the Grumman Avenger Torpedo Bomber! Not only that, but I got to sit in his very seat in the rear-facing gun turret, seen here with its deadly 50-caliber machine gun seemingly poised to engage any pesky Japanese Zeros that might fly too near (one was overhead at the time).
When I went to Paine Airfield to attend “Pacific Theater Day,” an exhibition of warbirds that had flown in the island-hopping campaigns that destroyed the Japanese Imperial Fleet’s stranglehold on the South Pacific, I expected to get my first glimpse of the famous Grumman Avenger in the flesh — well, okay, metal. But I didn’t expect to find a ticket booth offering rides for a fee. I balked at the steep price for about a half a heartbeat — and my pulse was racing. I hadn’t guessed that I would not only see, but fly in the aircraft that’s central to my novel about Uncle Herb’s exploits, heroism, and tragic crash-landing on a jungle island. I slapped my credit card down and soon was bound for the wild blue yonder.
Pilot Micheal Kopp of the Historic Flight Foundation, seen here taxiing for a takeoff with another lucky stiff aboard, has painstakingly restored his aircraft to its original 1945 condition, right down to a five-hundred-pound bomb slung under the wing (the very bomb Herb’s Pilot won the Navy Air Cross for dropping onto the bows of a Japanese destroyer, putting it permanently out of the war). Kopp gives people rides of about 1/2 hour’s duration, which in the event seemed like a blissful eternity to me. He suggested the turret might be little cramped for my long legs and suggested I take a seat in the radioman’s position (as the passenger in the picture is doing). I told him comfort was not a factor. I’d be delighted to shoehorn myself in with my knees up under my chin, just for the experience of being in Herb’s place.
I wasn’t disappointed. Tight though the fit was (Jeez! Imagine bullets flying past you every which way! Talk about claustrophobic!), I had the ride of my life when the huge engine roared and we raced down the runway and lifted off. We circled Paine Field, then flew south along the Puget Sound shoreline until we reached Seattle. There, we flew over the Space Needle as if it were a target and then made our way back to the airfield by way of Lake Washington and Sand Point, where Herb had taken his gunnery training.
The photo above is a frame of a cell-phone video I shot along the way. Note the cross-shaped tail in the center and the ominous 50-cal barrel to my left. I had my hand on the joystick that turns the turret and my finger on the trigger, but gosh! They hadn’t loaded any ammo!
The photo to the right is a bonus shot I got when my cell phone accidentally grabbed a selfie. That expression you see is a man who is gobsmacked, slack-jawed, astonished, and ready to die and go to heaven. And quite a few airmen did just that in this war machine, though their cause was fulfilled through skill, daring, and a bit of luck.
Inevitably, all good things must come to an end. We touched down minutes later and I returned to my mundane existence as a writer of action-adventure stories. But from this day forward, I’ll bet my descriptions of the roar and excitement of military aviation will go up a couple of notches.
Thanks Mike! Thanks Historic Flight Foundation! And thanks Uncle Herb!
What a day!