YOU ARE HERE: H. P. OLIVER HOME > FEATURES > NIGHT FLIGHT


A FLIGHT TO REMEMBER

On a night flight from Seattle to Los Angeles in a brand new P-51 pursuit plane Captain Jack Collins,
Army Air Corps test pilot, encounters something out of the ordinary . . . way out of the ordinary!

NIGHT FLIGHT
By H. P. Oliver

0800 Hours, 18 June, 1943 – Boeing Field, Seattle

Jack Collins, United States Army Air Corps, Captain, O19894041.  According to the Geneva Convention of 1929, that's all I'm required to say about who I am and what I'm up to.  Those few details, however, make for a pretty short story and this is a tale that deserves telling in full.  Assuming, that is, anybody will believe it.  Frankly, I'm not sure I would believe it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.  So, here's the whole story minus the parts Uncle Sam classifies as secrets.


Boeing Field, Seattle Washington
(Note camouflaged area between runways and water)


It was the morning of 18 June, 1943—a Friday, if it matters—and I was trying to stay dry by standing under an awning attached to an assembly building at the Boeing plant a few miles south of Seattle.  What they assemble in the building and why I happened to be there are a couple of those secrets I mentioned.  About all I can say regarding my job in this man's Army is that I test airplanes—a chore I usually perform a thousand miles to the south at North American Aviation's plant in Inglewood at Mines Field, Los Angeles' municipal airport.


North American Aviation flight line at
Mines Field, Los Angeles


North American is a pretty big outfit, and their most recent claim to fame happened a little more than a year ago on 18 April, 1942, when 16 modified versions of NAA's B-25 "Mitchell" bomber took off from a secret location in the Pacific and bombed Tokyo.  This daring raid was led by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and, as bombing missions go, it didn't do much physical damage, but it was the first US raid on Japan since the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor, and the morale value was terrific.


A North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell
bomber of the type used on Doolittle's raid


I didn't get in on any of that, though. My specialty is pursuit ships, like the P-51B parked about fifty feet from where I was sheltering from the downpour of soggy Seattle sunshine. My "Mustang," as the British dubbed it, was less than a month old, and letting it sit out in the rain seemed like kind of a shabby way to treat a brand new airplane, especially one that hadn't even been painted yet. The ship didn't seem to mind, though. It just sat there looking sleek and mean, even with water running off its bare metal skin in sheets. The Army doesn't believe in pampering its airplanes. What made the B variant of the P-51 special was the engine behind its big four-bladed prop. Previous Mustangs had been equipped with an Allison aircraft engine, and while they performed okay at low altitude, they weren't worth much at high altitudes where they were expected to protect bombers from enemy fighters. Now Mustangs have a Packard-built version of the British Roll-Royce Merlin V-12 engine that did such a swell job in Hurricanes and Spitfires during the "Battle of Britain." With a top speed well over 400 miles-per-hour—how much over is another of Uncle Sam's secrets—P-51s could easily match the performance of German and Japanese fighters. Yup, the P-51B was fast, maneuverable and spoiling for a fight.


The P-51B Mustang--fast, maneuverable
and spoiling for a fight


So was I—spoiling for a fight, that is. Unfortunately, the Army Air Corps in its infinite wisdom decided a guy who could fly the wings off of any pursuit ship they had was of more value finding out how much punishment the planes could take than he would be flying them in combat. The part about flying the wings off of any pursuit ship might be as much brag as fact, but that was how I felt about my test piloting job. In other words, it was for the birds.

Anyway, there I stood staring out at B for Baker and waiting for the storm to pass so I could climb aboard and point her nose south. It wasn't that I couldn't fly in the rain, but there were some pretty tall mountains between Seattle and LA, and without more sophisticated navigation instrumentation than my ship had, there was a fairly good chance of flying smackdab into a chunk of cumulous granite along the way, so I waited.

It was nearly 1800—six o'clock p.m. civilian time—when the dark clouds overhead began breaking up and letting some blue through. I checked in with the meteorological gurus in the terminal building. The consensus was that, though the storm was headed the same way I was headed, the front was disintegrating and wouldn't present much of a problem.

That settled, I filed a standard military flight plan and went out to make a thorough preflight inspection of B for Baker. With the long-range fuel tanks hanging on her wings, she had a range of . . . well, that's another secret, so let's just say I had plenty of fuel to make LA without a stop. Cruising at an easy-going speed of 325 mph the trip would take about three hours and twenty minutes, putting me into Inglewood about 2100 hours—nine p.m. if you haven't figured it out already. That meant I'd be flying most of the trip after the sun set, but I was heading for familiar territory and Mines field had lights . . . a piece of cake.

My landing gear came up at precisely 1842 hours and I pointed B for Baker's nose up and south. Actually, it turned out to be a great evening for flying. Less than two hours in the air put me beyond the highest mountains I would encounter, so I dropped down to 5,000 feet so I could see my landmarks on the ground more clearly. Blackouts were in force all along the west coast and even spotting a city the size of San Francisco when all its lights are off is as difficult for me as it would be for a Jap bomber pilot.

I saw San Francisco, all right, mostly because of a full moon reflecting off the waters of San Francisco Bay to my right. From then on it was just a matter of moseying on down California's central valley until I got to the mountains just north of Los Angeles. At least that's what I was expecting. Further down the valley, around Fresno, the moon disappeared behind some high cloud cover and I was back to trusting in my compass, commonly called dead reckoning, to keep myself on track. That's when I saw it.

Off toward the mountains on my left I noticed the lights of another aircraft. After watching those lights for a few minutes, several things became very apparent. For one thing the other ship was traveling about the same speed as I was. For another thing, we were on converging courses. In other words if one of us didn't turn, we would soon end up trying to occupy the same piece of sky simultaneously. Then I noticed something really odd. The mystery ship's lights were screwy.

Since we were heading more or less in the same direction and he was on my left, I should have been able to see a green navigation light on the wing closest to me, a white running light near the rear of the ship, and if it was a military aircraft, red, green and amber identification lights along the centerline of the fuselage. The closer we got, the more it became apparent this ship had an entirely different set of lights.

About where the wings should have been, there was a row of three bright blue lights. Below those was another row of lights that seemed to blink back and forth between pink and orange. While I was sitting there waiting to see if the other pilot was going to change course and trying to figure out the lighting pattern, the damned thing went straight up, made a ninety degree turn to the right and sailed right over my canopy at a high rate of speed. He cut it so close B for Baker was jarred by his prop wash. That, my friends, was an impossible maneuver for any aircraft. I blinked my eyes a couple of times, wondering if I was seeing things.

Apparently he'd really done what I thought I saw because he now fell in behind me and slightly to my right. Looking back over my shoulder at what I presumed to be the ship's nose, I now saw a fairly bright white light surrounded by half a dozen flashing red lights. What the hell was this thing?

Grabbing my flight chart, I looked up the radio frequency for Hammer joint Army-Navy airfield near Fresno. I was easily within range of their radar, assuming they were so equipped. After taking another look over my shoulder to be sure the other ship was still there, I dialed in the frequency and transmitted, "Hammer Field radio from Army flight two-four-one-niner. Over."

Twenty-four-nineteen was B for Baker's call sign for this flight and Hammer radio's response came in loud and clear. "Army two-four-one-niner from Hammer radio. We have you five-by-five. Over."

"Hammer radio, are you radar-equipped? Over."

"Army two-four-one-niner, affirmative. What is your current position? Over."

"Hammer radio, I should be approximately ten miles south of the field at five thousand feet on a heading of one-six-zero. Over."

Apparently they thought I was asking for a position check because they came back on the radio about five seconds later. "Army two-four-one-niner, we have you on our scope. You are exactly where you think you are. Over."

"Hammer radio, there's another aircraft up here less than a mile behind me and he's making some strange maneuvers. Do you have it on your scope and can you identify it? Over."

It took nearly thirty seconds for Hammer came back with, "Army two-four-one-niner, the only other aircraft we have in the area is a Navy transport eight miles north of us at twenty-thousand feet on a westerly heading. Over."

"Hammer radio, are you absolutely sure about that? Over."

"Army two-four-one-niner, absolutely positive. Whatever you think you are seeing must be an optical illusion. There are no other aircraft in your immediate vicinity. Hammer radio, out."

From the exasperated emphasis he placed on the word "out" I knew that was the end of our conversation. I mumbled, "Thanks, Hammer radio. Army two-four-one-niner out."

I took another look over my shoulder. The mystery ship was still back there, holding position like it was glued to my tail. Either Hammer Field didn't know how to read their damned scope or there was something going on out here I wasn't supposed to know about—maybe some kind of classified experimental ship on a test flight. If that was the case, though, they ought to send fleets of those ships to Europe and the Pacific immediately because whatever that was back there could fly circles around anything else in the air that I knew about. Or could it? If the ship's pilot was game, it might be fun to find out.

Gradually I opened the throttle to gain a little altitude. I was rapidly approaching the mountain ranges north of the Los Angeles basin and I wanted some maneuvering room. As I approached 10,000 feet, I checked behind me again. The mystery ship was still there. I thought, "Good! Now let's see what you guys can really do."

Moving the throttle smoothly, I pushed it to the stop—full military power. B for Baker jumped forward like it was shot from a canon. We were soon in the 400 mile per hour-plus range and I started to turn back for another look at the mystery ship. I didn't have to turn very far. The ship had moved up alongside me and seemed to be pulling ahead.

Then they hit me with a bright spotlight and proceeded to fly circles around me. I was moving at more than 400 miles per hour and that damned ship was literally circling me like I was standing still. Worse, I couldn't see a damned thing because their light killed my night vision.

I turned the instrument post lights up to full bright and tried to concentrate on what I saw there. The rate of climb indicator caught my eye first. It was dropping into the negative . . . way into the negative. I was descending at a rate of more than three thousand feet per minute! I pulled back on the stick hard and absolutely nothing happened. I wasn't positive about my position, but I was pretty sure there were mountains below and coming up fast. That thought had me seriously considering leaving B for Baker to her own devices and bailing out.


"The rate of climb indicator caught my eye
first. It was dropping into the negative
...way into the negative."


Then just as quickly as the descent began, it reversed itself and we were going straight up so fast the vertical climb indicator was off the scale. It felt like twice the ship's maximum rate of climb . . . that would make it something like seven thousand feet per minute! I'd encountered mountain up and down drafts before plenty of times, but they were nothing like this! If whatever was going on didn't stop soon, it would rip my wings off! I yanked the throttle closed, but it had no effect whatsoever.

I was as close to a state of panic as I'd ever been in the cockpit of an airplane when the mystery ship's spotlight went out and my climb stopped abruptly like an elevator reaching the top floor. The altimeter was pointing to 17,500 feet. B for Baker had climbed at least 12,000 feet in practically no time at all!

Lowering the nose I began a slow descent and looked around for the mystery ship. I spotted it directly in front of my nose. I could see the white light surrounded by the flashing red lights again, just as I had when the ship was following me. Either that ship looked the same from both ends or it was flying backwards, which at this point wouldn't have surprised me in the least. I was wondering what the pilot was planning next when the ship bobbed at me—almost like a nod—and shot away at incredible speed. In a matter of seconds it was completely out of sight.

I descended on into Los Angeles and landed at Mines Field without further incident. I was almost disappointed. After parking B for Baker in the North American hanger, I gave her an affectionate pat on the wing. I was pretty sure she and I had just witnessed something few pilots would ever see.


A P-51B in typical olive drab print ready
for delivery to the Army Air Corps


Outside, I leaned against the hanger wall, lit a smoke, and stared up at the sky. Somewhere up there on a planet orbiting around one of those little white stars a pilot was telling his buddies about the grand time he had scaring the living daylights out of some Earthman who'd been flying around in an ancient aircraft with wings and a propeller. I tossed him a casual salute and said, "Thanks for stoppin' by, pal. Drop in again sometime when you're out this way."

THE END




IF YOU ENJOYED NIGHT FLIGHT, IT'S A CINCH YOU'LL LIKE H. P. OLIVER'S NOVELS
CLICK HERE TO SEE WHICH OF HIS BOOKS ARE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright 2015 HPO Productions
All Rights Reserved