I knew about Muroc Dry Lake because my father had been involved with building a bombing target there in the late 1930s. It was still there. Considering the ongoing rivalry at that time with the admirals in the surface navy, it didn’t surprise me that the target turned out to be a large wooden replica of a battleship.
In 1943, Second Lieutenant Robin Olds received his silver wings and proceeded to operational training. With another batch of West Pointers, he drew the Lockheed P-38, with an assignment to a remote, forlorn place in California. The following is excerpted from Olds’ autobiography completed by his daughter Christina.
Flying and ground school. Then more ground school, flying, and still more flying. The P-38 was incredible. Our days were filled with the wonder of the machines, even though the bulk of them were bent and battered, not even worthy of the distinguished status of “war wearies.” There were D models and E models. There were even some earlier C models. Each was unique, with instruments never in the same location, the throttle, mixture, and rpm controls mixed around on the power quadrant, and switches all over the place.
Each switch had a placard that hinted at a bewildering variety of functions, mostly mysteries to us, and I suspect also to our instructors, as they seldom mentioned them. The differences, however, could sometimes be quite frightening. On takeoff you’d be looking forward, reach to reduce the power and of course, could shut down the engines if inadvertently pulled back too far. At least the oil and engine coolant shutters were automatic and required only an occasional cursory glance to be sure they were functioning.
Accidents were common. One morning we were outside the quarters playing jungle volleyball when two P-38s pitched out above us for landing. The game paused as usual, all pilots being in the habit of mentally criticizing another pilot’s technique. We never knew who he was, but the second of the two rolled into his bank and kept right on rolling until he smashed into the ground not 500 feet away. After the game, I flew my scheduled flight and then joined some others for a truck ride to the other side of the base for lunch. The road crossed the west end of the runway, where we stopped for two birds taking off. One never got airborne. With smoking brakes he sailed right past our noses and out into the desert. There, the nose gear collapsed, the pilot got out, turned, and waved to us that he was all right.
Little did we know that we hadn’t seen anything yet. Coming back from lunch we found two more P-38s nose down, off the same end of the runway. Let’s see, that made four accidents so far. Then on the first flight of the afternoon there were two bailouts. Soon after that, someone tried to land with one engine out and botched it. He went bouncing off the east end of therunway and out onto the dry lakebed. There he stopped with the gear collapsed. Rumor had it he collapsed the gear on purpose, not wanting to face a longer walk back to the squadron. Finding humor in such situations was a macabre sort of pastime.
Toward late afternoon two trainees had a midair collision. Neither survived. Flying for the rest of the day was canceled. Who could blame the instruction staff? Nine accidents in one day were going to be hard to explain to the higher-ups.
The remaining training days were a mixed bag of frustration and joy: frustration because we couldn’t get an assignment to combat, and joy because there was plenty of flying. Every few weeks we were moved to another base. I guess HQ didn’t know what to do with this small batch of precious West Pointers. Finally, someone told us the Pentagon had ruled we would go overseas only as flight commanders. Fat chance of that! Then we heard that 4th Air Force decided future flight commanders in the units forming up could only be volunteers who had done a prior combat tour. What to do? Keep on flying, of course. Get as much time as we could beg, borrow, or steal.
We went from Muroc to Salinas to Monterey Bay. From there we split up. Al Tucker and I were sent to a place called Lomita Flight Strip. The flying was still great. We discovered that the desert north of the San Gabriel Mountains was a wonderful place to buzz, and we got quite good at it.
By December we were promoted to first lieutenants. This brought a pay increase, which was gladly accepted, but I worried that our exalted status would only make going to combat more difficult.
All was well until one day at Glendale Al Tucker and I were hauled into ops and yelled at by the flight commander.
“Olds, you and Tucker are grounded!”
Just like a thunderclap, there it was. Grounded. No more flying. Why, for God’s sake?
The flight commander raged on. “Fourth Air Force found out you’ve been leading flights, teaching the replacements, and wasting valuable P-38 time allocated to this squadron. You cannot even fly the BT-13 anymore since those two knotheads ran into Lake Arrowhead yesterday, so none of you guys get to fly that, either. No flying. Nothing.”
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