By Richard Smith, EAA 424498
This piece originally ran in the November 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
On the island of Iwo Jima, June 1, 1945, is known as Black Friday. On that day, 148 P-51 Mustangs departed to escort B-29s to Japan. Unfortunately, they ran into unexpectedly severe weather. Twenty-seven airplanes and 24 pilots were lost that day. It was the most P-51s lost on any day, in any theater, during the war. One of those pilots was my father.
Forty-six years later, I had the opportunity to complete a bucket list item, to fly in a P-51. The airplane, Crazy Horse, was piloted by Doug Schultz. We were able to land in the middle of SUN ’n FUN, which became my first introduction to big aviation events. The location was key to me, as my father’s unit trained in Lakeland for long-range escort missions, plus that’s where I was born. That flight was the catalyst for my decision to learn not only to fly, but also more about my father’s flying career.
Once back home in Texas, I sent Doug a blank logbook so I could claim having my first flight hour in a P-51. I also purchased a Cessna 182 and started to learn to fly. I then began the search for my father’s flight records and information about the 506th Fighter Group, which my father was assigned to. Though most of those Iwo Jima pilots have now gone west, I was able to visit with several of them — in fact, I organized their reunions for more than 15 years. From my father’s records I learned that he went through primary training in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, flying a Fairchild PT-19. While owning a P-51 was way out of my reach, a PT-19 was within my budget. Then I began the search for a Fairchild.
As fate would have it, I have owned and been the caretaker of two PT-19s. Both were made by Fairchild around November 1941 and were just a few serial numbers apart. Both were completely restored by Don Newman in Southern California. The first airplane, N1941N, now lives at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Houston. The second is in my hometown of Austin, Texas.
The current airplane, N48671, had a PT-26 canopy and instrument panel installed back in its early civilian days. It sat derelict in a T-hangar on Flabob Airport in Riverside, California, for more than 30 years. It was then passed on to Don, who restored it to a near original condition. It seems Don likes to work on them more than fly them, so I organized a group of friends to export the PT-19 to Texas.
After a few years, the other partners’ interest had moved in new directions. And my son, Layton, had earned his private pilot certificate. I knew then the time was right to restore the airplane to more accurately represent the one my father had flown. That process would include replacing the canopy, adding windscreens, and changing out the instrument panels. Even though I had a pair of windscreens, the major problem was finding other acceptable parts to complete the renovated look.
I was fortunate to be introduced to Marcus Goetting of Taylor, Texas. Marcus is a master craftsman with aluminum, and he was able to fabricate all the parts needed. Al Ernst of Lockhart, Texas, was able to match up the paint perfectly. While all that sounds simple now, it took almost a year with the help of many friends to complete the total process. A special thanks to Simon Diver for keeping me on track.
I wanted to honor my father with this airplane, but there was a second veteran who deserved to be included. After Jack Hibbits completed his flight training and transitioned to B-24s, he was tasked by the Air Corps to write a book about his experience in pilot training. That book was titled Take ’er Up Alone, Mister! It was published early in 1942. A year or two after I started flying my first PT-19, I read the book. It was important to me because Jack had been through primary and basic training in the same locations as my father. My father was in Class 42-I, and Jack was two months later in Class 42-K. They had both flown in the same trainers, the Fairchild PT-19 and North American BT-14.
I never knew my dad because I was 5 months old when he died. Nevertheless, Jack’s book allowed me to learn about my father’s early adventures in aviation, starting with an airplane I had just used to earn a tailwheel endorsement. When I learned that Jack lived in North Carolina, I established contact. A few years later, when asked to ferry another PT-19 from Pennsylvania back to Texas, I included Jack’s hometown in my flight plan for a personal meeting.
In the early days of the Warbirds in Review program at Oshkosh, I arranged for Jack to tell his story about writing the book. Jack had such a great time that he returned regularly until his death a few years ago. His last year at AirVenture we were able to take him up in the PT-19 more than 70 years after his first flight. Like his generation, he was a terrific gentleman and great friend. With my father’s name on the front cockpit, it seems fitting that Jack’s name be on the rear cockpit of the Fairchild.
Although I have traveled to Oshkosh in a PT-19 eight times, that year was special. The 900 nm trip each way, with five stops and one overnight stay, was better that I expected. I had a friend join me on the adventure, and we even had tailwinds three of the four days, plus we came home with a Judges’ Choice Award from the Warbirds banquet. I think we have completed the challenge of honoring two veterans who were important to me, and all those in the warbird community.