Friday, September 12, 2014


            When Charles Augustus Lindbergh gazed down in the gathering dark on the huge crowd covering Paris’s Le Bourget aerodrome, he wondered if there was even room for him to land the Spirit of St. Louis amid that sea of upturned faces. From that history-making May 1927 evening onward, the young American aviator, nicknamed The Lone Eagle and beloved by an adoring public wherever he went, would never be entirely comfortable in the role of the world’s most famous person. His indifference to public popularity and open dislike for members of the media became even more pronounced after his marriage to a daughter of millionaire business tycoon Dwight Morrow, and especially after the kidnapping of his first son and the media circus it spawned. Lindbergh detested the playboy image others had constructed around his every coming and going. And come and go he did, traveling the world promoting aviation and the industries growing up around it. (As a young lad living in New Jersey within a short distance of the Dwight Morrow estate, the author knew the excitement of waving a “Hello Lindy” greeting as the Stutz  driven by the hero of every young American would drive by.)
            Lindbergh was not appreciated by everyone, and among the latter were the President – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and the entire White House staff. The “Lone Eagle” made no secret of his dislike for what he saw as a little-disguised drift toward socialism in the administration and he spoke loudly and frequently on the subject. Matters became much worse when Lindbergh became associated with the America First Committee in his outspoken opposition to any direct involvement in the unfolding European War, (a position which in 1940 was shared by a large segment of American society.) Because he was a frequent guest of such German WW I aviators as Ernst Udet and Hermann GÓ§ring it was easy for his detractors to label him as “pro-German”. In fact so discredited did he feel at the time that he voluntarily resigned his Colonelcy in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
            After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh wanted desperately to serve his country, but found himself “black-balled” by the Administration at every turn, until Henry Ford, who was not cowed by any politician, asked him to find out why the B-24 Liberator bombers coming off his Willow Run assembly plant were so easily falling prey in battle. Hired as a consultant, “Lindy” ended up relocating gun positions in the plane, completely reshaping Ford’s production line, and saving the great warplane from an early demise thus changing the air war in Europe. Next he was asked by United Aviation (Chance-Vought) to find out why the Corsair fighter plane – mainstay of the navy and marine air war in the pacific – was not performing as expected in combat. This finally led him to the front lines as he quickly learned the art of flying in combat, actually developing dive-bombing techniques which saved American lives while drastically advancing the campaign to isolate the Japanese garrison at Rabaul in New Britain.
            With the political walls now broached, he was next asked by Lockheed Aircraft to find out why Army Air Corps pilots seemed unable to come to grips with the challenge of mastering the highly-touted but difficult to fly twin-engine twin-boomed P-38 Lightning high-altitude fighter in MacArthur’s Western Pacific campaign. Here Lindbergh hit his pace, flying daily combat missions with the 475th Fighter Group whose young pilots at first wondered just how this 45-year-old 1st world war veteran could even keep up with them.
            In the end the civilian Lindbergh not only taught them how to fly the P-38, but soon found himself acting as a squadron commander on many missions (kept secret from the politicians in Washington,) while winning the respect of MacArthur and his front line air commanders for his leadership skills. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the war effort came from his discovery of how to extend the P-38’s range by at least 400 miles by managing manifold pressure and fuel flow in a technique he was then asked to teach to other groups and which made possible fighter protection all the way to Tokyo for U.S. bombers.  It is believed that this one change in tactics did more to save American lives and speed an end to the war in the Pacific than any other single engineering innovation.

The Allison V-1710 turbo-charged engine which powered the P-38 Lightning was the only indigenous U.S.-made V-12 engine of WWII.  70,000 were built.                                                                                                                      Al Cooper Photo

            The most carefully protected “secret” of Charles Lindbergh’s  secret war took place on July 28th, 1944, when his determined efforts to avoid personal air combat came to an end when he was engaged by Captain Saburo Shimada, one of Japan’s most famous fighter aces. Not only did he end his Pacific campaign by flying more than 50 combat missions, but he capped it off by shooting down a Japanese Zero flown by one of the enemy’s most celebrated airmen.
            I only wish I could call back those carefree days of the 1930s so that I could once again shout “Hi Lindy” to that “lone eagle” passing through our town.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


            Throughout the “old” New England where I grew up, as in much of the rest of small-town America, there were two symbolic pieces of architecture you would expect to see in every village, town and hamlet: a white church with a tall steeple reaching heavenward, and an outdoor bandstand at the center of the village green. I use the word symbolic here in the truest sense of the term’s meaning, because at the heart of this column’s import lies a message larger than its more obvious history lesson.
            The people who settled this land we call America carried with them a simple, but highly-personal and firmly-implanted religious faith which anchored them in every pioneering step they undertook, in good times and in bad. At significant expense and great individual sacrifice they usually built a church as their first public structure, and over my years of quiet but thoughtful roaming, I have learned to pause and consider the too-easily-forgotten message intrinsic in every field-stone foundation and hand-hung window frame of these sacred meeting places.  I think of one such structure, now more than 200 years old, whose granite steps carry the unmistakable cupping wear of the thousands and thousands of leather shoes worn by generations of parishioners who have worshipped, been christened, married, and wished a final farewell within its white-washed walls and beneath its meticulously-maintained steeple. I love another in which religious services are held only occasionally now, but whose carefully cleaned and trimmed kerosene lamps still light evening vespers which bring together worshippers from far and wide to sing old hymns accompanied on a hand-pump organ. (The mountain town folk promise it will never be electrified.)
            Almost as important as their faith to early Americans was their appreciation of drama and cultural expression. With access to the great symphony halls and opera houses of the day only a distant dream for most, they capitalized on the talent in their midst, and concerts in the park or on the village green became a key part of village life. In time, most small towns erected a bandstand as artfully-crafted and dutifully-maintained as their churches, usually open on all sides and situated with a 360 degree audience in mind.
            One day, while acting as tour guides for one of our annual New England safaris, we happened – by chance – upon such a gathering assembled on the green sloping lawns fronting Vermont’s capitol dome in Montpelier. We were lucky to find a parking place for our van as hundreds upon hundreds of local citizens arrived from all directions to vie for a place to cast a blanket or lawn chair as band members took their places on a prominent dale. I had cautioned our travel group that we could not stay long without compromising our daily schedule; but that was before the collection of home-grown brass players, fifers, drummers and an age-defiant string section began to play. I was impressed first of all by the unexpected virtuosity of such a random collection of performers, and without a single written score in evidence other than that of the conductor. And then came the recognition of an audience so obviously stirred by the music filling the air that they broke into spontaneous song themselves from time to time, and rose to their feet in an indescribable display of patriotism as the notes of the Star-Spangled Banner capped an hours-long program of surprising diversity. As I wiped the tears from my eyes I noticed that everyone within sight was doing the same thing. And no one, including our tour group was in any hurry to go home.
            In a recent article in Down East magazine, I read with sadness how such “concerts in the park” are disappearing from even the most “traditional” of communities as musicians age, funding dries up, and changes in the dynamics of family life place new limitations on that element we call “time.” And in those historic white-steepled country churches, choir seats go too often unfilled for all the same reasons.

:  Typical of New England’s country churches is this one in which Al & Shirley Cooper were wed nearly 61 years ago.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Al Cooper Photo

Thursday, August 28, 2014


            My country home in Utah’s “Dixie” at an altitude of about 3500 feet, sits atop a low plateau overlooking the flood plain through which the Virgin River cuts its way, against the backdrop of Wire Mesa to our south.  It is a narrow defile, bounded by the stratified rocky walls of Zion Canyon, where bald eagles, red tail hawks and circling black vultures are a common sight. What was not so common was a vision accompanied - not so long ago - by the unmistakable thunder of four turboprop engines approaching from the west announcing a military C-130 Hercules cargo plane flying at an altitude roughly level with my rear deck and not more than 200-300 feet above the valley floor. The U.S. Air Force markings told me that what I was seeing was a “nap-of-the-earth” training mission on one hand, and an amazing low-altitude demonstration of the performance capabilities of one of the world’s most iconic airplanes on another.
            On August 23rd, 1954 Lockheed test pilots Stanley Beltz and Roy Wimmer pushed the throttles forward on the flight deck of the first of two prototype YC-130s – this one bearing serial number 53-3397 -- to take to the air from Lockheed’s Burbank, California runway on what would be a 61 minute flight to  Edwards Air Force Base. For the Lockheed “corporate family” this project was a gigantic gamble, and since signing the contract in 1951, the company had placed a lot of financial “eggs” in one basket. The objective was to produce a cargo plane capable of loading, transporting over great distances and quickly unloading large and heavy cargoes on rough, unfinished and short landing sites with the most economical fuel costs possible. Moreover, it should have the capability to carry and quickly deploy airborne troops and their equipment on short notice and in a wide range of environments. To make all this possible, Lockheed engineers designed a loading gate and hinged ramps at the rear of the fuselage as opposed to the awkward and limited-use front-loading design seen on the Korean War- era C-124 Globemaster, (on which the author made numerous heart-pounding journeys.)
            As I write this column, exactly 60 years have passed since that maiden flight, over which time period more than 2500 “Hercs” have come off the Lockheed-Martin production line (and those of a sub-contractor or two) making it the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history. More than half of those are still flying today under the flags of 70 nations, the most recent versions of which – the C-130J – are fitted with Rolls Royce turbo-shaft engines and composite scimitar propellers producing nearly twice the horse power of its ancestors and with a significantly greater range. The “J” also features a computerized “glass” cockpit, comparable to the state-of-the-art convenience and safety of the best the commercial flying world has to offer.
            Perhaps the most notable feature of the mighty Hercules is its extraordinary versatility. In addition to its military roles, it sees world-wide service in humanitarian relief efforts, Arctic resupply missions and weather reconnaissance in which its exceptional stability in rough flying conditions sees it flying into the heart of hurricanes every year. Increasingly, we see “Hercs” dropping fire retardant as it serves the U.S. Forest Service and Canada Natural Resources in fighting wild fires throughout North America.

The classic lines of the now sixty-year old C-130 Hercules mark it as one of the most                                   recognized four-engine airlift “birds” around the world.  U.S. Air Force Photo

  High on my personal list of reasons for remembering this example of aviation history was the successful rescue of hijacked plane passengers from a remote location in Uganda in July 1976 by 103 courageous Israeli commandos. Flying more than 2400 miles in the process, it was a pair of C-130 “Hercs” that made the Entebbe Raid even possible, rendering a huge blow to terrorism and a tremendous boost to the morale of the infant nation of Israel. And when the U.S. made the final airlift departure from Viet Nam in 1975, it was a C-130 with an unbelievable 452 desperate evacuees clinging to freedom in its cargo bay that left rubber on that sad runway.
            As I compose this “serenade” to a living piece of aviation history at age 60, I notice that it is also - and appropriately- National Aviation Day, marking also the birth of Orville Wright in 1871.

The crew of a C-130 gunship (“Specter”) deploy flares during a practice mission.
                                                                                                            U.S. Air Force Photo