© Copyright 2023 by Thomas Turman
Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Photographed at the Spitfire 60th Anniversary Airshow, Duxford, 1996. Photo courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.
I’m quiet because Mr. Johnson, a famous airplane designer, and my dad's boss, is doing most of the talking. What excites me most is that Jerry Roland is here. Jerry is a test pilot, who has recently taken to stealing me out of school to do all kinds of wonderful flying adventures in his old Stearman. My dad approves of these excursions, but my mom does not, which is why they are talking softly and hurrying to leave with out waking her up. Mom thinks Jerry is still a kid and becomes very nervous when these three men get together around her only child.
"Hey kid, done any flying lately?" Jerry is asking his usual first question of me. A lot of the time this question means that I would get to go flying and usually I made up some tale of flying the latest plane I’d read about in the material my father brought home. This time, I just shake my head because Mr. Johnson is watching.
We all go out into the cool, dark morning and pile into our '35 Packard. No one is talking as we speed down back roads lit only by the yellow light from the large, round headlights. Jerry and I are in the back with the small black bag he always takes flying. Jerry tousles my hair for the third time, but that doesn't disturb my 8-year-old's constant thought while in Jerry's presence. Take me up with you.
After a while we slow slightly, and, looking up out the side window, I see we’ve reached the Lockheed factory because we are passing beneath the edge of the huge steel net that is suspended over the entire aircraft factory. The net has fake houses and cars and things on top to hide the factory from enemy planes. We pull up to a pair of armed guards where, dad, Mr. Johnson, and Jerry show their identification cards and joke about the new, small employee in the back seat. We are escorted by two more guards in a jeep past the buildings and out to the edge of a concrete apron in front of a large, dark hangar with its tall, steel doors closed.
Dad and Mr. Johnson get out, so I open the back door and get out too. Jerry stays in the back seat staring at the closed doors on the hangar.
"Tommy, you stay close to me or stay in the car. Don't run off," my dad says as we approach a small group of men, "and don't pester Jerry to take you up. He can't do it this time." My heart almost stops.
One of the men in the group, an Army Air Corps officer, turns to the others and says, "You all know Kelly Johnson and Gardner Turman. Well, are you ready Kelly? Lets get on with it."
Kelly Johnson takes a walkie-talkie from one of the guards and speaks softly into it. A low grinding noise comes from the hangar and as we all turn to look, an eerie slit of dull red light that splits the dark hangar as the two doors begin to part.
It takes a few minutes for the doors to open fully and when they stop moving all we can see was one wide, low lump in the middle of the scary red cavity of the hangar.
I know it is an airplane because I’ve studied the aircraft silhouette charts dad has given me, but I didn't recognize this profile. The whole thing is covered with canvas tarpaulins and is attached to a small towing tractor. The tractor engine starts and the lump begin to move out into the darkness. The tractor pulls the lump to within 15 feet of the silent group of men and stops. The two men jump off the tractor and begin carefully removing the canvas covers.
Jerry steps out of the car, now, as the last tarpaulin comes off. He sets his black bag on the long hood of our Packard never taking his eyes off the sleek shape now before him. He opens the bag and takes out his leather gloves, flying helmet, white scarf and a small bottle of what looks like shaving lotion. He puts on the gloves and helmet, wraps the scarf around his neck and takes a drink from the small bottle.
"Jerry?", Mr. Johnson growls sternly.
"Don't worry Kelly, just mouthwash. This thing is a real beauty."
I couldn't take my eyes off the plane either. It is all silver with no markings and perched there it looks like it is already going 200 miles an hour. It is completely different from all the other pursuit fighter planes. It has two engines mounted in the wing on either side of a short bullet shaped cockpit. The engine covering tapers and extends to the rear-ending in twin vertical rudders tied together with a horizontal stabilizer. The whole beautiful bird sits parallel to the ground on three wheels, one in the nose of the cockpit and one under each engine. It’s poised lightly on the concrete like a thin sprinter waiting for the starting gun.
"Dad, what is it?".
He keels down and says, "Its called a P-38-E Lightning. We've been working on it for a couple of years and Jerry is going to try to show the Army Brass that it’s a good plane."
Jerry’s been walking slowly around the plane, looking, touching where he can. Finally, standing at the rear of the cockpit, with his parachute on, he looks over at the Air Corps Brass and says, "Lets go." He climbs up a small ladder, walks the width of the wing and lets himself down into the seat and slides the clear, vault-like canopy over the cockpit.
With the intense group of spectators clustered just off the left wingtip, the left three-blade propeller turns slowly at first, with a repeated short whining noise. The engine roars into action as Jerry begins the same procedure for the right engine. With both engines running at high rpm, my whole body is vibrating with excitement and the pulse of the pistons. The smell of the exhaust is strong and thrilling. Some of the civilian men move back, but I want to go closer. I want to hold onto to the plane; be part of it. I want to fly.
Finally, Jerry gives the thumbs-up signal and lets off the brakes. The graceful plane moves slowly at first then picks up speed and taxies away from us into the morning darkness.
In the prop wash, my dad is yelling over the engine noise, "C'mon, we'll go listen to him on the radio in the jeep. You won't be able to see anything now anyway. It's too dark."
"Flight 1X1 requests clearance for takeoff," scratches out of the big, brown radio speaker from Jerry in the plane.
"1X1 you are cleared for takeoff."
In the distant darkness the engines scream again and the noise accelerates, passes us and disappears upward to our left.
The radio crackles again, "Jesus Kelly, this thing really climbs. What a hot rod."
Mr. Johnson takes the microphone and says, "Take it easy Jerry, just put her through her paces and bring her back."
After a few passes and a little technical talk he requests landing clearance. It had been only 20 minutes but I can't wait to see the P-38 again. I can see the sleek, silver plane better in the dim, pre-dawn light as Jerry brings the Lightning back where we are gathered around the radio.
"Jesus", Jerry says again, as he joins the group, "are the Krauts going to shit their pants when they tangle with these things!
"I would prefer a more scientific report Mr. Roland," says the Air Corps officer. He confers quickly with the Air Corps men and then turns to us.
"Yeah. Sure," and turning to my dad Jerry says, "Gard you ought to see this thing climb." He seems bigger and lighter than before. He's still flying.
"Hey kid, done any flying lately? You think your old man will let you go up in this crate with me? There is a little jump seat behind mine in there."
Then they all talk at once. After much arguing it is finally agreed to let Jerry take me on a couple of taxi runs for brake tests, but no flying. Anything to do with the P-38 was OK with me.
Jerry gets an extra parachute out of the plane, helps me on with it and whispers, "Fix the harness to fit you like I taught you."
To the sharp questioning stare of Mr. Johnson, Jerry says, "He needs something to sit on or he won't be able to see out."
Jerry gives a thumbs up to dad who returns the signal with a smile and I squeeze into the space behind Jerry's seat who then gets in and starts the big engines again. I’m so excited I’m afraid I'll pee, but the smooth roar of the engines so fills my head and body again.
At the end of the taxiway, Jerry wheels the graceful plane around onto the end of the runway and says, "Hold on kid. I'm going to show you what living feels like," and he pushes both throttles forward. The surge of power topples me back into the little storage space and by the time I can raise up enough to look over the Jerry’s shoulder again the airspeed indicator is a 110 mph and we’re leaving the runway into the cool, light grey dawn over the low, quiet houses of Burbank.
Jerry hands me his headphones over his shoulder and says, "Listen to them squawk, but don't say anything.
Kelly Johnson's excited voice immediately squawks, "Jerry what the hell are you doing?", as Jerry snap rolls the P-38 and pulls it into a steep climb. I am excited and frightened, but Jerry has this huge grin frozen to his face.
"20,000 feet in just 8 minutes kid. Nobody else can do that. Now watch this," Jerry shouts.
"You get that plane back down here," someone else shouts in my earphones.
Jerry levels the plane out and puts the nose down into a dive shouting out the airspeed like some kid on a rollercoaster. "200. 250. 320. 410. 460."
We both watched the coast line rush up at us over the smooth silver nose. Jerry levels off, just clearing some palm trees and brings the streaking plane down below the roofs of the hangars of the test field and straight at the Jeep where dad, Mr. Johnson and the other men stand searching straight up in the air for us. When they hear the plane coming, most of the men, suddenly seeing how low and close the plane is, fall to the ground or begin to run. As we pass, I can just recognize my laughing father waving and Mr. Johnson shaking his fist at us.
Back home, after dinner, mom is still not talking to Jerry after she found out what had happened this morning. From my bedroom, I can hear her ask dad if his friend wanted another beer. Mom doesn't seem to be too mad anymore, so I strained to hear the flying stories they are telling.
Then, lying on my back in bed, I fold my pillow into an arched, sliding portion of a cockpit canopy, pull it forward over my head, check my imaginary gages and flaps of my experimental plane. I give the thumbs up sign and go to sleep flying again.