Category Archives: Military History

Heroic Spitfire Legend Dead at 96: Geoffrey Wellum Has Passed Away.

Geoffrey Wellum: Author, Pilot, Example of Gallantry and Courage in The Battle of Britain.

WWII Royal Air Force Squadron Leader, Spitfire pilot and noted author Geoffrey Harris Augustus Wellum, has died. He was 96 years and 11 months old.

Geoffrey Wellum was a revered treasure of British history and a living example of the heroic ideal of the nation. He flew the Supermarine Spitfire during the pivotal Battle of Britain in 1940, when England was at risk of invasion by Germany across the English Channel and under a brutal succession of air attacks from the Luftwaffe.

Wellum’s illustrious career was one of many such stories of remarkable heroism and courage among young British men and women, many well under 20, who were charged with the aerial defense of England in the early years of WWII. As one of few recent remaining survivors of that illustrious era, Wellum has risen to considerable and well deserved adoration, epitomizing the remarkable patriotism and gallantry of all of WWII Great Britain. His flying career during the Battle of Britain received new found notoriety as the RAF recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

=”https://theaviationist.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Vellum_20.jpg”> Geoffrey Wellum, DFC, enjoys a joke with Prince Charles. (Photo: via Facebook)[/capti

Wellum joined the Royal Air Force in 1939 at the age of barely 18. He quickly progressed through flight training, beginning with the rudimentary WWI vintage Tiger Moth biplane basic trainer, to the mono-wing Harvard and then to the state-of-the-art air superiority combat fighter of the era, the iconic Supermarine Spitfire.

Geoffrey Wellum was one of the illustrious pilots of 92 Squadron flying from RAF Croydon and later, during the Battle of Britain, RAF Biggin Hill. Number 92 Squadron was the first British air combat squadron to see action in the Battle of Britain beginning on September 15, 1940. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on August 5, 1941, for gallantry flying against the enemy in combat.

Wellum’s experience in combat over England was horrific and harrowing. In the deadly, ambush style of aerial combat that the RAF employed against the Luftwaffe, Geoffrey Wellum was a deadly adversary for the marauding Germans. He scored one German He-111 bomber shot down and one Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter. He damaged and shared kills or damage on at least three other enemy aircraft.

In 1942, following his harrowing baptism of fire in the Battle of Britain, Geoffrey Wellum went on to become Flight Commander of No. 65 Squadron at RAF Debden in North Essex. In late summer, 1942, Wellum led a contingent of Spitfires launched from the aircraft carrier HMS Furious to serve as reinforcements for an aerial contingent on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. He went on to become a member of the No. 145 Squadron, charged with aerial defense of the island nation.

As a result of his terrifying experiences flying combat at a very young age and in the earliest stages of the war, Geoffrey Wellum contracted post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD while still serving in the RAF. The affliction was referred to as “battle fatigue” in WWII. Wellum remained steadfast in his commitment to King and country despite his wounds. He went on to become a test pilot on the highly successful Hawker Typhoon ground attack aircraft, analogous to the U.S. P-47 Thunderbolt strike aircraft of the same era.

In his later life, Geoffrey Wellum was reflective about his role in the war and his accomplishments over the arc of his lifetime. As an introspective examination and accounting of his life he privately wrote a journal that chronicled his role in WWII, the Battle of Britain and his life. Author James Holland read Wellum’s private diary of his experiences and urged him to publish the lyrical recollections as a book. In 2002, his diary was adapted as a book published as, “First Light: The Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War-Torn Skies Above Britain”. Three publishers, Viking Books, Willey & Sons and Penguin Books have published the popular accounting of his flying career and uniquely human experiences. “First Light” is a critically acclaimed success, widely revered by modern combat pilots serving today and aviation enthusiasts. It currently has a solid five-star rating on Amazon.com with 140 verified customer reviews.

Geoffrey Wellum is also featured in a new 2018 documentary “Spitfire” about the Supermarine Spitfire from Altitude Film that was directed by David Fairhead and produced by Ant Palmer. The documentary features the lilting recollections of Wellum as he recounts the grandeur of flying the Supermarine Spitfire.



Top image: RAF Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum, DFC, during WWII, and later in life. (Photo: BBC)

The Stunning Aerial Cinematography of JET PILOT

More than 65 years after it was filmed, Jet Pilot movie features some of the most spectacular aerial photography in film history.

Jet Pilot is a 1957 film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh. Written and produced by Jules Furthman and presented by Howard Hughes, the movie was filmed in more than eighteen months, from 1949 to 1953 and released, after post-production, 4 years later.

Although Jet Pilot was publicized as showcasing the U.S. Air Force’s latest jets, by the time it was finally released most of the USAF aircraft in the film were obsolescent or obsolete, being supplanted by more modern aircraft.

Jet Pilot movie posters (left: French version).

Hollywood film editor Vashi Nedomansky has recently edited 8 minutes of aerial footage from the film that he’s posted along with a blog article where he provides some background details about the movie. According to Nedomansky, Director of Photography Winton C. Hoch used Eastman Kodak’s brand new color negative 5247 film to capture the stunning aerial vistas. Moreover, Gen. Chuck Yeager anonymously flew most of the aerobatics in the movie that features several interesting aircraft: the Lockheed F-94 Starfire, the Convair B-36B Peacemaker, the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, the North American B-45 Tornado, the F-86A Sabre, the Northrop F-89 Scorpion, the Boeing B-50 as well as the famous Bell X-1 which Chuck Yeager.

Here’s the amazing footage that includes also some interesting barrel rolls and aerobatics around the X-1:

JET PILOT (1957) – Aerial Cinematography from Vashi Nedomansky on Vimeo.

The quality of the video is simply unbelievable if you consider that it was filmed more than 65 years ago!

Skunk Works Celebrates 75th Anniversary of Innovation and Secrecy

Lockheed Advanced Development Program Subverted Normal Channels On The Way to Innovation.

The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the F-104 Starfighter, the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird and the D-21 supersonic drone, the F-117 Stealth Jet, the still secretive SR-72. No one outside of its very opaque walls knows how many projects the secretive Lockheed “Skunk Works” have developed, and how many flops they’ve had. But everyone in defense and aerospace knows the Lockheed Skunk Works broke barriers in innovation and defense acquisition that changed the world and toppled superpowers. It likely continues to do so today, behind a thick veil of secrecy.

Founded in the mid 1940s at the height of WWII when defense acquisitions needed to be fast-tracked to remain ahead of Axis adversaries, especially Germany and their secret weapons program headquartered at Peenemunde, Lockheed’s Skunk Works was tasked with developing ground-breaking aerospace technology and weapons systems.

The Skunk Works’ initial projects vaulted the U.S. into the jet age with the first operational, production jet fighter, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, first flown on January 8, 1944, too late to effectively influence WWII. Following the P-80 and WWII the U.S. defense industry entered an unprecedented period of innovation and breakthroughs as the Cold War with Russia escalated and China emerged as a growing part of the “Red Menace”.

The Skunk Works’ original founder of record is Kelly Johnson. Johnson, the round-faced, blunt-speaking character who seemed to have aerodynamic engineering in his genetic make-up, went on to make aviation history in more ways than can be able to accurately (and publicly) tabulated. Perhaps more so than the engineers of the early NASA space programs, Kelly Johnson made being an engineer cool. Johnson was awarded an unprecedented two Collier Trophies, an annual award presented by the U.S. National Aeronautic Association for the person who made the most significant contribution to aerospace. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Successor to the Skunk Works throne, colleague and later President Ben Rich, said in his book, “Skunk Works” that Kelly Johnson was, “The toughest boss west of the Mississippi, or east of it too, suffered fools for less than seven seconds, and accumulated as many detractors as admirers at the Pentagon and among Air Force commanders.”

Lockheed Skunk Works founder Kelly Johnson (left) and successor Ben Rich (right). (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

While the Skunk Works is most famous for the “black projects” that went on to become famous technology breakthroughs like the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 stealth fighter, what may have been the single largest innovation with the Skunk Works was their ability to, in some cases, subvert the normal convoluted and lethargic acquisition projects the Department of Defense is infamous for.

The Skunk Works developed the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter in complete secrecy for less money and in less time than it took Ford Motor Company to develop its Ford Taurus line of cars. Observers in the former Soviet Union and in the U.S. defense and intelligence community maintain the F-117 and the breakthrough in “stealth”, or low radar observability, was a significant factor in the demise of the Soviet Union since their massive defensive dependence on an integrated air defense system had been rendered largely ineffective by stealth.

The Lockheed Skunk Works revolutionized aerial combat with the introduction of effective low-observable technology or “stealth” as originally demonstrated on the top secret “Have Blue” prototype. (Photos: Lockheed Martin)

Today the Skunk Works continues as a more recognized, less shadowy organization in brand identity but not in projects. Those remain highly classified.

While no one in the public domain knows what the Skunk Works is working on now, the one thing that is certain is they are working on something. A host of projects has been discussed by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed that include hypersonic remotely piloted and manned strike and reconnaissance platforms.

Still flying in operational use today, the Lockheed U-2 long-range, high altitude reconnaissance plane developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works. While every corner of the flight envelope is tricky to fly in the U-2, managing the landing is particularly difficult. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

In 2017 Aviation Week magazine wrote that, “One such technology demonstrator, believed to be an unmanned subscale aircraft, was observed flying into the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 at Palmdale, where Skunk Works is headquartered. The vehicle, which was noted landing in the early hours at an unspecified date in late July, was seen with two T-38 escorts. Lockheed Martin declined to comment directly on the sighting.”

In a rare and stunning reveal in late 2017 at the Society of Aerospace Engineers Exhibition, Lockheed’s Executive Vice President of Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, told media about a new “SR-72 program”: “Although I can’t go into specifics, let us just say the Skunk Works team in Palmdale, California, is doubling down on our commitment to speed.” Carvalho told Aviation Week, “Hypersonics is like stealth. It is a disruptive technology and will enable various platforms to operate at two to three times the speed of the Blackbird… Security classification guidance will only allow us to say the speed is greater than Mach 5.”

Based on their remarkable 75-year history two things we do know about the Skunk Works’ current projects are; they are certainly working on something, and, it will defy our imaginations.

The author’s collection of artifacts from the Lockheed Skunk Works. Lockheed has trademarked the name “Skunk Works” and the attendant skunk logo. (Photos: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

Remembering Three of the Fallen F-105 Thunderchief Heroes of the Vietnam Era

The Remarkable Exploits of Three Thunderchief Pilots Are a Must-Read on Memorial Day.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, part of a long three-day weekend where people in the U.S. reflect on the high cost of freedom and liberty as they remember those who sacrificed their lives for it. While it is a somber holiday it is also a celebration of heroes. Heroes who set the highest bar for selflessness, honor and sacrifice. It is a day when we recalibrate what it means to be an American.

There are a remarkable number of great American stories to be told on Memorial Day. Realistically, far too many to tell in a single day. I find these stories daily in research about military aviation history. Even after years I unearth new names and heroic exploits every week. It is a seemingly endless tablet of remarkable tales etched into the bedrock of freedom’s foundation. And as history arcs forward into the future, the foundation is expanded by more and more heroes.

There is one era that produced images that are particularly iconic to me. Images that shaped my boyhood impression of what it means to be a hero. It was the era of the early U.S. involvement in the air war over Vietnam. In particular, one group of pilots repeatedly shows up in photos of medal winners and in heroic tales. They were the “Thud drivers”, the pilots of the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

The F-105 Thunderchief itself was an ambitious aircraft. It’s journalistically and politically indelicate to write about any historical military aircraft as “bad” or “dangerous”, so we will handle the F-105 and its history over Vietnam objectively and respectfully. Early in its history, during 1961, the F-105 had the lowest rate of accidents of any jet fighter in the history of the Air Force. But by June of 1964 accidents in the F-105 Thunderchief increased remarkably. There were a reported 33.7 accidents per 100,000 flying hours in the F-105 by half way through 1964, a massive increase compared to earlier years.

Republic F-105D-30-RE Thunderchief (SN 62-4234) in flight with a full bomb load of M117 750 lb bombs. Normally drop tanks were carried on the inboard wing pylons. This aircraft was shot down on 24 December 1968 over Laos while being assigned to the Wing Headquarters, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Takhli RTAFB. Major Charles R. “Dick” Brownlee was the pilot of the lead aircraft (s/n 62-4234, call sign “Panda 01”) in a flight of four. The flight was conducting an afternoon strike mission against Route 911, between the Ban Karai Pass and the city of Ban Phaphilang, Khammouane Province, Laos. At 15:47h the aircraft attacked a truck moving along Route 911. 62-4234 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and caught fire. Major Brownlee’s aircraft exploded at roughly the same time he ejected from his aircraft. The next day a rescue attempt of heavily injured or dead Brownlee failed, but a member of the rescue team, CMS Charles D. King, was captured, too. Both men are listed as missing in action. The location was on the northern edge of a large valley and just east of Route 911, approximately 16 km southwest of Ban Thapachon (location 170600N 1055600E).

Especially during this era in the Thunderchief’s history, it was best to stick to observations that acknowledged its curvaceous, needle-nosed fuselage, artfully shaped wings that leave one with the visual impression of speed, and its remarkable performance. Even more so than the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief was what most Americans visualized when they heard the term “Jet Fighter” in the 1960’s.

The Thunderchief looked the part of a supersonic fighter. It did not, however, deliver great survivability during this era. It was not because the Thunderchief was somehow cursed. It may be fairer to suggest its mission was cursed.

It’s also best not to discuss the calamitous employment of the F-105 by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that ended in a fiery aircraft disintegration on May 9, 1964 at an airshow venue in California. That F-105 broke apart after receiving initially undetectable damage earlier in its career while midair refueling. The Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six shows before they switched back to the North American F-100D Super Sabre. The Thunderbird F-105 crash killed USAF Capt. Gene Devlin in aircraft 57-5801.

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin died in an F-105 crash on May 9, 1964. (Photo: USAF and Aerospace Museum of California)

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin’s F-105 crash on May 9, 1964 was the 15th accident in an F-105 in only five months during 1964. But it would get worse. Only four days after Devlin’s crash in California, a Nellis AFB F-105D lost its engine on takeoff and crashed into the Las Vegas suburb of Woodland North. The results were catastrophic. A mother and three children died on the ground where the aircraft crashed. The impact leveled seven houses and destroyed two cars. More homes burned near the crash scene. The pilot did not survive either. Following that horrific run of accidents that culminated in the Woodland North calamity the Air Force grounded all F-105s until a cause for the accidents was determined. A number of problems with the F-105 were subsequently discovered and corrected during inspections and the aircraft were returned to service in time for the escalation of the Vietnam War.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief attempting to dodge an SA-2 missile over North Vietnam. (USAF)

It is fair to acknowledge the Republic F-105 Thunderchief was a plane thrust into a mission that was largely misunderstood, frequently evolving, and very different from what the “Thud” was originally designed for, low-level, supersonic nuclear strike missions. As a result, the “Thud” earned its unfortunate nickname by raining out of the Southeast Asian skies with frightening regularity, often taking with it the lives of America’s finest.

The USAF Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six demonstrations. (Photo: USAF and Ron Rentfrow)

But also in fairness, the F-105 Thunderchief shouldered the majority of the USAF’s burden of bombing heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. In the first five years of the American involvement in the air war over Vietnam, the F-105 Thunderchief flew 70% of all attack missions. Regardless of your assessment of the Thunderchief, the odds were always stacked against it. In all, a staggering 382 Thunderchiefs were lost in Vietnam, nearly half the total number that was built.

Different from the aircraft itself the men who flew the F-105 Thunderchief, like USAF Captain Samuel E. Waters, were absolutely dependable no matter the odds or the mission. Capt. Waters was the type of a man you think of when you picture a jet fighter pilot. Chiseled features, serious countenance, heroic look, stony glare.

A USAF photo F-105D Thunderchief Pilot Capt. Samuel E. Waters. (Photo: USAF)

Unlike his outwardly attractive but structurally dubious aircraft, Capt. Waters had intrinsic mettle. He was a hero. An icon. The worthy subject of statues in town squares or the name of a new high school.

Capt. Samuel E. Waters died 51 years ago on Tuesday December 13, 1966 over the dense jungle region of Ha Tay Province, North Vietnam. It was, according to some records, the first day the U.S. launched airstrikes on the capital city of Hanoi. The 29-year old combat pilot was a member of the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing.

It is already difficult to sort through accurate records about Captain Samuel E. Waters. According to three websites and social media posts, Capt. Waters was flying Republic F-105D Thunderchief #61-0187 the day he died. His target was the Yen Vien railroad yard just ten miles south of the city center outside Hanoi. He had successfully bombed his target and was exiting the area when his aircraft was struck by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM). He managed to nurse his wounded Thunderchief for about 15 miles before it finally succumbed to damage from the missile.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief trailing fire and smoke just after interception by an SA-2 missile on February 14, 1968. The SA-2 did not actually hit an aircraft — the warhead was detonated by a command from the tracking radar or by a proximity fuse in the missle when it neared the target, throwing deadly fragments over a wide area. The pilot, Robert Malcolm Elliot (1929-1968), was killed. His body was not recovered until 1998. (USAF)

What struck me about the photo I found of Capt. Samuel E. Waters was that his image, and the similar images of men, fighter pilots, like him shaped my impression of what a real man truly was. What a hero is. In small suburbs and country towns people talked about these men. Men like Capt. Waters.

Another remarkable hero of the Thunderchief era was Lt. Karl W. Richter. Richter was an Air Force Academy graduate from 1964. He began training to fly fighter aircraft after graduation and subsequently volunteered to go to Vietnam. Richter learned to fly the F-105 Thunderchief at Nellis AFB, Nevada. He immediately volunteered to ferry an F-105 over to Thailand where he knew he would be put in the action. Once he arrived in Thailand he was assigned to the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, a hub of F-105 action over Southeast Asia.

Lt. Richter flew his first F-105 Thunderchief combat mission only four days after arriving in Southeast Asia. He eventually completed 198 combat missions over Vietnam in a number of aircraft including the F-100 Super Sabre and the O-1A Bird Dog light Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. Richter also shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17 on September 21, 1966 using the cannon on his F-105. At only 23 years old and still a First Lieutenant, Richter was the youngest USAF combat pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the Vietnam conflict at the time.

F-105 Thunderbird pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter. (Photo: USAF)

Lt. Karl W. Richter was shot down on July 28th, 1967 at the age of 24. He was leading a bombing attack on a North Vietnamese bridge when he was struck by automatic anti-aircraft fire (AAA). Richter managed to eject from his F-105 and parachuted into rocky terrain where he sustained life-threatening injuries including a broken neck. Although a rescue force was able to retrieve him quickly, Lt. Richter died in the rescue helicopter on his way back to safety.

There are several statues of Lt. Karl Richter at prominent locations around the U.S. commemorating his remarkable courage and career. Perhaps the most significant inscription is on the one displayed at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Below the chiseled figure of F-105 Thunderchief fighter pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter the Biblical inscription of Isaiah 6:8 reads:

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.”

It is not only a fitting inscription for the lives and sacrifices of F-105 Thunderchief pilots like USAF Capt. Gene Devlin, Capt. Samuel E. Waters and Lt. Karl W. Richter, but for every service person we remember on Memorial Day in the U.S. who gave their lives for freedom and security.

Top image: Crews of the F-105D and F-105G Thunderchiefs in Thailand. (USAF)

Rock Band Honors Gary Powers With New Song on U-2 Incident Anniversary

“Powers Down” is a tribute to Francis Gary Powers, the late U-2 pilot recipient of the Intelligence Star, by rock band One Man Mambo.

During the late 50s, with the approval of Pakistani Government, U.S. President D. Eisenhower established a secret intelligence facility in Badaber (Peshawar Airbase), equipped with a runway that allowed U-2 spy planes to perform secret missions over the majority of the Soviet airspace.

On May 1, 1960, fifteen days before the scheduled opening of an East-West summit conference in Paris, pilot Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Badaber on board its “Dragon Lady” Item 360 for a mission over the Soviet Union. The task was to photograph ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles) sites in and around Sverdlovsk and Plesetsk and then, landing at Bodo, Norway.

The flight was hardly a surprise, since Soviet defenses were pre-alerted by the U-2 unit “10-10” piloted by Bob Ericson: some weeks before, he had overflown some of the top secret military installations such as the Semipalatinsk Test Site, the SAM test site, the Tyuratam missile range and the Dolon airbase with its Tu-95 strategic bombers.

According to some Russian sources, just after the U-2 was detected, Lieutenant General of the Air Force Yevgeniy Savitskiy ordered all the air unit commanders on duty “to attack the violator by all alert flights located in the area of foreign plane’s course, and to ram if necessary (see for details: http://www.webslivki.com/u11.html – Russian language only).

Some fighters took off immediately but like the previous alerts, all the attempts to intercept the foreign plane failed. Eventually the U-2 was hit and shot down by the first of three S-75 Dvina surface to air missiles fired by a defense battery.

According to Russian sources, it is interesting to know how Pilot Gary Powers, after successfully bailing out from the plane, was soon captured by the Russians and was found with a modified silver coin which contained a lethal saxitoxin- tipped needle…to be used in case of torture!

After the event, the whole Soviet air defense system was obviously in red code but the lack of coordination brought to a curious incident often hidden by the ordinary tale of facts: the SAM command center was unaware that the foreign plane had been destroyed for more than half so that at least 13 further anti-aircraft missiles were fired, one of them shooting down a MiG-19 and killing his pilot, Sergei Safronov.

The episode became of an outstanding relevance among the international community and represented one of the higher peaks of the face off between the two nuclear superpowers.

On May 1, 2018, 58 years after the incident, One Man Mambo, a rock band founded in 2016, releases a tribute to Francis Gary Powers.

“Gary Powers’ U-2 mission over the mighty Soviet Union has fascinated me since I took U.S. History in high school” said band member Lazar Wall in an email to The Aviationist. “Particularly impressive were the ramming attempts by a Sukhoi fighter jet, and the unfortunate death of a Soviet pilot whose MiG got hit by friendly fire. The Iron Maiden song Aces High, about Spitfires and ME-109s in the Battle of Britain, was definitely an influence on Powers Down. Our band released its first aviation-related song at the end of last year. Flight 2933 is a tribute to the Chapecoense players and staffers from Brazil who perished in a 2016 air accident.”

The song, titled “Powers Down” will be on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services May 10.

Meanwhile, here’s the lyric video of the song, in case you are interested in a quite unusual (at least by our standards) way to honor one of the world’s most famous pilots:

Top image credit: CIA / RIA Novosti

The description of May 1, 1960 incident is taken from our previous article “Airspace Violations – Episode 5” that you are strongly suggested to read for more details.