30 May 2011

Master Sgt Red Erwin, One of Many Heroes

In coming up with a suitable blog post for Memorial Day, I had scoured my aviation library for a historical event- given that I've long been interested in military aviation history, there's no shortage of material in that department, believe me. However, I'm currently reading Barrett Tillman's outstanding book Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan 1942-1945 and came across the story of a red-headed Alabaman, Master Sgt. Henry "Red" Erwin. In April 1945, the massive arsenal of democracy that was American industry had already started the systematic destruction of the Japanese war machine the previous month as Boeing B-29 Superfortresses of the XXI Bomber Command based in the Marianas Islands under the command of General Curtis LeMay began to deliver destruction to the cities of Japan. The first fire-bombing raids had already visited untold disaster on Tokyo and other urban areas of the Home Islands. Superfortress attacks on the kamikaze bases on Kyushu had helped ensure victory on Okinawa. And by this month, the XXI Bomber Command finally had enough Superfortresses to wage a round-the-clock strategic bombing campaign on the Japanese homeland. On 12 April 1945 news reached the bases in the Marianas about the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt- for many of the fighting men in the Pacific, Roosevelt was the only leader they had known. But there was war to fight, and every bomb dropped meant getting home sooner. 

Erwin is 2nd from the right, front row, with his B-29 crewmates
On that day, 250 Superfortresses set out in three airborne task forces to attack industrial centers near Tokyo. Half of the force belonged to the 29th Bomb Group and were tasked to hit the Koriyama chemical complex north of Tokyo. Off the coast of Japan, the lead pilot of the Koriyama-bound force was Captain George Simeral flying The City of Los Angeles. His crew excelled at their jobs and earned The City of Los Angeles the lead position of the task force. His crew had been together since June 1944 and had already flown ten missions over Japan. As Simeral neared the coast. he ordered his radioman, Master Sgt. Red Erwin, to drop a phosphorous flare to mark the assembly point for his own squadron. Erwin left his station in the forward compartment, picked up the large flare canister and pulled the arming pin before dropping it as was the standard procedure- only this time the flare prematurely fired and a 1,300-degree Fahrenheit blast hit him in the face, blinding him and instantly burning off his nose and one ear. The forward compartment of the B-29 filled with white smoke and Simeral and his co-pilot quickly lost view of their instruments and the outside world. 
Erwin realized that the hot burning flare could burn through the compartment like a big blowtorch into the bomb bay and set off the bomb load. Griping around the compartment, he somehow managed to find the flare and pick it up. He stumbled his way forward, planning to throw it out the co-pilot's window but found his way obstructed by the navigator's table- the navigator at the time was in the astrodome taking a sighting when the flare fired. As the table could be unlocked and hinged downward, Erwin tucked the hot flare between one arm and his side and managed to fold the table so he could continue his way forward through the compartment. Though blinded, he somehow managed to get to the co-pilot's window, open it, and throw the burning flare overboard. He immediately collapsed on the bomber's throttle console. 

In the short time it took for Red Erwin to throw the flare overboard, the crew had lost control of the B-29 and Simeral managed to regain control with the bomber only 300 feet above the sea as the crew opened every hatch and window possible to vent the forward compartment. Everyone else did what they could to easy Erwin's suffering and Captain Simeral set course for Iwo Jima. The doctors there could do little for him and he was flown to Guam where a fleet hospital was located. General LeMay had been informed of the situation and when doctors advised him that Erwin would likely die from his burns, LeMay was determined to get him the Medal of Honor irrespective of the regulations. 

To understand what happened next, you have to realize that LeMay was already well-known in the USAAF as being very results-oriented. When he was tapped by the head of the USAAF, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, to head the XXI Bomber Command, the B-29 was not performing well as a combat machine, being constantly plagued by rushed training and poor maintenance practices. Arnold wanted results as he was one of the most staunch defenders of the B-29 program and the massive funding it required- not to mention a successful air campaign over Japan strengthened his case for an independent United States Air Force. LeMay was given his orders- and unusually for a combat command, the XXI Bomber Command was run right out of Arnold's office at the Pentagon so theater commanders couldn't appropriate the prized Superfortress for tactical missions. It was LeMay who had to deliver and the way Arnold entrusted LeMay, so did LeMay entrust his subordinates- "Get me the results I want and I won't ask questions." As a result, his subordinates became well-known in the Pacific Theater for circumventing rules and red tape to get their boss results. 

It usually took several months to get a Medal of Honor awarded as it passed via several levels of review. That didn't suit LeMay. His first act was to order an aircraft and its crew to Hawaii to get a Medal of Honor that could be presented to Erwin before he died. The crew took this task to heart and having found one in a display case, were unable to locate who had the keys to open the case. So they broke into the case and returned to Guam with the medal in hand. With the medal secured, LeMay then cabled General Arnold at the Pentagon and insisted that Erwin's award be approved immediately as he was on his deathbed. Luckily for LeMay, Arnold agreed with him and quickly got the orders and citation approved and the papers were on President Harry S Truman's desk in just days. In fact, one of Truman's first acts as President after FDR died was to sign the papers for the awarding of the Medal of Honor to Red Erwin!

Red Erwin's widow with the painting of him at Maxwell AFB
At a hastily arranged ceremony at Erwin's bedside at the fleet hospital in Guam, LeMay presented him with the Medal of Honor six days after the mission took place. The general order that announced the award took three months to be processed and formally announced! But the tough Alabaman surprised everyone by surviving his wounds. Over the next two and a half years he underwent over 40 reconstructive surgeries and managed to regain his vision. Discharged from the now-independent United States Air Force in 1947, he went to work for the Veterans' Administration hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, working closely with burn patients for the next forty years. Master Sgt. Henry "Red" Erwin passed away in 2002 at the age of eighty. 

After his death, the U.S. Air Force established the Red Erwin award for the outstanding enlisted airman of the year in the Air National Guard and Reserves. More recently, the library at the Air University at Maxwell AFB in Alabama was named the Red Erwin Library in his honor with a specially-commissioned painting of him and the B-29 Superfortress. Always the modest man, Erwin told everyone that he didn't wear the Medal of Honor for what he did on that fateful mission in 1945- he wore the medal for everyone who served.

Source: Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945 by Barrett Tillman. Simon and Schuster, 2010, p164-167. Photos: United States Air Force.

12 May 2011

The Fairchild XNQ-1/T-31 Trainer

In USAF markings as the T-31
As the Second World War began to wind down with victory in Europe established and the end of the Pacific War on the horizon, the US Navy set out to issue specifications for a replacement for the basic and primary aircraft trainers that were used during the war (like the PT-19 or the BT-13, PT standing for "Primary Trainer" and BT standing for "Basic Trainer in the Navy lexicon) as well as the North American SNJ/T-6 Texan. These specifications were released to the industry on 26 April 1945 by the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer). Three companies entered designs- Temco entered the T-35 Buckaroo which was adapted from the Globe Swift general aviation aircraft, Beechcraft entered the T-34 Mentor which was a tandem seat adaptation of the Bonanza and Fairchild entered a custom-designed aircraft that had the Navy designation XNQ and the later USAF designation T-31. History, of course, shows that the Beech Mentor won the competition and one of it's strong points was its tricycle undercarriage layout compared to the taildragger layout of both the Buckaroo and the XNQ. For the forward thinking armed services, taildragging aircraft were obsolete. 

Fairchild's chief engineer, Armand Thiebolt, had already established a name for himself having designed a number of training aircraft during the war, from the PT-19 Cornell to the AT-21 Gunner. His work on the XNQ was based on his own experiences and what he felt was a balance between state of the art and simplicity. Registered with a civilian tail number N5726, the first XNQ, built at Fairchild's Hagerstown, Maryland, plant, made its first flight there on 10 February 1947 with Fairchild's chief test pilot, Richard Hansen, at the controls. The 20-minute maiden flight was uneventful and showed only some simple rework of the aileron tabs were necessary. After a series of company test flights, the XNQ was delivered to the US Navy at Anacostia, Washington for formal evaluation. After an initial series of flights in the Washington DC area, the flight test program continued at NAS Patuxent River after which the aircraft returned to Fairchild to prepare it for evaluation by the USAF as the T-31. 

By this point the second aircraft had been completed and both XNQs as T-31s were flown to Randolph AFB outside of San Antonio, Texas, for their formal USAF evaluation in a fly-off with both the Beech and Temco candidates. At the time the USAF also considered the De Havilland Canada DHC-1 Chipmunk as well as the British Boulton Paul Balliol, but both were quickly eliminated from consideration, leaving Fairchild, Beech, and Temco remaining in the USAF evaluation. Like the US Navy, the USAF selected the Beech T-34 Mentor, again, its tricycle landing gear layout being one of its strong points. It was the second rejection of the Fairchild design. The aircraft was passed on to the US Navy where it was flown by student test pilots at the US Navy's Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent River and after a gear up landing that resulted in only minor damage in 1953, the Navy declared the unique aircraft surplus to its needs after it had only amassed just over 1,000 flight hours. 

The wing commander for the National Capital Wing of the Civil Air Patrol arranged to take ownership of the XNQ and in October 1953 the aircraft was repaired at NAS Patuxent River before being flown to a small airfield south of Alexandria, Virginia where it was stationed for the next 2 years, only clocking 12 flight hours in that time period. Part of the problem with the XNQ wasn't its performance or handling, but that its wingspan was just over a foot too wide for the standard 40-foot hangar at the airfield and it ended up spending most of its time outdoors which adversely affected its condition. In 1955 the aircraft was ferried to Rockville, Maryland, but again, was stored outdoors which resulted in further deterioration. When that small airfield was closed, the Fairchild was abandoned in situ. 

In her original US Navy markings
John St. Clair, the operations officer of the Congressional Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, trucked aircraft to his home 8 miles away to try and save it given its unique history. He later assumed formal ownership of the aircraft to keep it from going to the junkyard. Fast forward to 1978, the aircraft is still on the St. Clair farm in rural Maryland and Armand Thiebolt's son visited John St. Clair and asked about purchasing the aircraft, the deal of which fell through. Later, Robert Taylor, the founder of the Antique Airplane Association, asked St. Clair if he would done the XNQ to a museum, which he agreed to and a crew from the association trucked what was left of the aircraft to Waco, Texas with plans of restoring her to flight status. The history of the XNQ took a new turn after its arrival in Waco when general aviation pilot Don Pellegrino and his wife were weathered in at the airport and he found the XNQ in storage in a hangar and approached Taylor about purchasing the aircraft. 

While negotiations proceeded, the aircraft was moved to Oklahoma City in 1982 but still no restoration work had started. At a fly-in in Iowa, Taylor approached Pellegrino and told him "Make me an offer I can't refuse" and with that, Pellegrino become the XNQ's new owner for $800. In September that year Pellegrino trucked the aircraft to his farm in Iowa and began restoration work in earnest. After ten years of working on it in his free time, the XNQ made its second maiden flight on 1 June 1992, the first time the aircraft had flown since 1955! Pellegrino flew the 25 FAA-required hours of flight testing himself and since then he has since moved to Rhome, Texas, just outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth area and has flown the XNQ to airshows around the country. And yes, she still has her same tail number of N5726 after all these years!

Bill Spidle has three pages of detailed photographs of a walk around of the XNQ.

Source: Air Enthusiast, No. 117, May/June 2005. "Their Loss, My Gain: Fairchild's XNQ-1- Twice Rejected for Service" by Gilles Auliard, p78-79. Photos: US Naval Test Pilot School Alumni.