Big Boss: You ejected the first bullet by hand, didn’t you? I see what you were trying to do, but testing a technique you’ve only heard about in the middle of battle wasn’t very smart. You were asking to have your gun jam on you. Besides, I don’t think you’re cut out for an automatic in the first place; you tend to twist your elbow a little to absorb the recoil. That’s more of a revolver technique.
I touched the combination lock. I concentrated so hard I felt like I was dead-lifting five hundred pounds. My pulse quickened. A line of sweat trickled down my nose. Finally I felt gears turning. Metal groaned, tumblers clicked, and the bolts popped back. Carefully avoiding the handle, I pried open the door with my fingertips and extracted an unbroken vial of green liquid.
Thalia kissed me on the cheek, which she probably shouldn’t have done while I was holding a tube of deadly poison.
“You are so good,” she said.
Did that make the risk worth it? Yeah, pretty much.
The bigger, more advanced brother of the Wildcat, the Grumman F6F Hellcat was designed to replace the older aircraft and finally give the US an edge over the Japanese Zero. In this regard it performed exceptionally, destroying 5,223 aircraft during its service with the USN, USMC, and Fleet Air Arm; this was more than any other Allied naval aircraft, with a kill/loss ratio of 19:1. Over the course of the war almost 2400 aircraft were lost to all causes, 270 to aerial combat and over 1200 to accidents outside of combat.
The Hellcat competed against the F4U for the Navy’s contract of a new carrier-born fighter to replace the Wildcat. Both aircraft were built around the P&W R-2800 engine, the same as the P-47, which provided a whopping 2000 horsepower. While the F4U showed excellent promise it had issues with carrier landings, largely due to its long nose and landing gear legs, which left the Hellcat the winner of the contest; production of the F6F-3, the first combat model, began late in 1942, with the type’s first operational squadron equipping VF-9 of USS Essex in February 1943.
As with the Wildcat, and most US fighters during the war, the Hellcat was armed with six .50 caliber M2 machine guns. Some variants, mainly night fighters, replaced the inner .50 caliber gun with a 20mm cannon, giving it more offensive striking power. Hardpoints under the center wing section could carry up to 4000 lbs of ordinance, including 150 gallon fuel tanks, bombs, a torpedo, or HVAR rockets; this gave the Hellcat a potent ground attack capability, and the type dropped 6500 tons of bombs over the course of the war.
The Hellcat became the premier Navy fighter of the war, claiming fifty-six percent of all air-to-air victories for Navy and Marine units. Its combination of long range, maneuverability, armor, and armament allowed it to gain an edge over most Japanese types fielded during the war; a 13:1 against the A6M, 9.5:1 against the Ki-84, and 3.7:1 against the J2M. Most of the Navy’s aces were made in the Hellcat, including its top ace David McCampbell with 34 victories.
The US Navy, Marine Corps, and Fleet Air Arm all used the Hellcat through the war, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. In most cases the type was retired immediately after the end of hostilities, with the F8F Bearcat for the USN, and various British aircraft for the FAA. Some Hellcats were used by the French navy postwar in Indochina, and several examples were used by Uruguay until 1960. Today a fair number of Hellcats remain in museums, including seven in airworthy condition.
One of the most famous and well documented modern day
hauntings was that of the restless spirits of Flight 401. Flight 401 was an
Eastern Air Lines flight that was regularly scheduled to fly from the JFK Airport
in Queens, New York, to Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida. However,
on December 29th, 1972, Flight 401 would go from being a routine
daily flight to one of tragedy.
On this day, the
flight was operated using a four-month old L-1011 jumbo jet. The flights pilot
was Captain “Bob” Loft, the First Officer was Albert Stockstill, and the Second
Officer was “Don” Repo. There were 176 passengers on board. When the flight
began nearing its destination, Captain Loft and his crew were carrying out
routine landing procedures when Stockstill noticed that the landing gear
light, which told the crew that the nose
gear was properly locked in the down position, did not light up. After failing
to get the light to illuminate, Loft had the airport give the plane permission
to enter a holding pattern instead of landing right away. While in the holding
pattern, the crew began measures to confirm that the landing gear was indeed
down, and the jet was put on autopilot. At first everything was fine as the
plane reached its assigned altitude of 2,000 feet. However, in the next two
minutes the plane dropped 100ft, flew level for two minutes, and then began to
descend at a pace so gradual that it could not be perceived by the crew. Within
the next minute the plane lost another 250ft, and a few minutes after that
reached only half of what the assigned altitude was supposed to be. At this
point the Captain and crew noticed that something was going wrong with the
altitude. However, it was too late. Ten seconds after this realization the
plane crashed into the Everglades. The Captain and his officers died, along
with 10 flight attendants and 97 of the passengers.
Months later, sections of Flight 401 were recycled to be
used on other aircrafts. Soon after the parts were effectively disseminated
among the fleet, paranormal reports began to surface. Many senior airline
personnel on the planes that contained salvaged parts from Flight 401 began
seeing the deceased captain and his officers. Crew members, flight attendants,
and passengers would often see the silent figure of a “drawn and ill-looking
man” wearing an Eastern Airlines uniform. When approached the man would disappear.
This mysterious entity was identified by several of those who had witnessed his
presence to be non-other than the captain, Bob Loft.
Although Captain Bob Loft would often be unresponsive, there
were several incidents where people had full on conversations with the
apparition. One of these incidents occurred to one of the vice presidents of
the airline who was about to embark on flight to Miami from the JFK airport.
While in the airport, the vice president saw a man in uniform standing near the
terminal entrance. Assuming that this man was the captain of the flight, the VP
began to speak to the him. However, mid conversation he realized that the man
he was speaking to was in fact the deceased Bob Loft. As soon as he had this
realization, the mysterious spirit vanished. Another incident involved two
flight attendants and a flight captain. They were having a conversation with
Bob Loft in the plane’s cockpit when he suddenly vanished. The captain and
flight attendants were so shaken up after the encounter that the flight had to
be canceled before take-off.
Captain Bob Loft was not the only crew member of that fatal
flight to continue hanging around after death. Don Repo was also seen on
numerous occasions. Unlike Bob Loft, Repo was a helpful spirit who seemed to be
looking out for Eastern Airline flights safety. One time, a flight engineer was
carrying out a normal pre-flight inspection when he felt another presence
looming over him. When the engineer turned to see who had joined him, he was
shocked to see that it was Don Repo. Repo reportedly told him “You don’t need
to worry about the pre-flight; I’ve already done it.” He then walked away and
disappeared. At another time, a flight attendant noticed that a flight engineer
was repairing a galley oven. Later on the flight attendant went to thank his
colleague for doing the repair only to find out that the colleague had in fact
not done the repair, and that the repair was still scheduled to be completed.
Interestingly, it was later discovered that the galley oven had been salvaged
from Flight 401.
As reports continued to occur, airline authorities refused
to acknowledge the possibility of ghosts from Flight 401. Instead they
recommended that anyone who had a “paranormal” experience seek some of the free
psychiatric services being offered by the airline. Although the authorities adamantly
refused to discuss anything ghost related, Eastern Airlines began to quietly
remove all of the salvaged parts of Flight 401 from their fleet. Ever since the
parts were removed all sightings have ceased.
On July 4th, 2014, I photographed A-12 #06938, on display at the USS Alabama Museum in Mobile, Alabama. Even though I’ve photographed #06938 numerous times, I always attempt to create fresh, interesting photos. This time, I photographed the two the liquid nitrogen tanks in the nose gear bay, shown in the final photo. The liquid nitrogen was stored in these tanks, converted into gaseous nitrogen, and used to inert the atmosphere in the aircraft’s fuel tanks. This inert nitrogen atmosphere was required, because the fuel heated 350° Fahrenheit inside the tank during flight. At that temperature, an ambient air environment could have caused combustion inside the fuel tank. If the nitrogen environment could not be achieved during flight, there was a danger of combustion inside the fuel tank.
The Blackbird aircraft has what we call “wet wings”, which means that the skin panels of the wings and fuselage double as a fuel tank. There is no bladder inside the aircraft to hold the fuel, and every joint and screw has to be sealed from the inside, to prevent fuel leakage. When the aircraft flew at full speed, Mach 3.2, the compression of the air against the surface of the aircraft would cause serious heating, up to 620° Fahrenheit in some places. This heating would cause the entire length of the aircraft to grow about five inches in flight.
When the aircraft would constantly contract and expand, it would cause the sealant in the fuel tanks to wear out, and fuel leaks would take place. These leaks were monitored by maintenance crews, measuring them in drips per minute (DPM). If the DPM reached its tolerance in a certain area, maintenance crews would go inside the fuel tanks, and reseal the area, which was a nightmarish process.
Nearly every time I photograph a Blackbird in a museum, I hear a museum guest mistakenly saying, “The Blackbird had to refuel mid-air immediately after takeoff, because it leaked so badly.” This is not true. The real reason they refueled after takeoff was, when the Blackbird was fueled on the ground, the atmosphere inside the tank was ambient air. This had to be replaced with gaseous nitrogen before they reached full speed. When the tanker aircraft topped off the Blackbird’s tanks, all of the ambient air would be expelled from the tanks through relief valves. Then, as the aircraft consumed fuel, the space created in the fuel tanks would be replaced with gaseous nitrogen. This created a safe, inert atmosphere in the fuel tanks. If the aircraft, for some reason, could not create this 100% nitrogen atmosphere, the flight could not exceed 2.6 Mach.
It was possible to fully fuel, then defuel the aircraft to a partial load on the ground, before flight, to create this inert nitrogen tank environment, but this was a maintenance nightmare. This procedure was called a “maintenance yo-yo.” When you put the gaseous nitrogen head pressure in the fuel tanks on the ground, it caused excessive leaking, so maintenance always preferred to perform this procedure in the air, after takeoff.