As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny.
My first flight in the P-47 Thunderbolt never got off the ground, and the second met with both mechanical and human failure—mine. I figured the change in flight schedule meant I was on the chopping block. The skipper wanted to check me out for himself. One of our top aces, Major Johnson had come back from the war to teach us a few things that would keep us from getting killed.
I sat for the mission brief, heart pounding, waiting as the other men got their instructions. The operations clerk chalked each name and aircraft assignment as they were called, and the pilot left for the flight line. For ten minutes, I sat alone in the quiet briefing room.
Maj. Johnson walked in in flying gear. He gave me a few functional directions: our flight call sign, start-engine time, and hand and aircraft signals. I’d fly formation with him; perfect for a flight check. We would take off individually. I was to join up on his wing after we became airborne.
With a hollow feeling that this was going to be my last P-47 flight, I hit the starter, felt the prop wash, and inhaled the metallic engine fumes. We taxied out together and lined up on the runway. Johnson gave the wind up signal to rev engines and started his takeoff roll. I followed after he was 100 feet down the runway then into the sky. He took a gentle turn to the left for me to join up on the outside. I moved into position, taking care to keep exactly 45 degrees off his nose with one wing clearance. Johnson rolled out and climbed to 20,000 feet. He made easy turns as he climbed, banking about 20 degrees. I stuck to him. We leveled out, adjusting the throttle and fuel mixture for the engine rpm and altitude. We hadn’t talked about the actual mission. I didn’t know what to expect.
Johnson took a sudden dive and turn right, then switched left and back to right. At 15,000 feet we leveled. Johnson’s sharp turns away and toward my plane gave me a feel for the Jug’s handling under pressure. I was determined to stick on his wing—he wasn’t going to shake me. I reacted to each tactic as quickly as my reflexes would respond.
He pumped his stick up and down, the signal for me to drop back in trail position. Then he accelerated into climbing turns, called chandelles, barrel rolls, and tight diving turns. Sweat beaded my face and poured down my neck. My flight suit wrung with sweat, and my breathing struggled.
Flying acrobatics in formation takes total concentration: left hand throttle adjustments, both feet working rudder pedals, right arm pulling and twisting the stick to match each maneuver precisely with instant measured pressure. Stay on your leader is the name of the game. It’s a combat simulation … keeping your foe … your leader … on target, in gun range, at all times.
We dropped to 10,000 feet, and Maj. Johnson rocked his wings for me to join back up on his wing. Once I was in position, he went into a long dive pulling up into a chandelle climb, followed by a barrel roll, and ending up five miles off the runway aligned with the entry leg to the landing pattern.
We approached the field normally, turning 360 degrees overhead and dropping into a gap in traffic on the downwind leg. Our final approach, landing, taxiing to the ramp, and parking ended the flight. I leaned into my seat. My drenched arms dropped to my side. On the way to flight ops, I grabbed a Form One maintenance sheet to log a possible magneto problem.
“Good flight, Kenny,” Maj. Johnson said as he pulled off his flying helmet. “You know, you don’t have to fly thatclose.” He winked and pointed his chin toward the Officer’s Club. “Let’s grab a cool one.”
The next Thunderbolt flights built our experience and skills. We did formation flying and high and low altitude navigation, sometimes called legal buzzing. Our low-level flights only got above fifty feet at takeoff and landing. This was tough because there were so few checkpoints. We flew by time and heading, scanning constantly for signs, water towers, or bridges—training I’d put to good use.
I had nearly one hunderd hours in the P-47 by the time we began working with air-to-air cameras. My instructor led our flight of two on takeoff. We were to climb to 20,000 feet and pair off to simulate combat maneuvers.
My engine hummed like a Rolex locomotive as I broke ground, pulled up the landing gear, and banked into a left turn out of traffic. The heavy rhythmic roar stopped without a cough, leaving only the sound of the wind whistling through my dead engine. It was the living nightmare of all single-engine pilots.
I reacted quickly, putting the nose down to hold air under my wings. A slip now was an immediate crash. I estimated I could probably turn up to 30 degrees left or right. My gauge read 150 mph. I had to trade that speed for a little distance.
A cornfield came up to my left, and my heart leaped—two ditches to cross and a road. I dropped my flaps and aimed for the road’s center. At the first ditch, my speed was 140, dropping quickly. I was twenty feet up as I sailed over the road and into the cornfield. I pulled the stick back to touch the tail down first. The nose came up suddenly as my plane settled in softer than I expected. The big Jug bent over cornrows as it skidded. Furiously, I shut down fuel and electrical switches as the plane came to rest, fifty feet short of a gravel road. I unbelted and dove out the cockpit in a single motion. Quick checking for broken bones and cuts, I couldn’t find even a bruise. My luck was holding.
The crash and fire truck crews raced up and circled my plane, checking and nodding as they quickly scanned the aircraft. I later heard that the drive-gear mechanism had broken, a freak accident causing sudden engine stop. My plane was back in the air in six weeks.
Our final training was Advanced Gunnery School at Dover Field. We learned about the focused killing power of eight, 50-caliber machine guns, which could chop a vehicle in two or leave a road lined with enemy soldiers looking like a freshly plowed field. We returned to Seymour Johnson for graduation and a final squadron fly-by and landing.
My spotty introduction to the P-47 Thunderbolt never clouded my feelings for the plane. Pilots fortunate enough to fly her brought back unbelievable tales of power and near indestructibility. The Jug dealt out and took punishment like no other fighter and had a proven facility for bringing pilots back alive. It was as loved by our pilots as it was feared by the Germans.