Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Soliloquy for Veterans - Part Two - Pilots Going on a Mission (1944)

As mentioned in Part One, my fascination for World War II began when I first read the war time diary my late father-in-law, Howard Fogg, kept during 1943/44. Perhaps only a fellow pilot could truly comprehend the emotions of those young fighter pilots, with their daily lives alternating between, as Howard said, “terror and sheer boredom.” But after reading and transcribing his diary and researching his missions and the War, my husband and I discovered an article written by Howard that captures those emotions.

Here are excerpts from the 1944 article “Pilots Going on a Mission” by Howard Fogg…

“We wake up – resentfully. Still, this isn’t so bad. Yesterday it was 0415. Our first fully conscious act is to check the weather out our windows. Never knew a pilot yet who didn’t do this immediately when he crawled out of the sack. We dress after a quick splash in the wash bowl. Most of us shave before going to bed. Saves precious minutes in the morning.

The usual thoughts run through our minds at breakfast and on the truck to the briefing room. What position am I flying? Is my ship O.K.? Where are we going today? It’s old stuff to many of us. Some have been across 70-odd times. Most of us talk a lot at breakfast and on the truck.

“Gonna get one today…
“Hope it’s a short haul…
“Hope it’s long, I need time…
“Better fly in closer today, Joe…
“Oh, my God, is he leading the Squadron…
“Damn, I forgot my dog tags (this is serious when rushed)…
“Boy, my butt is still sore from yesterday…

Much of the chatter is superficial, forced. We’re trying to wake up, get a clear head. Talking helps.

Then we’re at briefing. We all watch “Stormy” and his weather board. If there's an overcast our first thought is always, how thick is it? Our eyes wander the map, noting the courses, the size of the show, subconsciously figuring on the chances of a fight along our route, how much water we’ll have to cross, and the damn flak!

We're impatient. Top cover 32,000 feet and wing tanks to boot. It’s gonna be rugged. But first we have to catch Chappie’s prayer. A solemn, very sincere moment when most of us realize as much as at any time that this is a serious business we’re engaged in. That moment with Chappie is good.

Unloading from the truck at the pilot’s shack our first thought is of flying equipment. Coveralls, helmet, Mae West, parachute. Next stop is S-2 – a careful checking of all pockets. Some of us leave our rings, bracelets, wallets, letters. Nothing written must go with us. S-2 hands us course cards and maps.

Somebody reminds us that our formation has been lousy and we should ‘stick ‘em in tight.’ We promise this to ourselves. We have an unfortunate attitude of considering ourselves to be above instruction – w’ot the Hell – we’re combat pilots, not OTU students. Among many faults this shows up in nearly every one who’s crossed the Channel. We check the time again. Hell, let’s have another cigarette. They taste lousy, but it’s relaxing. Some of us chew gum – makes your mouth feel better for those uncomfortable hours ahead with an oxygen mask creasing your face and parching your throat. Many grab wads of cotton from Doc. It helps the noise in the ears which can be as disconcerting as anything that happens in an airplane.

Time to go out. No use rushing. Everyone hates tearing out to his ship at the last minute. Never say goodbye – just leave the shack casually. No fuss. Pilots hate any show of sentiment, even a handshake would be fiercely resented at the moment. After all, we’ve been telling ourselves that this is just another job. There’s nothing to worry about. Check the weather. We hand our helmet to the waiting crew chief, look the ship over, noting the position of the tail-wheel.

Five minutes to go. We climb up on the wing and wriggle into the cockpit. First thing, fasten those dinghies to the backtype chutes. The dinghy is already in the cockpit. Next, fasten the Mae West lanyard. Assisted by the crew chief, we squirm and twist into as comfortable a position as possible. It’s important to get set right now. Then the straps can be tightened if necessary.

There follows a routine which no two pilots probably do alike. It includes: clamping the oxygen hose to our harness – putting on our helmet – plugging in radio; connecting and testing our oxygen masks – trimming the crate for take-off; turning on radio, gun heat, often the pitot heat; setting the gyro compass, setting the altimeter; checking the ship’s clock with our watch.

A minute to go. Brakes on? We check them. Flap handle is placed in “up” position. They’ll come up as soon as the engine starts. The crew chief closes the canopy. We lock it. “Chocks are out. Whenever you’re ready,” shouts the crew chief. We look over the switches and instrument panel again mentally rechecking all previous moves. It’s time! “Clear!”

We flick on battery and ignition switches; the fuel boost pump, main gas line. Suddenly the awakened radio makes noises in our headset. We prime the engine, at the same time flicking the starter button. The prop turns over reluctantly, shaking the crate. She spits, dies, we shoot the primer again. She coughs and comes to life in a whirlwind of noise and vibration. Lock the starter switch off, flip the mixture control down. She’s running smoothly now.

Brakes off and we start to taxi out with quick glances at all engine instruments and a check of the flaps. The brakes feel good, but take it easy. They won’t hold long against too heavy a foot. Watch the coolant temperature. At the marshalling point “mags” are checked, blower checked, fuel selector valve handle turned to all positions. The ammeter is read at high RPM. Another final glimpse at the instrument panel. We roll into take-off position. Flick the fuel boost switch to emergency. Push shut the sliding window of the canopy.

We’re ready. No idle thoughts; everything is focused on take-off, getting her in the air, shipshape, and into good formation. We feel confident and at home in the cockpit – it’s our office and we feel the best we have since waking. Throttles go full forward. There’s the roar, the dust, the rough bouncing and jolting. Suddenly we’re in the air. All else has been in preparation for this.

And as we get under way, there begins that peculiar practice common to most fighter pilots alone in their ship – talking aloud to themselves, muttering, humming, raving like maniacs at some trite detail particularly if the going is difficult. Just let the leaders drop their air speed too much and we start swearing. Let the weather be bad, let us get split up, oxygen masks nearly melt with the heat of invective.

We check our altitude and times and courses. Once to the English Coast we begin searching for other planes, the Big Friends, other fighters, and contrails. Heads clear, nerves relax – and the real job begins."


  1. Janet, this is incredible! Thanks so much for sharing it.

    I have great uncles who were pilots during WW2. One didn't come home and so I never met him. This gives me a nice, and rather sad, glimpse into his life.

    Your book looks amazing. I'll definitely check it out.

  2. Hi Janet,
    Paul, next door. I think there is a typo in the text. (Maybe) Generally a pilot checks the pitot heat, not pilot heat. If it was the latter it would probably be cockpit heat. The Pitot is where the air comes in to pressure up the air speed indicator. In fighters, or any plane that has to fly in clouds, icing or on instruments, it is heated, so ice does not clog up the air flow. BAD business if you lose your air speed indicator.


  3. Janet, I so much enjoyed your running diary of your father in law. I, also, am a fascinated student of WWII because I see it as the pivotal event of the 20th century, since it changed everything from colonialism to cultural treatment of women. My WW II story, Mutti's War, was like being a fly on the wall in the enemy camp, stuff we never knew about from a mother of three small children trapped under a dictator...something I hope we never have to deal with. Anyway, I understand your fascination with history, and there are so many good books out there for research. I hope I'll get a chance to find Soliloquy when it comes out. Sounds like my kind of book. Also, I hope you'll post more of the Fogg diary. Margaret Brettschneider (a.k.a. M.J. Brett) (Couldn't figure out what an URL was supposed to look like since the comment said I did it wrong. I'm not really Anonymous, just didn't find any other option to click on...sorry

  4. Thank you so much, everyone, for reading this! And Paul, you could absolutely be right about the pitot versus pilot. I transcribed the article from an extremely hard-to-read and very old copy. Having no background in aviation, I assumed it said pilot.