Last Sunday’s (Aug. 31) Hell Hawks! radio interview on the John Batchelor show, broadcast from Los Angeles, is now posted on my web site and at Batchelor’s podcast page. Col. Dave Harmon tells the story of his miraculous survival from a direct hit on his main fuel tank by a dead German gunner. I added the overall context for this 14-minute story about the Hell Hawks! Thanks to John Batchelor for featuring this important story and gripping new book.
The Hell Hawks (365th Fighter Group) reunited in Ann Arbor from Aug. 7-10. About 15 pilots and ground crewmen attended, and took in the Thunder Over Michigan air show on Aug. 9. This video features the rare sight of four Thunderbolts in formation, producing sounds and images that many of the vets had not seen since 1945. While the Thunderbolts were roaring overhead, I was signing copies of Hell Hawks! and passing them on to some of the Hell Hawks fighter pilots (Bob Hagan, Ed Lopez, and Mike Cannon) who were kind enough to add their signatures.
You can find some great photos from the P-47s’ appearance at Thunder Over Michigan at Bill Scheuerman’s site.
Saturday, Aug. 30, saw Bob Dorr and I signing copies of Hell Hawks! at the National Air & Space Museum’s Udvar Hazy Center. Museum visitors purchased nearly the entire stock on hand — 63 copies went out the door, along with a dozen copies of Sky Walking.
Sunday evening, Aug. 31, saw me on the air with radio talk show host John Batchelor, interviewing me about Hell Hawks! I was joined by Hell Hawk veteran and pilot David N. Harmon, Col. USAF (ret). Col. Harmon flew a combat mission in his P-47, Elsie, on Sept. 19, 1944. His flight bombed a German panzer concentration with deadly effect. Shortly after, near Bitburg, Harmon took on a Wehrmacht flak battery that had downed several American planes. He dove on the guns at 400 mph in a steep, 40-degree dive, hammering the guns with .50-caliber fire from his eight machine guns. A dead German gunner, slumped over the firing bar, kept spitting shells into the air–one hit Harmon square in his Jug’s belly.
The 20mm round exploded in Harmon’s main fuel tank. He felt a tremendous jolt to the plane, and his armored seat pan leapt several inches higher with the impact. Staying low to avoid flak tracers streaking down from a parallel ridge, Harmon kicked in water injection for extra speed. His Pratt & Whitney R2800 engine roared in response, and after five miles on the tree tops, Harmon was able to climb and streak for home. He landed back at base with his plane perforated by flak hits; the P-47 was condemned to the junk heap. But not before his crew chief retrieved the nose fragment of the 20mm shell that burst in the main tank. Full of aviation gas, the tank didn’t contain enough air to support an explosion, and the fluid helped smother the shock of the explosion.
Harmon won the Distinguished Flying Cross (his second) for that action. He still has the 20mm shell tip. He will be 89 years old this fall. He signs his letters: “The Luckiest Man Alive.”
The radio interview is posted at my website: the first item on the “What’s New” page.
The Fall ’08 issue of American Heritage magazine features eight great survival stories. One is my article on the Apollo 13 near-disaster, focusing on the skills that enabled Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise and his crew to survive a crippling oxygen tank explosion and execute a harrowing four-day return from deep space. I interviewed Haise via phone at his home in suburban Houston. He not only survived Apollo 13, but two years later, after sustaining severe burns in an air crash, returned to flying status and in 1977 piloted the shuttle Enterprise to its first test landing. Today, NASA and the nation need leaders and explorers like Haise, Lovell, and Swigert. See my website for an excerpt of the article. The issue is on newstands now.
Welcome to my Flight Notes. I’m former NASA astronaut Tom Jones (www.AstronautTomJones.com). Check here for my latest thoughts on our greatest adventure, the human exploration of the cosmos. Thanks for visiting, and leave a comment or say Hello.