What We Can Learn From WWII Flyers About Surviving Ordeals
By Ian Darling
I am not a pilot — in fact I joke with my friends that I keep the skies safe by not flying — but I have learned about aviation ordeals by
interviewing about 50 flyers from World War II who faced life-threatening ordeals and survived.
I first learned about aviation ordeals when I interviewed Tom Lane, my uncle's pilot, after my uncle died in 2002. They flew a Royal Air Force Halifax bomber that a German fighter shot down over the Netherlands.
What Tom said amazed me. My uncle took the time to go up to the cockpit to give Tom the thumbs-up sign before he bailed out. I previously thought every member of the crew would be scrambling to get out of the doomed plane as quickly as possible. In fact, another member of Tom's crew who was ready to leave the plane went up to the cockpit to help Tom release his harness when he heard on the intercom that Tom couldn't get out.
Virtually every veteran I interviewed told me something similar about their ordeal. In one story in my forthcoming book about American veterans, I wrote about a B-17 called Miss Irish that continued flying with a 6-foot by 12-foot hole in its fuselage. Despite the hole, no one panicked, and the crew voted to land the plane at the closest airport rather than bail out. The pilot calmly relied on "war-time democracy."
In another case, an out-of-control German fighter slashed through a B-17 called the All American, almost splitting it in two. The pilot just kept flying back to his base.
I heard of only one exception to this theme, but, ironically, it virtually proves my point. I interviewed George McGovern, the Democratic party's presidential candidate in 1972, about his experience as the pilot of a B-24 that was damaged on a flight from Italy to Pilsen in what is now the Czech Republic. Mr. McGovern told me that 110 bullets hit his aircraft during the flight and that some members of the crew started shouting on the intercom. McGovern didn't want anyone to panic, so he spoke to the crew. "Take it easy. Take it easy," he said. "We're going to be okay." That's all he had to say and the crew immediately became calm.
I'm not a psychologist, but I think aviators during the war might have had an easier time dealing with ordeals than civilian pilots today because they expected to fly into difficult situations. For understandable reasons, they probably felt more relieved to have survived than worried about what might have happened.
Based on my interviews with WWII aviators, I think private pilots would benefit by taking a minute or two every time they get into a cockpit to think about a potential problem: a piece of metal coming off, the fuel tank leaking or a propeller stalling. This conscious effort to think about an ordeal, even if only briefly, is similar to what the veterans did either consciously or unconsciously because they knew the odds were high that they would fly into trouble. They were mentally prepared for an ordeal every time they got into a cockpit, even though they didn't know exactly what problem they would face. This type of mental preparation seems to help the brain to function well even if the crisis is one the pilot had not previously considered.
— Ian Darling is a Canadian journalist and author. He wrote Amazing Airmen: Canadian Flyers in the Second World War, published by Dundurn Press of Toronto, and he is writing an American book that he expects will be published close to the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 2016.