“Their Finest Hour”

As I permanently changed stations (PCS’d) to England, I was met by an old RF-4C Phantom friend who had transitioned into the F-15 a few years before me. “Spike” as we called him had successfully leaped missions as well as aircraft. He was my sponsor and eventually qualified as an instructor pilot in his first tour with the F-15, which was a significant achievement coming from Reconnaissance. Spike later left active duty to fly F-15s in the Air National Guard.

Because of my multiple pit stops along the way, I was an “older” Captain when I arrived at the 493 FS “Grim Reapers;” and without any F-15 experience, so I had to “begin again”. The mission of the F-15C was to protect other aircraft and our combat forces from air attacks from the enemy. It is a mission in which we have been so successful, no soldier since Korea has died at the hands of an enemy fighter. So successful, that in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Iraqi forces buried their aircraft rather than launch them against our pilots… In later strategic education, the instructors would emphasize that Air Superiority (which extends to Space) is the first and most essential requirement for successful military operations. As you can imagine, if your can choose when and where you want to attack your enemy and your enemy cannot attack you from the air, it is a great advantage. To close, often in Afghanistan and Iraq, ground troops would call for a show of force. And rather than actually drop bombs, our fighters would make multiple low and loud fly-bys, often dispersing the enemy without having to physically engage them.

Back at Lakenheath, as an older captain, I had to learn this completely new mission. Luckily, having taught fighter fundamentals in the AT-38, I had a strong theoretical knowledge of flying fighter combat. I had just learned it without the maneuvering capability or advanced radar of the F-15.

So, of course, being the newest pilot to the “party” I got to assigned what my peers, now the most experienced flight leads and instructors, did not have time to do; or basically what no one else wanted to do. My first assigned job was to plan the base Battle of Britain party.

For some years, the US Air Force in England had decided to organize a party with “The Few”, those pilots from 1940 that protected England from German Air Attacks. By dissuading the German plans and shooting down over 1000 German aircraft, prevented a potential “blitzkrieg” land invasion from Germany. This seminal example of Air Superiority cemented that flying-philosophical truism I described above.

The importance of “the Few,” those pilots who resiliently altered Hitler’s plans to drive England to the peace table, protected London from “The Blitz” and thwarted Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious plan to invade; was the first failure of Nazi operations and set forth their ultimate defeat. Their heroism was captured in Winston Churchill’s speech in June 1940, referring the the military’s “finest hour” and later, in August, noting “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.”

The history of this US Air Force and Royal Air Force gathering went back many years to the RAF base “Alcombery” where friends having flown RF-4Cs there had extolled. But, after the major base realignment and closure activity in 1990, the party moved to RAF Lakenheath; home of our only fighter wing in England. And, as the only Air Superiority squadron on the base, we were tasked to provide the project officer. This POC to plan, organize, and equip this activity. Luckily, “Joust” had run a very successful party the year before, so I was handed a complete after-action book and he was still hanging around to provide additional advice and moral support.

Fortunately, there was a British Civilian from the British Battle of Britain society that worked as the communication conduit to these elder “few”. He helped us organize the date and coordinate with them. I should note that in 1996, many of them were in their late 80s and early 90s; but still eager to enjoy attending this party.

For us, we gathered support from the other fighter squadrons and support organizations around the base. As tradition dictated, we commissioned a painting by a local artist to depict one of the battle’s key moments. After agreement about the painting, we would print a limited number of prints (about 70) and then sell them to members of the Air Force. To enhance the sales, when the British pilots ultimately arrived, their first activity was to sign the prints. We had about 70 Battle of Britain pilots in attendance, so you could imagine the exceptional value of these signatures. As the organizer, I personally paid the painting commission and was provided the original painting with the signatures on the mat.

At this event, I got associated with these 70 exceptional pilots, many of who were famous for their battle heroics and were covered with numerous medals and awards. One of the men I met was named Paddy Bathropp, who provided me a signed copy of his memoir. Paddy was ultimately shot down over Germany and ended up in confinement. He was at a Stalag camp and spent 180 days in solitary confinement for helping build tunnels out of the camp. From that, after the war, he became a primary advisor for filming “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen. He told me that in actuality, unlike the movie, they tunneled themselves right into the latrine, where they had to wait for hours before they could escape.

Another activity that came from the event was to learn that nine US pilots had flown in the Battle of Britain. They made their way to England through various means and either flew with the Polish, Canadian or English forces. Because of American neutrality, they had to make arrangements to remain US citizens; which initially prevented them from flying. At this event, we had the idea to rename seven of the Visiting Officer Quarters rooms after each of these pilots. We also had a memorial service at the flight line where we had a Spitfire demonstration by the official RAF memorial team.

The party was fantastic, with all of the attendees hobnobbing with these great pilots. And, what I discovered, is that age doesn’t dissuade the pilot – “once a fighter pilot – always a fighter pilot.” These men flirted with our wives, sang flying songs and drank us under the table. I had rented a room on the base and remember having to haul myself out of the club, while most of the old pilots were going full-steam as I basically hobbled to the VOQ. I remember watching the oldest attendee, a 92-year old frail pilot who arrived in a wheelchair; but as the event continued, he had mustered the strength to prop himself onto the bar, standing with his other singing brothers.

A couple of the bennies of organizing the party was that I (and my wing commander) was invited to attend the “official” Battle of Britain yearly gathering where “The Few” were annually honored by their nation. I had an exhilarating time at “Bentley Priory” which was the RAF headquarters for the Battle. I met the most famous of the pilots who were still living; and experienced their deep love for each other and typical jovial pilot antics. At the priory, there was an oil painting of Prince Phillip, who had started flying with the RAF in the 1950s and ultimately logged over 5900 hours of flight time and often attended and supported this event (unfortunately, not in my year). While at the celebration, I was sponsored to join the RAF membership hotel in London; where we stayed that night and then many others in the future. Finally, we were invited to the private ceremony at Westminster Abbey, where Prince Charles laid a wreath in the alcove dedicated to “The Few:. As the Prince walked by my wife, she gushed and almost fainted; feeling like we were as close to royalty as we would ever come.

As I passed the reigns to the next project officer in 1997, the final event was held with these pilots and the base dedicated a memorial to them. Unfortunately, the party and pilots had succumbed to age. I feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to have fallen into that amazing opportunity to share the skies with these men. Flying jets in England might just have been “my finest hour.”