It was a day to remember for Albert Winston, World War II pilot, who was surprised to see three guests in flight suits arrive at his 90th birthday celebration.
The three Luke F-16 pilots listened and shared stories with Winston Aug. 3 in Peoria.
For 1st Lt. Brian Herring, 309th Fighter Squadron student pilot, Winston’s accomplishments as a pilot were quite impressive.
“He told us how he was a weather recon pilot flying the B-17 out of England and that he would fly from 100 to 1,000 feet above the water with only the basic instrumentation available back in WWII,” Herring said. “This amazed us.”
Winston also shared a humorous story that is one of Herring’s favorites.
“While in the Reserve, Winston was asked by his superiors to be an instructor pilot for the T-6,” Herring said. “He was handed a technical manual and told to come back in a week. When he returned, they threw him the keys and told him to have fun.”
Herring said he was surprised because these days there are numerous steps and training to accomplish prior to taking the first flight.
When Herring asked Winston if he was nervous to fly after only reading the technical manual, Winston replied with a grin, “Why would I be scared? What’s the worst that could happen, besides the fact that I could have killed myself?”
Winston began his career in the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet and was called to active duty in the fall of 1942.
After marrying his childhood sweetheart, Winston was selected for pilot training Dec. 15, 1942, and trained in South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Virginia.
“In Virginia my crew was selected and trained for Pathfinder (radar) bombing in B-24s,” Winston said.
“In June 1944, I picked up a brand new B-24J at Bangor, Maine, and flew to Gander, Newfoundland, and then across the Atlantic to Prestwick. I was transported to Belfast, North Ireland, for training in escaping if shot down over Europe.”
Winston’s Army Air Corps career also included flying from England to south of the tip of Ireland with extremely heavy loads of fuel and machine gun ammunition.
Winston said the task was dangerous since they flew at 1,000 feet and every 100 miles they had to drop to 100 feet over the ocean so the weatherman on board in the bombardier seat could get his readings.
This meant holding the plane at 100 feet above sometimes 30 to 40 foot waves for seven or eight minutes. At one time, the crew actually flew up to 25,000 feet. The flights took up to 17 hours to complete.
“We had a 35-percent loss of aircraft,” Winston said. “If we didn’t hear from the flights that didn’t return, we had to assume they flew into the water. Many of our planes were lost on take-offs and landings in the crummy English weather. We had none of the wonderful electronic gear the planes have now.”
With so much flying experience in the Army Air Corps, it is no surprise that Winston continues to inspire pilots such as Herring and 1st Lts. Joshua Rosecrans and Stowe Symon, also student pilots with the 309th FS.
“I learned what it meant to be a true American hero,” Herring said. “He has done it all including flying general aviation until he was 84 years old. He is an amazing role model and someone I aspire to be like.”
The rare opportunity to speak with a WWII pilot and listen to his experiences reminded Rosecrans of his reason for joining the service in the first place.
“The biggest thing I learned is that being a pilot is the best job in the world,” Rosecrans said. “I can still recall the excitement on Winston’s face when he told his stories. I look forward to having those same memories as I continue my career in the Air Force.”
Although the pilots feel honored to have met Winston, the WWII veteran said he is appreciative of the pilots celebrating his birthday with him.
“It was nice that they were so accommodating,” Winston said. “I would like to thank everyone at Luke Air Force Base for having the pilots come out and see me.”