High Desert Hangar Stories: Washed out of the cockpit at 28? Thank goodness, times have changed

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Checking out books and magazines of modern-day aerospace and aviation offerings can bring you up to date on the amazing advancements in science and technology, and tickle your fancy about the possibilities of what the future holds for those of us who look forward to the next round of cool stuff flying over our heads.

But, when you’re Bob “the history guy,” you have a different take on what can help us understand how we got to where we are today.

The technology of yesteryear, so cutting-edge at the time, now sometimes has us scratching our heads in retrospect and saying, “What were they thinking?”

Old publications are a treasure trove of information, and are worthy of a look from time to time. A well-rounded aviation fan finds this information just as helpful as modern day publications when feeding that “need to know.”

The March 1943 issue of Air Progress caught my attention and, being a P-38 guy, the Lightning on the cover had me searching the pages for the related story. But a bit of old gold was discovered, when I came across an article titled “Methuselah at 28” written by a Charles Kennett, that had a take on what it takes to be a fighter pilot that probably did not sit very well with those old, bold pilots that had just seen their 25th birthday come and go.

With this opening statement we kind of get a feel for where he was going with his narrative: “Split-second reflexes needed for violent maneuvers in modern air combat are seldom found in young men over 28. A veteran tells his story.”

Charles was 18 when he flew combat and commanded the 29th Squadron of the 5th Wing of the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1918. Now, in this article, he makes the case that flight surgeons giving physicals to pilots must be the front line in stopping “old men” from flying combat. Sure, he says that the experience of an older pilot can be useful, but that his physical condition is all that really matters when the bullets start flying.

Kennett states: “In aerial combat, when eight guns are beating out 1,200 rounds every minute, there comes the time when the pilot, no matter how experienced and able, has a time lag which in combat perhaps 20,000 feet above the earth, can be disastrous.”

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His second take addressed the subject of blacking out: “Apart from the slowness of the reflexes, the older pilot suffers from the dreaded blackout no matter how he strains against his harness straps, or holds his breath or fights the gray film which slowly creeps over his eyes. He is fair game for a younger man who will, in all probability, have only a fraction of the older pilots’ flying experience but will have the edge of a youthful body that will give him the advantage when a critical moment in a dogfight has the older pilot struggling to perform at the same level as the young pilot.”

So, with all his experience as he calls himself a graduate of the “silver jubilee,” Kennett really is putting the pressure on the “medicos” that, as he says, give old-timers plenty of rope and never bat an eye when pilots fail the questions asked about lifestyle and physical condition. I find it interesting just how loose the requirements and procedures were, back in the 1940s, when it came to older fighter pilots and keeping them flying in combat! Remember, we’re not talking about old gray hairs, but pilots over, say, 25!

Of course, one of Kennett’s suggestions was bringing in the FBI to implement a lie detector test when pilots over 25 were given their flight physical! Holy cow, this guy is really serious! One thing he uses to push his narrative is how he and fellow squadron mates fell victim to physical issues while flying combat in Spain in 1936. The capabilities of younger fighter pilots had them looking in the mirror and deciding to fall on their swords and refuse to fly any more combat!

So in concluding a very interesting article, Kennett’s final take wraps up his narrative and sums up his desire and the outcome he hoped would come from his urging the aviation authorities of the day. “I speak for the older fraternity of pilots who have on our log books 12,000 hours and more when I say that we know without the assistance of medical officers on board that, although we pass physical examinations, we can’t take it. The years have given us discretion. We know deep down that the best way in which we can serve our country is either as an instructor or in the ferrying commands. We do not think we can and we would not attempt to kick the pants off younger men in aerial combat. Twenty-five years ago my story would have been much different. But in modern day aerial warfare, it is youth that counts, not experience, and we old timers are prepared to take a back seat and do only the plodding work asked of us.”

Imagine a fighter pilot picking up this magazine back in those days and reading words that pretty much said that if you’re over 25, it’s time to get out of the cockpit and become the truck driver! Nothing wrong with that, but come on — really?

Today we look at this type of history and realize just how flawed it is by today’s standards. But as I always say, when we try to look back at history and define it by today’s standards, we need to realize it was just a different world. These ideas just won’t fly knowing what we know today, thanks to technology and improvements in the combat cockpit environment that make age much less of a concern and embraces the experience of fighter pilots of all ages!

Now that I’m 65-years old, I guess good old Charles Kennett would have written me off years ago, but dang, I bet he wasn’t very popular in the pilot’s lounges across the country with the older wingnuts!

But, we must acknowledge his service in World War I as an 18-year old commander and fighter pilot, and just give him his due and a space to share his beliefs no matter how flawed they were! History! You got to love it!

Glad to be back for a new year with Aerotech, and looking forward to sharing some more of those stories you may not find in current publications of aviation and local aerospace color!

Until next time, “Bob out!” And Happy New Year!

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